Eurydice Dixon and Iuliana Todos lived 10,000 miles apart: Dixon in Melbourne and Todos in London. Both had tight-knit groups of friends and bright, happy futures. And both died within months of one another in horribly similar circumstances, murdered at night by violent men in unlit empty parks. The press in both countries couldn’t help but blame the victims: What were these young women doing walking through dark parks late at night? It is the wrong question for a whole host of reasons. First we should ask: What are these men doing? And second: Why are the parks so dark?
While I can’t even fathom answering the eternal question of what possesses men to commit acts of brutal violence against women, I can tell you that parks are dark because women are not supposed to be in them at night. That’s right, parks are not for women. They are designed by men, without so much as a thought for women, and that is why they are not safe for women.
We have to be proactive. No one else is going to make the change for us.
Imagine a park designed by a woman. Or rather, don’t imagine: Look at the Sky Park that Zaha Hadid designed in Bratislava. It is instantly recognizable as a Hadid creation, evocative of all her best work featuring gentle, natural undulations and modernist architectural elements. It is a multiuse space, brightly lit, easily navigable, and connected to the rest of the city by tram and bus networks. In short, it is an example of how feminist architects and urban planners can reshape the way women use spaces and the way we live in cities.
At the root of city design is a basic misogyny that affects how we move through them. Take, for example, public transport systems. Public transport is a vital part of navigating a city, particularly for people who don’t drive—many of whom are women. That’s right, driving is a heavily gendered pursuit, and while 80 percent of British men can drive, only 67 percent of British women have their license.
Still, many global cities use public transport networks created over a century ago. The London Underground and the New York City Subway opened in 1863 and 1904, respectively, and have remained virtually unchanged. These systems were designed by men for men to get to work. If that seems obvious, then perhaps what isn’t obvious is that innate to their design is the fact that they were not designed for women; rather, in designing specifically for men, women were designed out. Women, after all, were meant to be left at home in the suburbs, raising children and tending to the household.
Ever wondered why it’s so difficult to get on the subway with a stroller? It’s because it’s not meant for it! I had this overwhelming realization when I stood, seven months pregnant: This train was not designed for anyone but the men in suits who weren’t giving up their seats for me.
I had it again another time, when I felt that familiar feeling of spiraling dread as a large, unknown hand worked its way across my waist: This train, with its close confines and limited CCTV, was not designed for me.
Women are woefully underprovided for in terms of public restrooms.
Lots of things were designed for women, it seems. Like baby changing units. They don’t exist in nearly enough places, but where they do, they are usually located in the women’s public bathrooms. This makes it impossible for male parents to care for their children effectively while in public. My husband can’t take our daughter out for the day without knowing before he leaves where the nearest baby changing area is that’s accessible for him. In societies that pride themselves on a feminist outlook, such as Sweden, changing facilities are, of course, available in both men’s and women’s restrooms. But in the U.K., that’s not the case, and it doesn’t work for anyone.
Similarly, women are woefully underprovided for in terms of public restrooms. In Amsterdam, a woman was recently fined for peeing in an alleyway when she couldn’t find a public toilet. It seems more than a little unfair to punish someone for the shortcomings of her city, which coincidentally, has three public toilets for women and 35 public urinals for men.
In the U.S., a growing movement called Potty Parity aims to draw attention to the fact that centuries of gender bias in architecture have led to women’s bathroom needs being overlooked. These things—toilets, public transport, accessible public green space—are all within the basic requirements of what makes cities livable, and yet because urban planning is such a male-centric profession, half the population is regularly overlooked.
I was surprised when I became a mother that a lot of things I took for granted in my city were no longer available to me, and in many ways, by becoming a mother, I was conforming to patriarchal societal standards. I cannot imagine what it is like for LGBTQ people, disabled people, and people of color—people whose safety in public is already compromised—to have to exist in cities actively designed against them.
Feminist architecture is a marvelous place to start, but positive change is not only enacted by women architects and planners.
This is where feminist architecture is key. Feminist architects tend to put people, and not pomp, at the center of their work, perhaps in part because they know what it is like to be a woman in a man’s world, a woman navigating a man’s city. Feminist architecture is a marvelous place to start, but positive change is not only enacted by women architects and planners. In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg describes demanding—and being given—pregnancy parking when she worked at Google. Turns out the CEOs at Google had “never really thought about [pregnancy parking] before.” It might sound like one more job for women to do, but this story just confirms what we already know: We have to be proactive. No one else is going to make the change for us.
The urbanist Jane Jacobs was responsible for the grassroots organizing that, in the 1950s, rescued much of Greenwich Village from the bulldozer. She was not trained in urban planning, but her intelligence, insightful nature, and appetite for change propelled her into being one of the most important urban activists of the 20th century. She once said that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody…only when they are created by everybody.”
Men have driven the urban agenda for a long time at the cost of women’s happiness, mobility, and safety. Now it’s time for us to take up space in urban activism to create the cities we deserve.