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Planning for inclusivity: How Vienna built a gender-equal city

Vienna’s reputation for gender-sensitive planning precedes it, having been one of the first cities to actively look to consider social gender roles across multiple areas of policy and urban planning – even for issues that most people wouldn’t traditionally associate with being any different for women than men. This process is called ‘gender mainstreaming’, and for Vienna, it kicked off in the early 90s after city planners organised a photography exhibit depicting women’s everyday lives and travel patterns around the city. The photos drew attention to women’s concerns over both safety and ease of movement, and politicians ran with this (at the time) novel idea, pulling it over into the realm of policy.

The city began to research and identify the gaps in data relating to how gender affected use of public space – which, as was recently confirmed through reading Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men for LGIU’s book club, are numerous still. By studying why each gender might be using space and transport differently, city planners could make impactful changes.

For example, and as mentioned in my previous LGIU briefing which looks at gender-sensitive planning in greater detail, planning officials in Vienna noticed that after the age of 9, park usage by boys and girls dramatically changed from roughly equal usage to girls almost disappearing from parks – even into their teenage years. They used surveys to discover that rather than girls being disinterested in using parks, the presence of only one large open space was resulting in the more assertive boys dominating the park for football and other sports, leaving the girls feeling like they couldn’t or didn’t want to compete for space. When parks were redesigned with footpaths to divide up the space, and a greater range of activities added, almost immediately officials noticed the presence of a wider range of people in the parks and the gender gap closing. This is surely a benefit to the city when girls are less likely to get sufficient exercise for their health – this in itself is a gender gap, and one which is widening in the UK.

In 1999, Viennese officials closed another important data gap, asking the citizens of a district to complete a questionnaire on how they used public transport. Most of the men finished the questionnaire almost immediately, while women “couldn’t stop writing”. While men reported using either a car or public transit twice a day to commute to and return home from work, women used a huge variety of transport methods and made long strings of trips in a web centred around home, combining paid work, care work, shopping and other errands. Public transport at the time was not geared for this style of travel and thus ate into women’s time and productivity – not to mention how fares were structured so that taking many trips ended up as a huge expense. Indeed, in most cities around the world today the same can still be said – as a London resident, it often takes me longer to go and visit a friend in the next borough than it does to commute halfway across the city to get to a commercial district, and the same can be said for the fare structures, though the extension of Tfl’s hopper fare was at least a start.

Crucially, this knowledge was deemed important and resulted in action to re-evaluate the city’s long-term approach to urban planning, shifting the focus to improving accessibility, safety and ease of movement. Frauen-Werk-Stadt (Women-Work-City) was a project to build large social and subsidised housing developments, designed by and focused on the needs of women. Bearing in mind the time lost by having to travel all over the place, play spaces, nursery, a doctor and a pharmacist were all included in the complexes. The concept of a 15-minute city, which we covered in a recent briefing, aims for the same goal – eliminating the disproportionate time costs of running errands – and was made a centrepiece of Paris’ mayor Anne Hidalgo’s 2020 manifesto.

Vienna has carried out more than 60 initiatives that have used gender mainstreaming, including street lighting projects, widening pavements for buggies, additional seating, apartment complexes and social housing designed by and for women, and improving the safety of shortcuts and alleyways by adding mirrors. In 2013, the city even published a manual on the subject which is freely available here.

Of course, while Vienna’s work is inspirational, every city is different. Context is everything – we can’t necessarily just lift policies from Vienna and apply them to any other urban area. Instead, the lesson here – besides realising that even small planning decisions can have gendered impacts – is that officials took the time to fill in pressing data gaps, listened to the people impacted and tailored projects accordingly.

Oftentimes, we assume our own lived experience is the default for everyone, especially for mundane and seemingly unbiased things. Noticing who isn’t in the room doesn’t always come naturally, and sometimes consulting the minority in the room or seeking out those who aren’t seems beside the point for an issue such as park design or bus stops. But, as Vienna has proven, those seemingly innocuous choices can cause a butterfly effect, forcing people to change their behaviour in ways that add up.

It goes without saying that ultimately aiming for better gender and ethnic minority representation in the largely male-dominated arena of local government planning would be the ideal solution, though progress seems slow. But the next best thing is to at least ensure that those missing voices are consulted and listened to, whether this is through surveys, participation, or by partnership working with a local organisation who do have access to those hard-to-reach voices (or can appropriately advocate on a group’s behalf).

When rooms of men design the world around us, and do not actively seek out other people’s experiences to include them, then unsurprisingly the world ends up made for men – as the ubiquitous queues for women’s toilets continue to stand as a testimony to.

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