The Western civilization is increasingly describing the world in negative terms. According to a recent article in the Financial Times, the last two decades, particularly, have seen a marked increase in pessimistic literature.
And it seems to be no different when it comes to journalism and popular culture. But the actual reality of our daily lives usually looks different. Consider the following quote.
“The old benches, the sound of the brakes, the bell when requesting a stop, all while passing through the neighborhoods I love [makes it my favorite spot].”
And another one.
“I like to sit here in the early evening sun. I know it’s not a particularly beautiful spot, being right next to the canal but there are always people around. I can just sit here and enjoy the passive company while looking at the water flowing by. The water calms me down, and lets me escape the stressful city-center. I’m still part of the city life while being distant from it.”
These quotes are from two women describing their attachment to specific places in their hometown of Brussels, Belgium. The first describes a local tram line, and the second refers to the waterfront of the Brussels Canal.
The storytellers, two participants in our workshop, shared these as their feel-good and go-to places within the city. The places are not particularly interesting to the public or particularly beautiful, but they are important to both women.
The attraction to them seems simple. One spot, deeply integrated into the woman’s daily routine, connects her to friends, places, and work. The other is close to the woman’s home, where she enjoys being outdoors, taking a moment for herself, and stepping out of her daily city life.
A Feminist Take on City Planning
Enjoyment in cities is not limited to grand views; it is scattered throughout everyday urban oases. In these pessimistic times, there is strength in sharing stories of simple, everyday pleasures. For the past year, this has been the focus of our initiative called fem.spaces.
Our approach is simple. Through a transformative thought process that focuses on positive stories related to public space, we aim to challenge traditional urban narratives and shift them away from problem-based and solution-oriented thinking.
We invite women to share pictures and descriptions of places that are special to them and the positive experiences they have had there. We also organize workshops inviting them to share and envision positive futures for their cities.
We do it because how we talk about things significantly impacts our lives, and historically, stories about cities have been told from a male perspective. Urban planning and design have long revolved around conventional gender roles, emphasizing efficiency, productivity, and infrastructure tailored to a car-centric lifestyle.
Unfortunately, this focus has resulted in cities evolving to accommodate the daily activities and movements of men of productive age, inadvertently neglecting the diverse needs and experiences of women and different age groups.
This has implications beyond the physical built environment of the city, affecting daily encounters in public spaces. Studies around the world consistently show a higher prevalence of men lingering in and occupying public spaces, overshadowing the presence of women.
Playgrounds are often frequented by young boys engaged in ball sports, as soccer and basketball courts are typical playgrounds that exemplify this gendered design. However, research shows that girls prefer different types of play facilities.
These differences contribute to a pervasive sense of exclusion and discomfort for women, as the urban landscape presents accessibility and safety challenges that disproportionately affect them.
Beyond Just Feeling Safe: Making Cities Enjoyable for Women
While there has been an increase in awareness of gender mainstreaming and an inclusive approach to urban planning, there is still room for improvement regarding women’s representation in decision-making and well-informed planning.
Today, when urban planners consider the needs of women in public spaces, safety is often the dominant lens through which they view these needs. This needs to change. While improving safety and helping people feel safe is essential, we must also understand that focusing on safety alone can lead to an oversimplified and one-sided view of reality.
That’s why it’s critical to amplify positive stories of women navigating, living in, and interacting with public spaces and empowering them to shape their urban environments. By reclaiming public space through joyful stories, we can challenge the prevailing narrative and strive for inclusive, accessible public spaces for all.
After our workshops, we have experienced a genuine appreciation for the refreshing thinking process that encourages participants to look at their city through a positive lens rather than engaging in conventional problem-driven conversations.
Nevertheless, we sometimes find it challenging to move the discussion beyond safety. It still seems to be a vital need. Thus, there is an inherent challenge for urban planners to be mindful of such needs while also being aware of the impact of a safety-centered narrative on the image of women and their daily experiences.
Envisioning Cities for All
Looking back at the stories and collage maps we collected, we see intriguing commonalities in the places women enjoy. Themes of independence, awareness of social dynamics, changing scenery, and the presence of green oases emerge as recurring characteristics of these positive spaces.
At the same time, we hear about many different types of places. Women talk about their daily bus stops, the perfect lunch spot in the sun, or a particular positive memory or smell of a public space. Enjoyment can be found in many different places.
What is particularly noteworthy is that fem.spaces, although curated by women, do not exclusively describe spaces that are only enjoyable for women. The essence of a feminist city transcends gender and points to a city for all as an inclusive urban tapestry where all can find belonging and enjoyment.
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Lena Müller-Naendrup, an urban researcher and consultant, explores the intersections of spatial cognition and urban psychology. With a Master’s Degree in Cognitive Science from the University of Vienna, she applies an interdisciplinary approach to understand the dynamic interplay between the built environment and human behaviour and cognition. Advocating human-centred design approaches, she currently works as an urban ecosystems architect at the innovation and architecture consultancy theLivingCore in Vienna. In March 2023, she co-founded fem.spaces, a feminist urban research collective. With fem.spaces, she seeks to reshape the urban narrative for women.
Laura, a social urbanist, dedicates herself to urban projects in Brussels with expertise in participative and field work. With a Master’s Degree in Urban Studies, she is passionate about inclusive public space initiatives and placemaking. Her guiding principle in her approach is a commitment to empowerment through community engagement facilitation. Guided by the principle of democratising the use and access of public spaces, Laura directs her efforts towards amplifying the voices of those directly affected. Presently, she collaborates as a social and environmental researcher at CityTools, specialising in citizen participation initiatives. In March 2023, she co-founded fem.spaces, a feminist urban research collective.
Kern, L. (2021). Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World. Verso Books.
Franck, K. A., & Paxson, L. (1989). Women and Urban Public Space. In I. Altman & E. H.
Zube (Eds.), Public Places and Spaces (pp. 121–146). Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4684-5601-1_6
Spain, D. (2014). “Gender and Urban Space”: Annual Review of Sociology (2014). In The City Reader (7th ed.). Routledge.
Koselka, H. (1997). ‘Bold Walk and Breakings’: Women’s spatial confidence versus fear of violence. Gender, Place & Culture, 4(3), 301–320. https://doi.org/10.1080/09663699725369