Short distances and communities: the feminist city

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Of: Stefania Nickel


Men drive cars much more often than women. Therefore, a good network of trails is part of a fair infrastructure, even for those who appreciate cycling. © Medium Panther

Nine-year-old girls are retreating from public spaces. And even adult women don’t always feel comfortable there. Gender planner Eva Kail explains how cities need to change and why that would help everyone.

Ms. Kail, you are a pioneer in the field of gender equitable urban planning. What’s so unfair about our cities?

European cities were designed by men for men. Their infrastructure, traffic flow and architecture were designed for the man who works from home to work and back by car or public transport. For a long time, women were not constantly included in these plans.

What are the consequences for women?

A young couple of workers in the city may still have similar needs, but if they have children, things change, because even today it is above all women who, in addition to working, bring the children to the nursery, assist older relatives in everyday life. life and go shopping. To do this, they often have to embark on time-consuming journeys, which can ultimately be detrimental to their career. If you want to strengthen women’s right to the city and contribute to greater equality, you need to think about this perspective of care.

You are an urban planner in Vienna and have implemented dozens of projects over the past 30 years and provided academic support. How can you change the city in such a way that it is worth living there for everyone?

Feminist planners have been advocating a city of short distances since the 1970s. This means: the denser the offer and the better the infrastructure, the more it supports the daily organization and saves time. At best, the nursery is next to the supermarket, next to the nursing home and next to the doctor’s office. Of course, humans can also use this infrastructure and take advantage of it. Cooperation is also important: parks are of immense importance. The children play together and the families get to know each other. Parks create the social capital of a city. They are the places where neighborhoods develop, where families support each other.

Eva Kail is a graduate engineer and woman-sized planning and construction expert at the City of Vienna Construction Department.
Eva Kail is a graduate engineer and woman-sized planning and construction expert at the City of Vienna Construction Department. You have helped shape this area since the 1990s. © Rudolph Schmied / City of Vienna

What does the gender equity park look like?

Creating new public green spaces or expanding existing ones has become a luxury for cities that are often short of cash due to high land prices. Therefore, many groups compete for space in parks. We must therefore pay particular attention to reconciling the various interests in the limited space so that not only the strongest prevails. We in Vienna always try to offer a network of trails that, if possible, have a circular route ready that can then be used in a wide variety of ways. Here children can learn to ride a bicycle, adults can go for walks, gossip and dogs can be walked. The walk is especially important for migrant groups. Paths should also be well lit and the lighting should be coordinated with the greenery so that no scary spaces are created.

What’s the problem with the current park design?

In our research, we found that girls tend to retire from parks around the age of nine. The offer is strongly aimed at boys and young men. In Vienna we have therefore opened the closed ball cages in which younger girls and boys hardly dare to enter and we have made room for other sports such as volleyball. Safe shelters are also important for girls and young women. We work with wooden platforms and sturdy hammocks, which have become a hit in Vienna. Babies are rocked, lovers lie there, and groups of girls gossip there.

In technical jargon, what you do is called gender planning. Couldn’t we also talk about good urban planning? Why is this special approach needed?

Most planners and architects are still men. We know that our daily experience has a strong influence on our work: therefore you must be actively invited to take a different perspective, so that all residents can find their place in the city. Gender planning is the ideal tool for this. It is not just about biological gender, but about representing social roles in a society in the urban landscape. We also take into account age as well as cultural and social background. Historically, however, gender planning stems from the women’s movement and women’s politics, because women have always done much of the unpaid work – and this care perspective has been ignored in planning for decades.

We are talking about modern European cities with enlightened citizens. Are the paths of men and women really that different?

Yes. In a study conducted in the 1990s, we found that two thirds of all car journeys were made by men and two thirds of all sidewalks were made by women. This was unfair because mobility planning had long ago favored the car and provided the rest only to the pavements. So we started a model project: in Mariahilf, a very densely populated district of central Vienna, we widened the sidewalks, installed ramps for prams and bicycles, improved the lighting and provided visible crossings on the streets – this also increased the sense of safety. Today, most of all routes in Vienna’s environmental network are walkable. Better infrastructure can also ensure that men change their behavior.

To become active

PROJECT: The Frankfurter Rundschau gives a voice to creative rebels, volcanoes of ideas and progressives – with “The future has a voice”. Ideas can be submitted at

KEEP READING: The City of Vienna provides further information on the topic of housing suitable for everyday life and for women. Here you can also take a closer look at the “Frauen-Werk-Stadt” project.

The “Frauen-Werk-Stadt”, a 357-unit residential complex, was exclusively designed by architects in the 1990s. What’s special about it?

The daily life of women was at the center of all planning. Much of it was about enabling social exchange. In the “City of women’s works” various open spaces have emerged: a square, a green area, garden courtyards and a playground. The entire complex is pedestrianized. So children can play safely, neighbors can get to know each other and bond, and then support each other in everyday life. No house has more than four or six floors. The internal courtyards remain clearly visible. In the houses common rooms and accessories were constantly considered, there is enough space for storing prams, scooters and bicycles. The laundries are located on the roof with common terraces in front. The entrances are spacious and inviting, and the stairs are naturally lit to avoid anxiety.

Read also: From Bangalore to Barcelona: what the cities of the future will be like

Cities are growing and becoming denser, land and house prices are rising. In Vienna, Aspern is a district for around 20,000 people, one of the largest development projects in Europe. Can you carry out your ideas in this area of ​​tension?

Half of the Aspern area is public space. The city has paid a lot for it. But it’s worth it: the neighborhood is located on an artificial lake – there are many green spaces for meetings. There are nurseries, schools, shops, doctors’ offices and pharmacies. So there is no need for complicated and time-consuming ways. Of course there are also conflicts: many residential complexes have seven to eight floors, contrary to what is required. Four to five would be ideal so that parents can keep an eye on their children on the lawns and the buildings don’t disappear into anonymity. Apartments are cheaper. I like the symbolic gesture that the streets bear the name of women. I think it does something to female students when they can say: I live on Hannah-Arendt-Platz or Janis-Joplin-Promenade.

Due to the extra unpaid work women have to do through unequally distributed and poorly organized care work and unnecessary ways to do it, they experience disadvantages throughout their careers. This “leaky pipeline” causes immense economic damage. Is this your latest, strongest argument in the critical exchange?

Biographies of difficult women’s work are an important topic. A look through the “gender glasses” helps cities and municipalities to use their scarce resources efficiently and in a way that is appropriate for the target group. We are also seeing a great deal of interest in the issue of gender-sensitive urban development from international organizations such as the World Bank. The awareness is gaining ground that we can use the available funds in the best and most economically reasonable way if we look at all social groups in urban planning. With our work, we can create a city that, on the one hand, gives more space to women, but ultimately allows everyone to live together better and improves the quality of life in the cities.

Interview: Stefanie Nickel

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