Vienna, the world’s second most livable city, is shaking up the way city landscapes are designed by focusing on equal rights for men and women to use urban space.
While ‘gender mainstreaming’ has been in place in the Austrian capital since the early 1990s, several cities across the world are taking notice and integrating further gender considerations into their urban design practices.
In the 20 years that Vienna has been conceptualising gender mainstreaming, the city has completed dozens of projects aimed at benefitting men and women equally. These include the re-design of urban parks, pedestrian mobility and safety improvements and an apartment complex designed by women for women called Women-Work-City.
Several Australian cities are also determined to adopt a more gender-equality based approach toward urban design, looking to Vienna for inspiration.
The Victorian government released a guide called Safer Design Guidelines for Victoria to improve the safety of women in the state’s urban areas. Also, several tertiary courses now involve gender and urban planning which aim to challenge conventional planning methods through gender mainstreaming.
The Victorian safety guideline recommends consultation with women’s advisory committees or a ‘walkabout’ with women and city planners to hear firsthand women’s opinions on how to best use the space and meet the needs of the females who will be using it.
Other design considerations include giving pedestrians priority over traffic in park areas and clear signage. Many women say the presence of CCTV makes an area feel unsafe.
The presence of crowds is important for people, especially women, to feel safe and urban designers must consider how to draw large numbers of people into an area.
The council for the City of Yarra suggests the Victorian government can attract large numbers of people to urban spaces by making them aesthetically beautiful. Rarely considered a strategy when it comes to community safety until now, the council draws to attention the fact that state’s botanic gardens are typically full of people for that very reason.
Gender is relevant to urban design in that planning policies can often exclude or ignore the needs of women. Though unintentional, urban design tends to support male-dominated activities and planning methods often reflect a male-dominated society.
Social researcher and activist Dr. Kalpana Viswanath says in a University of Melbourne podcast that such a reality “reflects deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes that come across in cities across the world.”
“Just being a woman causes them to feel unsafe,” she says.
Vienna and other international cities are putting the safety of women and the community at the forefront of urban design to address the fact that women express fears for their personal safety in urban places more than men do.
Lighting in urban landscapes and public transport are among the most integral areas causing women to fear for their safety. Recognising this, urban planners in Vienna have worked to improve public transit and pedestrian mobility to make travel safer for women.
Mobility through urban landscapes was prioritised through sidewalk widening to accommodate prams and wheelchairs, and additional lighting was implemented.
Vienna city planners aimed to provide equal access to city resources and urban amenities for men and women.
Urban planner Eva Kail was instrumental in Vienna’s urban planning initiative and says quite often in urban planning, the aesthetic or technical solutions determine the end result whereas questions need to be asked first before finding a technical solution.
“You need to know who is using the space, how many people, and what their aims are,” she says. “Once you’ve analyzed the patterns of use of public space, you start to define the needs and interests of the people using it then planning can be used to meet these needs.”
Using results from various Statistik Austria surveys, city planners built Women-Work-City, a series of apartments with parklands outside for children to play, and an on-site kindergarten, pharmacy and medical clinic. The housing project is next to public transport, making child care, senior care and running errands easily accessible for women.
As more and more cities adopt the mentality of Vienna and a more gender neutral approach to urban landscape design, they are being reshaped for the better. Kail calls it a political approach to planning.
“Gender mainstreaming has become a way of changing the structure and fabric of the city so that different groups of people can coexist,” she says. “It’s about bringing people into spaces where they didn’t exist before or felt they had no right to exist.”