How Vienna Designed A City for Women
By Odette Chalaby
A version of this article was first published on Apolitical and can be found by clicking here.
Vienna’s government has made the city a safer and more convenient place for women after incorporating a gender lens into urban design. The city has improved street lighting, made parks more accessible for young girls, widened pavements, and designed social housing and new neighbourhoods for the needs of women. Planners have now completed more than 60 urban projects designed specifically with women in mind.
The whole idea of designing a city that works for women as well as men started in Vienna. Since the early 1990s, when nobody else was speaking about the gendered impact of infrastructure design, the city has brought a gender lens to much of its urban planning. It has carried out more than 60 pilot projects – and now other places following its lead.
The first essential step in understanding how women’s urban needs differ from men’s was gender-sensitive data collection. In 1991, Vienna decided to assess the percentage of male and female residents using particular types of transport (the “modal split”).
“We analysed what percentage of car journeys were done by men versus women, and did the same for pedestrian traffic and public transport,” said Eva Kail, Gender Expert in the City’s Urban Planning Group.
The analysis found stark differences in transport use patterns. Men use cars and bikes more frequently, whereas women are more often pedestrians and public transport users. “At that time nobody talked about pedestrian needs, but two-thirds of pedestrian journeys were done by women,” said Kail.
That same year, Kail was instrumental in the organisation of a photography exhibit, “Who Owns Public Space – Women’s Everyday Life in the City.” The exhibition documented the everyday lives of various women residents – from a schoolgirl to a Turkish housewife to an elderly lady – and depicted clearly that safety and ease of movement were real priorities.
At this early stage, few in Vienna’s public sector were on board with the idea of gender mainstreaming. “Resistance was quite huge in the beginning. A reviewer in one sub-department said that if there was to be an exhibition of women in the city, there should also be one for dogs and canaries too!” said Kail.
Despite resistance, the exhibition helped bring about a broad change in mindset for many involved in urban planning. “Unpaid invisible work was not in the head of designers. It has changed over the years, but at that time it was really something new,” she said. It also was part of the inspiration behind setting up a City Women’s Office, the institution responsible for promoting the empowerment of women in the city.
In 1999, the City Women’s Office conducted a large survey which asked its residents how and why they traversed the city. The typical route for men was to and from work, but women’s daily routines were more varied. They included trips to schools, doctors, shops and visits to older family members.
The survey led the city to reevaluate its long-term approach to urban planning. Officials began to focus on accessibility, safety and ease of movement, first in Mariahilf, a designated pilot district for gender mainstreaming. They have now improved street lighting so that walking is safer at night time, widened more than one kilometre of pavement, and brought in pedestrian-friendly traffic lights. One intersection was fitted with a ramp overpass to make crossing safer for strollers and wheelchair users. There have been 26 new street lighting projects, and additional seating has been brought to nine different locations in Mariahilf.
“Worldwide, there is now much more interest in pedestrian needs, but 25 years ago the mainstream planners didn’t care,” said Kail.
Of the more than 60 pilot projects that have used gender mainstreaming for urban design, one of the most successful involved tackling unequal access to the city’s parks. “There was a study done by two feminist sociologists which showed that young girls disappear from parks when they grow older than about nine years,” said Kail. In a pilot district, footpaths were added for accessibility, and volleyball and badminton courts were brought in to supplement the numerous football cages. Almost instantly, a change was noticed in use patterns, with less confrontation and more of a female presence. Bringing a gender lens to parks is now common practice for Vienna’s urban planners.
Another successful project has been Frauen-Werk-Stadt (Women-Work-City) I & II. These are large social and subsidised housing complexes in Vienna’s 10th and 21st districts, designed by female architects and focused on the practical everyday needs of women. Apartments are surrounded by grassy courtyards which provide nearby outdoor spaces for children to play, and within the bounds of the complex there is a kindergarten, doctor, and pharmacist. There are also nearby public transport networks for access to schools and workplaces.
Vienna is unique in that more than 60% of its residents live in subsidised or social housing. Competition for the contracts for this infrastructure has long involved qualitative assessment of proposals on various dimensions, from aesthetics to functionality. Now, due to the success of Frauen-Werk-Stadt, bids are also assessed from a gender perspective. “If you are part of the mainstream planning process you can really get somewhere. The architects and developers have really become aware, because if they don’t fulfil the criteria they are less likely to win the competitions, and smaller projects may be asked to redesign their plans,” said Kail.
Key to Vienna’s pioneering efforts has been having the support of those with power at both district and mayoral level. “We had the political support from the start, and this was very important,” said Kail.
And it is only now that other cities are really taking on board some of Vienna’s lessons. Barcelona has undertaken a range of innovative projects, driven by the work of the Punt 6 collective. The new female mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is also spearheading work on how climate change disproportionately impacts women in cities.
But the resistance Vienna’s pioneers experienced in the 1990s is still very alive. Over the past couple of years, Stockholm has started to implement gender-sensitive snow clearing policies, in which routes that are most used by women – such as footpaths and areas around day care centres – are now cleared earlier in the day. But in 2016, the mayor of Stockholm faced serious online ridicule when on a day of particularly heavy snowfall the policy was blamed for long disruptions in movement. In fact, according to transport officials, gender-sensitive clearing had not even been complied with on that day.
City of Vienna Women’s Office, Coordination Office, Vienna Urban Planning Group, Collectiu Punt 6.
Several cities have begun to incorporate gender mainstreaming into urban design, including Berlin, Barcelona, Stockholm and Copenhagen.
(Picture credit: Flickr/ N i c o l a)