Women can be city leaders, too?

In celebration of legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday, I spoke at an Urbanistas event on women’s role in city leadership, myths about gendered urbanism and the value of inclusivity


The bottom-up v top-down tension in urbanism seems to be encapsulated by the clash between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses in New York, and their divergent approaches to urban development. But when we speak of the need for female leadership in cities, I think we fall into a trap of simplifying this as: women care about the community, men care about money. This, in my mind, is a reductive myth that will get us nowhere if we are to achieve better inclusivity in municipal management.

First of all, not all women champion the community and not all men prioritise the bottom line. We are all individuals, each with our own belief of what is important to make a city work. Binaries created by an assumption of “female priorities” and their male counterparts serve only to cloud and prevent progress. Saying this, there are of course experiences that some groups have of urban space that other groups may not understand, so the key is to assemble a range of voices when we make cities.

Secondly, in terms of the caring v money myth, one clearly needn’t be at the expense of the other. Community can go hand in hand with a thriving economy – and in many cases it generates it. Jacobs certainly promoted this idea with her advocacy of diverse, localised economies. If our cities are more inclusive, our economies will flourish because all people are being supported and enabled to thrive.

Myths aside, whether we like it or not there is still a gender imbalance in the built environment sector and city leadership, although it’s getting better. If we want it to keep improving, notably on a global scale to include places where it remains far more imbalanced than it does in countries like the UK, we do need to start from the bottom up. To ensure that women’s voices and needs are heard and valued in planning processes, and that capacity is built for them to have an active role in shaping their city.

I recently met Kathryn Travers, director of Women In Cities International, an organisation set up to help make sure issues around women’s safety in public spaces could be better integrated into urban planning and management policy around the world. Their Because I am a Girl Urban Programme, in collaboration with Plan International, operates in Cairo, Lima, Delhi, Hanoi and Kampala. It works with teenage girls to help them voice and map how unsafe they feel in their public spaces and transport networks, and think about what improvements could be made. At the same time, it builds their capacity for meaningful participation in urban development and governance by encouraging them to review existing city policies and propose changes.

One of the Because I Am A Girl Urban Programme workshops. Photograph: Women In Cities International

Helping these girls to have a say in shaping their cities is crucial in a context where women around the world continue to face harassment and violence in the urban realm: in some cities, Kathryn tells me, more than 90% of women experience daily sexual harassment in public space. Of the girls that the programme have worked with, roughly a quarter of them said that they never feel safe in public places. What’s more, most of these girls felt undervalued and rarely listened to in their community, convinced they would never have a say in how their city is shaped. Globally, there is a lot of work to do on a social and attitudinal level in terms of valuing the female voice. Only when we ensure women are able to participate, can we ensure they can lead.

We don’t see a great deal of female mayors, but I think the ones we can, such as Barcelona’s Ada Colau, Paris’ Anne Hidalgo and Madrid’s Manuela Carmena, provide heartening inspiration to women and girls around the world who maybe don’t feel they could ever have such a role in their city.

One of my fellow Young Urbanist members spoke to me about the challenges she faces being a woman in the built environment industry. When she was working at a local authority, she was told by people making planning applications for large schemes that as a young woman they were unsure of her judgement. At meetings, despite being the lead planning officer on the case, comment and conversation would always be directed to her male colleagues. Even when women are present and have a central role, they can still be undermined. Although her current public sector role is better, the domination of men in the departments often means she’s the only woman in meetings.

Nevertheless, she insists, progress is being made: she’s come across inspiring female senior managers and directors in the public sector, and in policy we are seeing a more gender-inclusive understanding of experience of urban space.

Maybe we need inspiring women, like Jacobs, to lead by example until the rest of the industry, and society in general, can catch up. At which point it’s not about putting people on a pedestal, but about ensuring inclusivity is engrained into every part of growing, shaping and leading our cities.

By Francesca Perry, Editor


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