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Gender and the City - the link between inclusive design and gender


Anyone who has ever planted the wrong Ginkgo tree, knows how important gender is. Last autumn I was cycling through a nearby neighbourhood when the smell of rotting flesh combined with vomit reached my nose. It was not long before I saw the culprit; a Ginkgo biloba also known as the maidenhair tree. This shows how important knowledge of plants is because the female trees produce stinking fruit while the male ones do not. This beautiful tree also helps against air pollution so there are plenty of reasons to use it, if you have the know-how. The narrative behind this tree is also very impressive. Once imported to Japan from China it was planted as a sacred tree near temples. When you look at the leaves you will understand why. Ginkgo biloba is the only species that remains of the Ginkgoaceae- the rest of the family died with the Dinosaurs 65 million years ago. So basically, it is a living fossil! If you hold a leaf up to the light you will notice that it also marks the transformation between conifer and deciduous trees. No wonder this kind of tree was Goethe’s favourite. But back to gender….It is becoming more and more general knowledge that there is more between xx and xy. Now that the LGBTQIA+ community has a bigger platform we learn about all possible genders and gender identities that people can have. There are some who reason that the divide man/woman is how nature intended it. So, I say it is about time we take a look at what’s really going on in nature.



LGBTQIA+ plants

In the animal kingdom we usually see that a male- female combination is necessary purely for reproductive reasons. Still, there are some animals like the aphid that can reproduce without coitus (also known as parthenogenesis). With swans and penguins homosexual couples are also pretty common. When we look at plants it gets even more interesting. There are plants that carry both male and female flowers; the hermaphrodites. The papaya for example is a tree that is very fluid with its gender. A papaya tree can have male flowers, female flowers, or a combination of these options. There are also trees that change gender throughout their lifetime. This all leads to 31 possible gender combinations. There goes the cis-binary system. [1]



Our generation has embraced the avocado as its mascot after it was bombarded as a superfood. I personally appreciate the avocado because of its authenticity. Avocados also carry hermaphrodite flowers and to prevent self-pollination (and therefore incest) there are trees where some flowers open as female in the morning, when a different tree opens its male flowers. The next day the female flowers of the day before will open as male, while the male flowers of the other tree will open as female. Are you still with me? It is a fluid sex change overnight so that only different trees can pollinate each other.

How do we design with gender in public space? For us humans, gender determines a great deal of how we use public space and the way in which we take ownership of it. Still it has remained a subordinated topic in the design world. Public spaces are meant to connect us but from a young age we see that there is a clear divide based on assumptions instead of needs. Playgrounds for example are often still designed for one big activity (often football) and some smaller seating facilities at the edges. This division has taught us for years that there are some activities that are specifically for boys and others for girls. That men and women at a later age also experience public space differently cannot come as a surprise. 4 out of 5 women get harassed in the streets. This alone explains why women experience public spaces as more dangerous or will in the least have their guard up. Rotterdam even has a special stop app designed to map which places and at what times women get harassed so that the police can send out more preventative surveillance. How we experience safety in relation to nature plays a crucial role, and it often provides a difficult task for municipalities. A beautiful shrubbery for one, can be a source of anxious feelings for another. The same place can provide two opposite connotations and consequences if part of the population starts to avoid those places. [2]



Facilities in public space also divides men and women. I find it remarkable that in general there are only (free) public toilets for men while women need to use the bathroom more often (due to a shorter urethra for one). Changing tables for babies are usually placed in the female restrooms. The public space forces this primary care task upon woman, and thereby taking it away from fathers. Women and men also move through cities differently. Men usually go directly from A to B (for example home-work) and they more often take the car. While women on the other hand move though a city in a zigzag pattern, to work, bringing kids to school, getting groceries, and providing informal care to relatives. Women also tend to use their bikes and public transport more than men.


I am not saying we should only be designing cities for women. But it shows how useful it is to look at urban planning from a different perspective. “Cities are FOR all of us, but they are not built BY all of us.” [3] Another agency for urban change that addresses these issues is

Humankind: “Up until now cities where mostly built by male urban planners with a white background” explains Eva van Breugel of Humankind. It makes perfect sense that they did this by looking at their own experiences and from their own perspectives and needs. But now it is time to look at the bigger picture. “Especially now that we want cities to move away from being dominated by cars and to stimulate more sustainable ways of transportation, it is very beneficial to look at the way women move around and to integrate this into the design- there is still a lot to learn.” It provides us with insight into the differences between people and what works for what target group. “It is so important to break the status quo and increase people’s awareness that the way we have approached urbanism in the past is not the only way, and if you want change it is essential to incorporate more diverse target groups”


Is designing for women inclusive? Or is it in turn excluding men?

The difference between men and women is substantial, but let us approach a broader spectrum – seeing as in nature there is more than just the binary division, how do we incorporate this knowledge into the way we design? “The tricky thing is, what is gender, and what is gender to you?” in the end it is about listening to groups that are often not heard” explains Jorn Wemmenhove of Humankind. “As an agency we want to address these issues without kicking in doors that are already open and without stating the obvious. In general boys tend to take over squares or playgrounds with their football games, leaving less space for girls. On the other hand, most girls tend to be drawn to more shielded spaces. I say ‘most’ because of our awareness of gender fluidity. Subculture also plays in important role and is locally determined. In some skate cultures you see a huge mix of boys and girls and together they take over the square.” Humankind has a beautiful way to describe inclusivity as holding space for each other. “It is about creating space where we create and leave enough space for others. The fact that we need more space for women does not mean there will be less space for men”. We will move from male dominated public space to spaces that are designed and divided to accommodate different needs for a much broader public. In the end we want all boundaries between different target groups to slowly fade.



above: safe spaces for everyone at the Pride PRKLT by Humankind (L. van Duijvendijk)


It is not so much about identifying and putting genders into boxes so we can connect them to requirements, but about the realisation that there are other ways to design. It is essential to question a more diverse group of people and learn new lessons from their answers. To be able to move away from the standard white male perspective we need to actively seek out other people with different backgrounds and genders that are not represented in the decision making. “Our goal is to create fluid designs so that we break away from boxes; only then are we inclusive” Eva continues. “Our project Pride PRKLT - a modular parklet, brings awareness to the principle of safe spaces for everyone. Because even in cities such as Rotterdam same-sex couples are often afraid to walk the streets holding hands.” At an intersection where skaters, party people and the gay community meet, Humankind has literally claimed space for the LGBTQIA+ community in honour of Rotterdam Pride by creating a space where everyone is safe, people meet each other and participate in the conversation. “Because of the seats and the richness in planting a diverse crowd uses the parklet until late in the evening, which increases the social safety because there are more eyes on the street. The different boxes must blend so that my right to a safe space does not get in the way of your right to a safe space. Fluid means that this space is not just for you (skater, elderly, pub-goer, or member of the LGBTQIA+ community) but also for you. By participating in the conversation, you will learn that the safety you take for granted as a person identifying as straight is not so much a given for others. Only when we are open to the different experiences of others will we create a change and will we start to hold space for each other.”

sources: [1] M. allaby, Plantenliefde. Terra,2016 [2] https://stoppikpraat.nl/ [3] https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-50269778/what-would-a-city-designed-by-women-be-like

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