On Thursday 11th October, a feminist spoke at a university; it is hardly surprising, but the topic of her lecture certainly proved out of the ordinary. Marion Roberts – Professor Emeritus of Urban Design at the University of Westminster – spoke in the Curtis Auditorium at length about the feminist view on urban planning.
It might not seem the most intriguing subject and one which is not currently in the public eye; when The Courier’s correspondent spoke to members of the audience after the talk and was asked why he was there, he had little else to offer beyond “sent by the school paper”. The audience at the public lecture, one from Newcastle University’s Insights series, were right to be so captivated, though; Roberts spoke with passion about the rise of neoliberalism in urban planning, or how the profession’s male-dominated workforce has failed to consider the needs of women. In Mbale, Uganda, for example, highways are being erected where once stood narrower roads more accommodating to the female-dominated street trading industry. Highway construction can thus deprive low income women of their sole source of wealth; even before this new disruption, arrests and sexual harassment – the latter no doubt old as time – caused problems.
According to Roberts, there are some parts of the world where so-called ‘gender mainstreaming’ – or taking into account the different needs of men and women in the “layout of the built environment and open spaces” – is being taken seriously. Roberts illustrated this using the Frauen-Werkstatt, erected twenty years ago in Vienna; literally translating to Women’s Workshop, it boasts wider streets for the benefit of women pushing buggies, more streetlights for those travelling late at night, and spaces in public parks for activities other than football (a typically male endeavour, although any Newcastle fan will wonder why any of them bother). In the Aspern Seestadt’s Brownfield urban extension, which is also in Austria, outcomes will be judged by a jury that includes a “gender expert”.
Some of this may seem unimportant to the general populace – the “symbolic dimension” of gender mainstreaming being a topic which can attract particular ridicule, with Roberts even naming the lecture “'Gender sensitive' cities – why should we care?” – but cities are increasingly seen as shaping who we are, and vice versa. In her talk, Roberts drew attention to “white young heteronormative” images of sex dominating the finer details of city living, with hypersexualised advertising and the popularity of strip clubs making it uncomfortable for women to walk around in the place they live. On top of that, Roberts argues that the heteronormativity that permeates the development of cities undoes the impact of burgeoning gay clubs and corners, such as Manchester’s Canal Street or Newcastle’s Pink Triangle.
Regardless of any societal importance it may have, gender mainstreaming remains a long way from the political mainstream; Roberts called for both “major investment on the part of public bodies” and “political championship” - two things the movement is lacking. Roberts believes the European Commission funds her organisation out of concern for the movement “stalling”.
One thing that this movement does not seem to lack, though, is new blood; while Roberts is a member of the feminist old-guard, and one which older members of the audience took to well (a retired member of the Newcastle City Council enthused that the issues raised by Roberts were never discussed at his old work), her fresher-faced admirers were far from dispassionate. Your correspondent left the auditorium while a woman in her twenties told Roberts how much she admired her, with Roberts herself discussing the movement’s possible “revival with a younger generation”, encouraged by the growth of female and (ever an intersectional) LGBTQ+ city planners. She also points out the rise of Urbanistas, a group aiming “to make cities better for everyone”. The movement certainly deserves attention; the issue now is seeing if it gets any.