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UMEÅ, Sweden — At first glance, Årstidernas Park and its blue steel gazebo, a popular meeting place for students, who flock after class in the evening, is unremarkable.
And yet, every detail of the carousel-shaped gazebo was designed with a specific audience in mind: teenage girls.
Seating is appropriate for the average height of a teenage girl, and the structure is located in a busy area of the park to ensure young women feel safe and can “see who’s coming, who’s there,” a said Annika Dalén, an urban strategist. and responsible for gender equality in the Swedish city of Umeå.
These details came from the young women themselves, who took part in workshops to help design the project – part of a larger effort by city planners to rethink Umeå to meet the needs of female residents, whose needs are usually overlooked in urban design and city policies.
“Our cities are planned by and for people, historically and today,” said urban researcher and consultant Mary Dellenbaugh-Losse. Women planners “are still underrepresented and not often at the table”.
Annika Dalén, Gender Equality Officer, presents the “Frizon” structure during the Gendered Landscape Tour in Umeå on June 9, 2022 | Giovanna Coi/POLITICS
The effects of this imbalance are evident everywhere in cities: poorly lit underpasses and car parks where women may not feel safe, for example, or neighborhoods with public transport timetables that do not take into account the schedules of women, which generally include more caring responsibilities.
In Umeå, gender equality officers Dalén and Linda Gustafsson are involved in urban policy and planning decisions – from the design of new parks and housing complexes to the route of a new cycle path – to ensure that ‘they also meet the needs of the women who will use the infrastructure.
The benefits of this kind of attention reverberate more broadly throughout the city, Gustafsson said: Designing for women helps create a sense of belonging and safety that “people of different generations and from different walks of life” feel welcome.
“If we don’t work with gender equality, we won’t have a city where people want to live.”
Putting women on the map
Umeå has a head start when it comes to redesigning cities for women: since 1978, a committee for gender equality has weighed in on city administration policies from a gender perspective.
The set-up has been instrumental in “putting gender equality on the map”, said Charlotta Westerlund, a councilor who chairs the committee. Gender equality is also a key part of the city’s long-term planning, in which it is committed to “create[ing] conditions for women and men to have the same power to shape society and their own lives.
This means that gender equality officers are seen as essential to the city’s work, rather than on the sidelines. “I’m not seen as the internal police telling people what they’re doing wrong,” Gustafsson said, adding that gender equality is seen as a crucial “development issue” to make the city more livable. .
Umeå’s approach has caught the attention of urban planners and policymakers across Europe, and in 2019 the city was selected as a lead partner in the Gendered Landscape network organized by URBACT, an EU-funded program . Earlier this month, it hosted the project’s closing event, which includes six other towns from across the bloc.
Gustafsson stressed that each city must find its own solutions. “Sometimes gender equality is tackled with these one-size-fits-all checklists – do it and you’ll have [it]”, Gustafsson said. “Instead, we need to understand the city, who lives there, how it is built. And then we can understand how to approach gender equality.
But the city is also keen to set an example and inspire others to take action: since 2009, the city has offered a bus tour that highlights its most successful initiatives.
This includes an underpass for pedestrians about 150 meters long which connects this center to the residential district of Haga, just behind the central station.
The women said they felt unsafe in the old tunnel, which was “narrow and dark and very steep, which also made it difficult if you went there with a wheelchair or stroller,” Dalén said, the Gender Equality Officer.
The new underpass is wide and well lit; the other side of the tunnel is visible from the entrance, and visitors can exit through an additional exit halfway through if they feel unsafe. The walls are decorated with artwork and quotes from Swedish author Sara Lidman.
A level crossing in Umeå marked with signs of a man and a woman | Giovanna Coi/POLITICS
“We know that people feel safer in public spaces in the company of other people. And even if it is not a physical person, the company of someone else’s words, and especially the company of another woman, increases [women’s] sense of security,” Dalén said.
Other initiatives – a renowned school Maja Beskow, one of Umeå’s first female teachers, or pedestrian crossings marked with blue warning signs depicting both a man and a woman – are less visible, but aim to make women more visible in the city.
“Before, you used to name parks, streets and squares after men, so we have a disproportionate number of male names in our city,” Dalén said. “We should strive to equalize that, [including] in the streets and in what you see in the streets.
Designing urban spaces for women requires “Critical Thinking…Creativity and Imagination”, according to Gustafsson. This kind of decision-making will also be key to addressing the city’s next big challenge: reducing emissions and adapting to climate change.
“When it comes to climate change, we need to make quick changes,” Gustafsson said. “And when you’re making rapid changes, it’s easy to forget the human perspective and gender equality.”
Globally, women, especially in the poorest households, are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. They also tend to be excluded from decision-making processes.
Linda Gustafsson, gender equality officer in Umeå | Giovanna Coi/POLITICS
In Umeå, administrators like Gustafsson argue that measures to reduce emissions must take gender into account to ensure that women are not disproportionately affected.
They also point out that prioritizing gender equality can be a powerful tool in the fight against climate change.
In cities with gender equality, “emissions would go down a lot” because women “make more sustainable choices than men”, Gustafsson said.
Travel surveys and studies in Umeå, for example, have shown that men are much more likely than women to use their cars in the city. A 2020 study commissioned by the Swedish Innovation Agency found that if men traveled like women, Sweden’s emissions from passenger transport would decrease by almost 20%.
“We spend a lot of money on new technical investments and on inventing or refining the technology and making it more sustainable. But we also need to look at the behavior” of men and women in the city and challenge those norms, Gustafsson said.
“Umeå is committed to becoming climate neutral by 2030,” she said. “But if we don’t work simultaneously to tackle climate change and achieve gender equality, we won’t get there.”
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