What If the City Were a Woman?

In her anthology L’Urbanisme, utopies et réalités [Urbanism, Utopias and Realities], Françoise Choay brings together thirty-seven views on the city, only one of which is a woman’s—that of Jane Jacobs. Among the winners of the Grand Prix de l’Urbanisme award for urban planning of these past twenty years, only two have been women. Despite upwards of 40% of architecture students being female, less than 10% of all studio managers are women. Need we really ask ourselves if cities are gendered?

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“Mhajbi, Barbès,” Les Intruses [Female Intruders] series, Randa Maroufi, 2019. Winning artwork of the City of Paris' call for projects “Embelling Paris” [Beautifying Paris], produced by the Institut des Cultures d'Islam [Institute of Islamic Cultures) with the support of Emerige Mécénat. © Randa Maroufi

Laure Gayet, urban planner
Approche.s! group

Kelly Ung, architect
Approche.s! group

November 6, 2021
15 min.
To this day, cities have been largely designed by and for men. The fields of urban theory, morphogenesis, and management have been predominantly dominated by men. Without seeking to make cities hostile to women, men have designed spaces based on their own experiences, perceptions, and analysis biases. The unconscious differentiation in roles and behaviors between women and men is the result of a social construct that produces categories, hierarchies, and inequalities, most often than not to the benefit of men. For example, women use public transport more than men despite carrying a greater share of household chores. Their travel patterns are more complex and fragmented than those of men (multiple short trips, carrying of heavy loads, children and baby strollers, etc.), and public transport isn't sufficiently adapted to this reality. The city both reflects and influences these social inequalities. Indeed, the urban environment reflects inegalitarian conceptions as they are historically rooted and continue to live on in the public space, while influencing them by shaping our perceptions and our behaviors.[1]

In the etymological sense, esthetics concerns sense perception. Applied to urban settings, it is the science that characterizes spaces that give rise to the famous sense of “beauty,” which is so different for each of us. Where does the feeling of pleasure and well-being in occupying and travelling across the city, then, stem from, especially for women?

Could an Unequal City Be Beautiful?

Combining gender and urban esthetics amounts to wondering how various forms of discrimination in terms of access to the city and its services can be tackled, and what urban esthetics could be developed to do so. Unequal urban access is compounded when women are discriminated against based on other factors than simply gender, such as income, skin color, sexuality, age, religion, or handicaps. Women feel less legitimate in occupying the urban space, and this feeling is even stronger for those in a situation of precarity. They linger alone less than men—waiting, sitting, or idling in the public space—as they are afraid of being approached. Street harassment affects 100% of all female users of public transport and 42% of female joggers, to cite only a few examples. Women wander around less and engage in avoidance strategies to bypass places they perceive as distressing, even if this means lengthening their journeys. They also use sports facilities less than men. In 2011, in Paris, the outdoor sports facilities were 100% taken over by male practices and budgets were allocated in priority to these uses. Women’s sports clubs, however, had difficulties in accessing sports amenities due to limited time slots and the pressure exerted by men’s clubs.[2] In spite of efforts to rebalance the situation these past few years, the lack of symbolic female presence in the French capital remains very much an issue—statues are primarily male, billboards continue displaying sexist advertising, and only about 200 streets are named after women, compared with around 4,000 named after men.

From the places we conducted our field research and actions in the Parisian suburbs and the 19th arrondissement of Paris, we have sketched out a mosaic of urban situations at a human scale in which women feel comfortable, as well as children, youth, the elderly, and all populations indiscriminately.

For Relational Esthetics of Egalitarian Cities

In 1998, curator Nicolas Bourriaud published a collection of writings under the title Relational Aesthetics in which he described a trend in the art world drawing from human relations and their social environment. Considering the weakening of social relations, more “represented than experienced,” he viewed art as a means of establishing communication between people. The current era of social networking, which stages everyday life, coupled with the long periods of social restriction endured in the fight against the viral pandemic, largely confirms this observation. The artistic practices observed by Nicolas Bourriaud therefore reflect “an aesthetic of the inter-human, of the encounter; of proximity, of resisting social formatting.”[3] Creating situations and frameworks for exchange, they questioned our individual and collective relationships with others and the environment. Similarly, urbanism as a substrate for human contacts, both physical and virtual, in multiple circumstances and with a variety of people, is now needed. “A street, as beautiful as it may be, does not manifest existence solely on the basis of its architecture. As an inert organism, it must be inhabited and roamed along for it to acquire a soul. It then becomes a reflection of humanity, adopting, in the human community, the attitude that its residents and passers-by pass on to it.”[4] Relational urban esthetics thus flow both from the spatial qualities of a place and from its capacity to be inhabited, appropriated, and reflect the human community that resides there.

We’ll approach urban esthetics through three complementary dimensions. The social dimension stems from the need for interactions between women and men. The spatial dimension consists in adapting urban forms to a human scale. Finally, the sensory dimension concerns itself with greatly enhancing the experience of the senses and the “symbolic commons” in the city.

The Social Approach: Fostering Connections

“It is not a matter of separating flows, but of creating the conditions for a genuine mixing of people. In the places that allow this intermingling to take place, women feel more at ease. It’s a virtuous circle.”[5] The diversity of populations and the opportunities for social interactions in public spaces form part of the strengths of a city that is welcoming to all. Drawing on an anthropological approach, architect Jan Gehl conceives of the various dimensions of the city (its streets, buildings, squares, parks, etc.) as supporting encounters based on the social field of vision of human beings. “The limit of this field is 100 meters (110 yards), the point at which we can see people in motion.”[6] This distance may then be used to define the length of a city square, the purpose of which would be to promote opportunities for people to meet. Regarding the built environment, urban blocks of 50 × 50 m with 6 to 15 housing units giving onto the street would form a basic unit to foster ties of sociability and mutual aid between neighbors, and thus decrease the instances of violence at home and the isolation of single-parent families. Finally, in the case of neighborhoods and their proximity services, the scale of a kilometer covered in 10 to 15 minutes at a walking speed of 5 km/h is viewed as ideal to promote the movement of people, and, in particular, of women with the more complex and fragmented journeys brought about by daily chores (related to shopping, children’s recreational activities and school, work, etc.).

It is not a matter of separating flows, but of creating the conditions for a genuine mixing of people. In the places that allow this intermingling to take place, women feel more at ease. It’s a virtuous circle.  

Beyond social distances, the relational approach to esthetics also depends on mixed uses in order for an egalitarian appropriation of spaces to occur. In all of our projects in the Paris region, women often feel more at ease in intergenerational places accommodating a variety of uses. “We can feel safer if we know that moms come and hang around here in the evenings.”[7] Even for the youngest, the way playgrounds are set up is in no way gender neutral. Researcher Élise Vinet explains that they can encourage certain culturally male uses, including the use of strength, speed, or even competition (climbing or running games), or other culturally female uses, such as cooperation, contemplation, or communication (balancing games or playground flooring with abstract patterns to foster imagination).

The way public spaces are developed can also have consequences on their appropriation by young people and adults. “The parents or adult caregivers supervising the children as they play are as much users of the playgrounds as the children themselves, but they are, most of the time, confined to a role of controlling the children.”[8] By moving away from single-use installations (playgrounds for children, sports facilities for the young, resting areas for the elderly), public spaces could be designed to be multi-optional, and offer several uses in the same space. Far from categorizing spaces according to gender, egalitarian relational esthetics would then be made tangible by non-standardized creations. More contextual, hybrid, and multi-use, this esthetic would promote the spontaneous appropriation of spaces and make it possible to experiment with other roles and situations than those expected by the norm.

“Parc Léon, Barb.s,” Les Intruses [Female Intruders] series, Randa Maroufi, 2019. Winning artwork of the City of Paris’ call for projects “Embelling Paris” [Beautifying Paris], produced by the Institut des Cultures d’Islam [Institute of Islamic Cultures) with the support of Emerige Mécénat. © Randa Maroufi “Parc Léon, Barb.s,” Les Intruses [Female Intruders] series, Randa Maroufi, 2019. Winning artwork of the City of Paris’ call for projects “Embelling Paris” [Beautifying Paris], produced by the Institut des Cultures d’Islam [Institute of Islamic Cultures) with the support of Emerige Mécénat. © Randa Maroufi

The Spatial Approach: Adjusting the City to the Human Scale

“Homo sapiens are a linear, frontal, horizontally oriented upright mammal. Paths, streets and boulevards are all spaces for linear movement designed on the basis of the human locomotor system.”[9] Imagining an urban esthetic that would be welcoming for women presupposes an intensity of the urban atmospheres perceived at the pedestrian level. Façades that are open to the street, where there are things to see, and their rhythms, materials, and colors are full of information to be gleaned, unlike streets without windows and with blind walls. These must all be considered in order to bring about a lively city where women feel comfortable. Developing “active” ground levels creates places for the intermingling of populations, in which women feel more at ease.

Beyond offering pleasant sensory experiences, these open façades also foster visual interactions, offering the possibility to “see and be seen.” This ties in with the concept of “coveillance” between people, bringing a sense of security to all. As early as the 1960s, urban theorist Jane Jacobs built on surveys on the lived experiences of city dwellers to propose to “see that these public street spaces have eyes on them as continuously as possible.”[10] The urban esthetics of ground floors is then a subject in its own right, as much to intensify the sensory experience of passers-by as to improve the accessibility of public spaces and their appropriation by women.

This esthetic should be tailored to the intended purpose and degree of publicization of places. American sociologist Lyn Lofland[11] thus differentiates urban public spaces based on the predominant interactions taking place there and how they are appropriated as a result, especially by women. She distinguishes three major realms of city life. The “private realm” is “characterized by ties of intimacy among primary group members who are located within households and personal networks” and concern the dwelling and private areas in common spaces, both indoor or outdoor, enclosed or semi-enclosed (open or closed inner city blocks). Several experiences, in Vienna in particular, have demonstrated that creating common spaces such as a shared laundry room, common room, or terrace could help women experiencing problems (a violent spouse or conflicts with their children for instance) to get out of their homes, talk with their neighbors, and get help. As for the “parochial realm,” it relates to the “acquaintances and neighbors who are involved in interpersonal networks” and concerns spaces that nurture a close-knit relationship with the dwellings, kinds of rallying spaces based on small micro-conviviality amenities. These might include terraces at the foot of buildings, street salons, seating placed close to children’s playgrounds, shelters, etc. Many analyses tend to equate the parochial realm and the public realm, when in fact the intermediary spaces between the private and public realm create reassuring places that are structured by benevolent social control. Children, young people, elderly people, and fragile or isolated individuals, who are afraid of going anywhere far from home, can feel at ease and confident in occupying these places. Finally, the “public realm” is the domain of strangers and the street. At certain moments during the day and/or their life, women, and more generally all minorities, feel better and freer there, neither in danger, nor judged as they could be in a more localized space. Public space must then be viewed as a substructure of the city, a string of many interconnected public spaces, articulating these various scales of appropriation and resting on a continuity of pathways between neighborhoods.

The Sensory Approach: Considerably Augmenting the Experiences of the Senses in the City

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall classified the human senses in two categories:[12] the “distance” senses (seeing, hearing, and smelling) and the “close” senses (feeling and tasting). In order to awaken the sense of beauty in each of us, a city must take both levels into account. The idea is not only to develop an esthetic sensibility through the stimulation of senses and the day-to-day experience of beautifully designed items, but also to create the conditions for physical well-being in space, in order to stand up to the generic city and the sensory poverty of certain contemporary buildings. The sculptures, frescoes, colorful storefronts, signs with meticulous typography, and diverse floorings—cobblestones and curbs made of sandstone or granite, concrete paving that is either colored or imprinted with the city’s coat of arms (similar to the scallops represented on the sidewalks along the Camino de Santiago)—as well as the wild grasses and flowers growing between the stones can also play a part.

The city must allow for experimenting with ‘enchanted places’ where ‘fantasy’ is the norm, and generate situations that spur our power of imagination, which is a key source to an active esthetic life.  

Not stopping at a reductive feminine esthetic, a welcoming urban esthetic must be able to move beyond gender stereotypes while also highlighting the symbolic presence of women. In her analysis of playgrounds, Élise Vinet distinguishes cosmetic themes that stage the children in gendered roles, whether culturally female (dinette or fairy house) or male (castle or train). Conversely, the idea isn’t to simply counter-stereotype the amenities (with pink planes and blue dinettes), but rather to promote the imagination of children in creating social behaviors that aren’t dictated by gender norms.: “The city must allow for experimenting with ‘enchanted places’ where ‘fantasy’ is the norm, and generate situations that spur our power of imagination, which is a key source to an active esthetic life.”[13]

The sensorial urban esthetic can thus develop on three levels—on the individual scale through the body in space, on the collective scale through the symbolic presence of women and men, but also at the environmental scale through the relationship of urbanites to “nature.” The living world is then not to be considered as a mere backdrop or a resource to be protected, but as a fully-fledged collective good that matters in collective life. Philosopher Baptiste Morizot alerts us to the double crisis which is unfolding. There is both an environmental crisis (global warming, biodiversity loss and soil depletion, the extinction of species, air pollution, etc.) and a crisis of sensitivity. “By crisis of sensitivity, I mean an impoverishment of what we manage to feel, understand, and weave in terms of relationships with the living.”[14] A multitude of arrangements and actions can be deployed. For example, workshops teaching how to recognize urban birds and their songs, botanical walks focusing on the use of wild plants, creating an urban landscape that highlights seasonal rhythms, installing green roofs and façades, shared gardens, domestic plants on balconies and at the foot of buildings, etc.

Et si la ville était une femme ? [What If the City Were a Woman?], illustration by Diane Bousquet, 2021. © Diane Bousquet

What Challenges are there to Adapt Cities to the “Feminist Transition”?

The City of Paris has already committed to systematically take into account gender in all its services by means of a plan for equality, and in particular pursuing an egalitarian approach to urban planning. This includes gender-responsive budgeting, generalizing gendered diagnosis methods to all urban development projects, finding ways of engaging women in the consultation process set out by the PLU local urban planning procedures, having a mixed composition in urban project judging panels, and incorporating gender issues in the selection of candidates, and more.

Beyond public policy, professional practices in urban development are also undergoing a shift as gender is taken into account. Though this trend is at its very beginnings, an increasing number of training programs and practitioners (urban planners, urban developers, promoters, etc.) are now taking into account gender issues in their thinking, hybridizing their methods through contact with feminist scholars and groups participating in the right to the city movement. An increasing number of public commissions include the gender equality agenda in the specifications for contractors, and new missions are appearing to support the gender dimension in urban design. Pioneering municipalities are pursuing experimental approaches (Bordeaux, Villiers-le-Bel, Clichy-sous-Bois, Paris, to mention only a few) and new methods are emerging. These include gendered diagnosis of urban uses prior to urban studies, inclusive processes involving groups of women at every stage of design, transitory devices, and active programming highlighting contractors and the place of women, as well as cross-service (sports, culture, security, employment) and cross-sector approaches (design, management, development) aiming to sustain egalitarian changes in uses over time.

The Desire Paths of Paris, a City Reinvented by Sensory Experience

The public spaces of a welcoming city must be an open book on diversity of the people living in it and shaping it. There is an urgency to act upon the hard spots of the city, the symbols of the male appropriation at the spatial or immaterial level, and in particular, on two types of Parisian spaces. These are, first, places where there is an extreme over-representation of men—in the metro, the RER regional express rail, railway stations after dark, and in certain areas during the daytime (Porte de Clignancourt or Barbès)—and, second, the sites of male heritage and patrimony—the great monuments such as the Pantheon, the Arc de Triomphe and its unknown soldiers, or the Louvre, the seat of royal authority. The collective Les MonumentalEs inscribed 200 female names on the street furniture of Place du Panthéon, showcasing an important way to get attitudes to change. In the face of these two urban situations of male appropriation, we suggest combining a dual temporality: visible high points intended for use—artistic commissions, participatory events, street theater performances, urban legends and celebrations, carnival, parades, etc.—and long-term actions with groups of female residents, to foster empowerment and formulate contextual responses to specific needs (insecurity or discomfort, for example).

In order for Paris to embody the city of everyday life and proximity, the means, confidence, and enjoyment required to wander around the city, without fear, must be present. This involves creating—on the basis of a diagnosis of the shortcomings at the city scale—reassuring beacons, safe havens at all times of the day and night, that are accessible throughout the city in less than a 10 min walk. These refuges would bring together resources for women to feel at ease in the public space and act as protective shelters lit up with reassuring lights (not necessarily white, with warm and bright colors), with power sockets to charge mobile phones, information outlets on women’s support services and women’s rights, etc. These beacons could be co-designed and co-constructed with groups of women in different places in the city—at subway exits for example, or in the intermediary spaces extending in front of residential units, between intimate and public, where the situation allows it (recessed constructions, underused frontage, hallway extensions onto the street…). These intermediary thresholds could be co-programmed with female urbanites and accommodate all sorts of uses that promote the appropriation of public space by women during the day and in the evenings (spaces dedicated to the sports practices of young girls, such as dance or Double Dutch skipping, street salons, along with fantasy and cooperative games).

For a Paris of surprise and senses, where we feel good, schemes that foster a fun, spontaneous appropriation of the city—understood as a place for free play and improvisation[15]—should be created. Respecting the overall harmony of the Haussmannian program and in continuity with the Parisian esthetic shaped over the course of time, these micro-facilities would be non-standardized creations, stimulating the imagination of the passers-by, changing their outlook on everyday life and going beyond stereotyped urban behaviors. Adapted to the various atmospheres of the city of Paris—the mineral, green, monumental, or working-class environments—these installations would be mindful of existing materials, while offering playfulness within the topography, interactive and immersive street furniture, water games, or multi-use sculptures. The sensory city is the city of pedestrians. It prioritizes the first few meters in front of buildings for active ground floors, with an attention to the textures of the feet of buildings, to the surface treatment chosen for forecourts and sidewalks, below the balconies (clad with ceramics for instance)… Finally, the sensory Paris is somewhere where the five senses guide the steps of the people strolling in the city. There are tactile itineraries, where our fingers and feet want to wander around (materials on walls, soft ground), listening itineraries, spheres of silence, and why not dream of aromatic itineraries and a city that could be relished, smell nice, and arouse our taste buds?

In the book "La beauté d'une ville" published by the Pavillon de l'Arsenal in 2021.

Laure Gayet, urban planner, Approche.s! group
Laure Gayet holds a Master's degree in urban planning from Sciences po Paris and a diploma in cultural project management. She co-founded the Approches workshop in 2014. She is an expert in transitional planning strategies, cultural urbanism, participative and inclusive planning.

Kelly Ung, architect, 
Approche.s! group
Kelly Ung, co-founder of the Approches workshop, graduated from INSA Strasbourg in 2009 with a degree in architecture and from Sciences Po Paris in 2013 with a degree in urban planning. She has developed specific skills in sensitive and gendered diagnosis, mobilisation of city actors, urban project activation strategy and management of temporary developments.

1. Élise Chane, Sha Lin, and Élise Vinet, Aménager une aire de jeux pour enfants afin de favoriser l’égalité: enjeux, constats et préconisations psychosociales [Developing a Children’s Playground Advancing the Equality Agenda: Challenges, Observations, and Psychosocial Recommendations], July 2015. Work conducted as part of the project management assistance à maîtrise d’ouvrage by the GRePS Laboratory of Université Lyon 2 for the City of Lyon.
2. Service égalité intégration inclusion, Association Genre et Ville, and al., Guide référentiel : genre et espace public [Reference Guide on Gender and Public Space], City of Paris, October 2016.
3. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presses du réel, 1998).
4. Émile Magne, L’Esthétique des villes [The Esthetics of Cities] (Paris: Mercure de France, 1908).
5. Staments by Chris Blache collected by Marie¬Douce Albert and Nathalie Moutarde. In: “Penser la ville pour les femmes, l’aménager pour tous” [Conceiving the City for Women, Developing It for All], Le Moniteur, November 30, 2018, https://www.lemoniteur.fr.
6. Jan Gehl, Cities for People (Washington: 2010).
7. Statements collected by Approche.s! during a co-programming workshop with young girls in Aubervilliers.
8. Genre et Ville, Garantir l’égalité dans l’aménagement des espaces publics [Ensuring Equality when Developing Public Spaces]. Commissioned by the municipality of Villiers-le-Bel, 2018.
9. Jan Gehl, op. cit.
10. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961).
11. Lyn H. Lofland, The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Territory (New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1998).
12. Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension (New York: Doubleday, 1966).
13. Heinz Paetzold, and Brigitte Rollet, “Esthétique du design urbain” [Esthetics of Urban Design], Diogène, 2011/1–2, no. 233–¬234 (2011): 96.
14. Baptiste Morizot, Manières d’être vivant : enquêtes sur la vie à travers nous [Ways of Being Alive: Surveys on Life Through Us] (Arles: Actes Sud, 2020).
15. Sonia Curnier, “Programmer le jeu dans l’espace public ?” [Programming Play in the Public Space?], Métropolitiques (November 2014), https://metropolitiques.eu.