I meet urban anthropologist Caroline Moser at her house in north London. Moser, who is 70, pioneered a gender-aware approach to planning at the Development Planning Unit at UCL, and spent much of her career doing fieldwork in Latin American slums. She is recovering from a broken foot, but has agreed to take me on a walk to show me what the gendered city looks like – and what we could expect to see more of, if planners and architects more routinely thought in these terms.
“This is the antithesis of the built environment, but also the most incredible space for women at different stages of life,” Moser says of Hampstead Heath, as we make our way through the ancient park past public tennis courts and a toddlers’ playground, towards a cafe popular with older people and mums. The women’s swimming pond nearby, she says, is evidence of the “recognition that women needed their own space”.
Moser makes a distinction between practical gender needs, such as highchairs for infants or toilets, and strategic ones such as political representation, or women-only recreation facilities. She learned on the ground that “you had to clearly articulate the community role of women” – and stresses that the built environment means not simply buildings and public spaces, but also “the way people are in them”.
This leafy and luxurious corner of London may seem remote from what we mostly mean by urban development. But mixed-use public spaces such as this, which offer resources to people of all ages and incomes – particularly women and children – are key to Moser’s conception of what a city should be.
In a classic 1980 essay called What Would a Non-sexist City Be Like?, the American urbanist Dolores Hayden called for centres that would “transcend traditional definitions of home, neighbourhood, city and workplace”. Since then, others have taken up the argument that a woman-friendly city would be more porous, the divisions between home and work less rigid, so that domestic work is acknowledged as a productive activity, and carers (of children, disabled relatives and older people) are less excluded from economic life. In any case, such divisions are often artificial, with women in developing-world cities undertaking economic activity that has too often been ignored.
Feminists are not and have never been the only people making the case for radically transformed urban environments. Sao Paolo’s recently approved “strategic masterplan”, held up by many as a model of a more participative and equitable design process, took its inspiration from broad concerns around a degraded public realm, growing inequality and acute housing need.