This International Women’s Day is an important milestone for the movement toward gender equity. Not only does this year mark the 25th anniversary of the first UN World Conference on Women, but also the 100th anniversary of (white) women’s right to vote in America, and the 10th anniversary of UN Women’s Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces initiative, an effort that has long been near and dear to our hearts.
For us at Project for Public Spaces, this is an important day to talk about things we consider daily in our work. Public space is the common ground in all of our cities and towns, and it should be open and inviting to all members of the community. That means women and girls are equal members of society who deserve equal representation on this common ground, and in communities where they haven’t traditionally found representation, their voices must even be elevated above their more privileged peers.
To both celebrate this history and examine the state of gender equity in placemaking, our own Senior Director of Projects & Programs Nidhi Gulati invited three friends and colleagues to discuss the role of gender in their public space work and in their careers in this field.
Lida Aljabar is a Senior Climate Resiliency Planner at the NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development, where she works on community development through a climate equity lens, including housing, public space, and holistic neighborhood development. She also teaches alongside Nidhi as a Visiting Professor at Pratt Institute’s master’s program in Urban Placemaking and Management.
Alexa Gonzalez is the president and co-founder of Hive Public Space. She also serves as a Senior Urban Designer for Bryant Park and the 34th Street Partnership in New York City.
Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman is an urban anthropologist, lecturer, and advocate for humanist cities. She is the founder of public space research consultancy ThinkUrban, and an Adjunct Professor in the Urban Strategy master’s program at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Nidhi: So let’s talk first about how our gender identities and cultural background and lived experience inform our work on a daily basis. How does that show up, if at all?
Katrina: As a public space researcher, a lot of the work that I do is informed by past research by noteworthy male professionals in the field, who have published books, who give talks, who have been considered experts and are cited in the literature. I’m sure a lot of you can relate. So everyday, I think it’s important to consider being a woman—a white woman, in my case—in public space research and advocacy just in terms of looking at cities through a different lens and adding a different kind of voice to that body of work.
Holly Whyte, for example, was one of the foremost researchers who was using anthropological research methods in public spaces. But at that time in New York City, there were far fewer women in public spaces to start with, so that alone is another way that gender plays a part in the work that I do every day.
Alexa: One thing we focus on at Bryant Park, is to attract and maintain a higher percentage of female users. This addresses the perception of safety, which translates into dwelling time. How safe you feel at a public space determines how long you stay, and of course, we want to make sure that our public spaces are places where people want to stay and congregate and spend time with their community.
Lida: When I think about this professionally, I think about my work at the intersection of gender in two ways. Firstly, I think about how the way our built environment has historically been studied, researched, and designed upholds patterns of power and status. I think about how there are so many movements of women growing out of more repressed roles, but the built environment poses so many societal and economic barriers to that growth. For instance, transportation systems are designed around getting from home to typical centers of employment, and that doesn’t really capture the full range of what a woman’s day-to-day commute might be and reinforces their place at home.
The other thing I think about, more personally, is that I identify as a woman, but I also strongly identify as a person of multiethnic background, and part of my background is of a culture that has even more rigid gender norms and expectations than we have here in the States. But also being of this culture, I see the amazing richness and breadth of livelihoods that happens inside homes and in private spaces. We think so much about women in public spaces, but there’s so much already happening in private spheres, so what does it mean to either blur those distinctions and make opportunities for women to be in public space in that way?
"We think so much about women in public spaces, but there’s so much already happening in private spheres, so what does it mean to either blur those distinctions and make opportunities for women to be in public space in that way?" —Lida Aljabar
Nidhi: Right. In terms of my personal experience, growing up as a woman in northern India in a culture that is very patriarchal, I feel like I didn’t even really enjoy public space for the first 25 years of my life. I almost never felt comfortable spending time in public spaces, and it kept me from observing them or learning from them, too.
The way that continues to inform my work is thinking about what keeps women from enjoying public spaces—what are those barriers to entry? Of course, it’s historical. Almost everybody who has had a powerful hand in designing our cities has been male, so our needs and desires haven’t been considered in the same way. As Lida was saying, one part of her identity comes from a place where gender roles limit the spaces that you occupy. Even regarding what you were saying, Alexa—kids being counted with women—that even further solidifies the caregiver role for women, instead of recognizing that our public spaces will need to respond to the changing involvement from fathers and other caregivers. A woman’s enjoyment of a space should not be strictly tied to her child’s enjoyment.
"A woman’s enjoyment of a space should not be strictly tied to her child’s enjoyment." —Nidhi Gulati
Alexa: Yes, it’s clear that there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the design of public spaces, but I think when we begin to design for women, more people are included in the outcome. It comes up against those antiquated perceptions of the way things should be.
Nidhi: At our last International Placemaking Week conference in Chattanooga, nearly two-thirds of attendees were women and all-female panels outnumbered ‘manels’ two to one. Do you think that placemaking as a field is becoming more women-led, and if so, what do you think is going on there?
Katrina: If you look at it as an entire field, urbanism is becoming more female-led or female-focused in different ways. If you go into any social science classroom or planning classroom, it’s mostly women. That’s increasingly true for architecture, too. Maybe less so, still for engineering and other fields, which are still very male dominated. But in terms of the design process, there are more women involved than ever before.
The problem comes when you think about the way that translates into the professional world. We still see this incredible drop off of people who have pursued degrees in these fields, but do not pursue a professional role. Obviously, women see the need to make an impact on their city, but how that translates into workplaces and leadership roles where change happens—that is the gap that needs to be addressed.
"Obviously, women see the need to make an impact on their city, but how that translates into workplaces and leadership roles where change happens—that is the gap that needs to be addressed." —Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman
It might be the case that placemaking allows for a greater level of flexibility, through things like consultancies. That’s something I’m interested in. It’s a trend to watch.
Lida: I can’t say that I know if placemaking is more women-led now than in the past. I feel like the circles are pretty gender balanced, in my experience. However, part of what placemaking emphasizes, as opposed to urban planning or architecture, is qualities like empathy and communication, which you might find are skill sets that women are more drawn to or just have more practice with.
Outside of the formal field of placemaking, I also see a lot of female leadership in community organizations and local activism. It’s inspiring and it comes from a caretaker mindset—taking care of your community, your neighborhood.
Nidhi: I completely agree with what you were saying, Katrina. The field at the entry level is definitely changing. Lida and I can say, “yes,” to that because we see it in our placemaking class at Pratt Institute. The challenge for us, really, is to see how young women make it into leadership positions. It’s a challenging road, so how do we remove some more of the barriers?
"The challenge for us, really, is to see how young women make it into leadership positions. It’s a challenging road, so how do we remove some more of the barriers?" —Nidhi Gulati
Lida, to your point, the emphasis on empathy and communication in placemaking definitely makes it more conducive and inclusive for women. But can that be taken as a negative thing, though? In a patriarchal society, femininity is not always looked at as a strong thing.
Lida: I appreciate you playing devil’s advocate, Nidhi. As I said it, I caught myself wondering if I am characterizing this in a way that isn’t actually supportive of women’s role in the field. But I also think that may be a symptom of this patriarchal setup—
Lida: —that empathy isn’t a talent or skill set that’s valued. But even outside of the placemaking field, I’m seeing a lot of attention around the role of empathy in business settings, and design thinking and human-centered design being elevated as a business strategy. So I think we’re starting to see even more broadly where these social or emotional skill sets are meeting the technical and the rational—and pulling their weight.
Alexa: I think it’s up to us to frame a community-based approach as an asset. I think it’s about inviting in other voices and ensuring that there are other people who don’t necessarily look like us at the table, a diverse group that also includes a lot of men. We want to make sure that we have allies in the process who can help us see other perspectives. That’s really the key.
Nidhi: Another thing I think we can do to combat empathy and communication becoming a negative characteristic is to get creative about measuring the impact of these skills. If we can actually show impact, then it helps make the business case for the right skill set. It does create value in a community, depending on how we define and capture value.
Katrina: I think it’s also important to make clear that this is about rectifying a gap created through the management and control and power and influence of one segment of the population, and talking about things in a different way because of it. Compassion and empathy challenges how we think about a city, and move beyond capitalist, competitive, and patriarchal dominance.
Nidhi: In nonprofits and philanthropy, there’s often a strong gendered division of labor, with women concentrated in undervalued people-oriented roles like education and programming—“pink collar” jobs—and men concentrated in more prestigious or executive roles. We obviously know something similar is going on in our field—we were just talking about it. How do you see this coming up on a regular basis?
One way I see it showing up a lot in the impact economy is who holds the purse strings. Are they men or are they women? Do they care about women’s issues? If they do, do they care about them from the “my mother, my wife, my daughter” perspective, or an equal human being perspective? And in that way, public space philanthropy is not that different from any other kind of philanthropy.
Lida: Maybe it’s less so about roles or titles, and more about the ways that folks of different genders contribute to conversations and problem solving. This cuts across levels of seniority, from what I’ve seen. It’s about who takes on the role of the champion, the face, the leader of an idea, and who takes on the behind-the-scenes implementation to get that idea done.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten from a mentor is to stop taking notes in meetings. As a woman, even if you’re really amazing at taking notes, you’re always going to be the notetaker, keeping yourself in a secretarial role. While that may be fine at certain points in your career or on certain projects, if women are consistently falling into that secretarial role, then they won’t be the face of that project.
Nidhi: Hah, that’s a great piece of advice! I’m playing through all the scenarios in my head where I shouldn’t have done that.
Alexa: Me too! Along the same lines, one of the things I’ve seen in my professional career is that willingness to do jobs outside of your job description, to put on a different hat. As a female I see that we are more willing to do that than my male counterparts. Men often just say, “Well, that’s just not my job.” Which brings me back to that idea of compassion. Because we haven’t been at the table, we’re more willing to open up and let other people sit at the table with us.
"Because we haven’t been at the table, we’re more willing to open up and let other people sit at the table with us." —Alexa Gonzalez
Nidhi: I remember in architecture school, one of my professors was bold enough to tell me, “Why do you care so much about your grades? You’ll be working for a man one day anyways.”
Alexa: Yeah, I remember being asked if I just want to be a social worker because I was raising questions about urban design and transportation and connectivity.
Katrina: A little over a month ago, I left my job where I was working in a very male-dominated environment that was not supportive toward female advancement, leadership, input, or autonomy. I can say that now because I feel that it’s really necessary to point it out. It’s a big deal to not just be quiet about how we feel about our places of work.
Yes, being a consultant is a really great thing. It gives me greater freedom, and I have really excellent people to collaborate with. But my main reason for doing it—I did it for the sole reason that I have a greater level of autonomy. That’s a sad thing to say, that’s a sad situation to be in. I think a lot of people have been in that office situation, and have been unable to make the leap out of that situation. I was lucky enough to have a partner and a project ready to join, which gave me that freedom and security to make the leap and be on my own.
I think we have to be outspoken about the need to change that kind of office culture, whatever it is. We need to stand up and say, “That’s not good enough.” We need to not just play nice, and volunteer to do things. We should be able to say, “That’s not in my job description,” just like anyone else does, without fear of reprisal.
Nidhi: That’s a great point, Katrina. For any diversity and inclusion work, whether its in our work environment or built environment, there are two rationales. The first rationale is the ethics rationale, which is what a lot of us are talking about. It’s just the right thing to do because there hasn’t been enough diverse representation.
The other rationale is the business case—the sheer number of people who identify as women in a city. How can we create environments for people to inhabit and enjoy and thrive in, if we don’t consider the desires and needs of about half of the population?
"How can we create environments for people to inhabit and enjoy and thrive in, if we don’t consider the desires and needs of about half of the population?" —Nidhi Gulati
Katrina: The other part is standing up for each other. Not only should we stand up for what we deserve; we should also stand against things that are unequal. We should look out for other individuals who don’t have quite the same voice in the workplace.
Alexa: Yeah, that’s really important. For me, the idea of mentorship is also crucial. I always make sure that junior staff are part of important conversations, and not just there for the production of work. More often than not, men are listened to right away, or they expect they will be, and more often than not, women have to assume the opposite. We come in feeling like we have to prove what we know and that we deserve to be here.
Nidhi: Placemaker Jay Pitter has challenged others in our field to move beyond considerations of women’s safety in public and towards something bigger, like women’s joy. My take on this is that there’s a difference between simply “integrating” people in a space—just making space for them—and including them—making it the right kind of place for those people to thrive. How do you think we can be more ambitious about improving women’s experience of public space?
Alexa: I think by addressing concerns of safety, you remove something from the equation that will allow women to experience joy. If you don’t have to worry about feeling safe, you open up the opportunity for other things to be more joyful, more memorable.
Katrina: Another way to think about it is through the conversation around livability. We can think about an urban environment being livable, but we can also think of it, in a tongue-in-cheek way, as lovable. It can offer more than just basic necessities. It’s almost like a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs situation. Sure, safety is a basic need, but if you just keep focusing on that base level and never try to move upwards toward emotional satisfaction and absolute comfort and love, then you’re always going to be stuck in this basic part of the pyramid that doesn’t really address the rest of it.
Sometimes, we obviously get stuck in that trap because of cost. A lot of times, people are just trying to get basic services to people, and they wonder why they should care about something like beautification by and for residents of a neighborhood. But we need to be thinking about the city in that holistic way. That kind of community involvement, that kind of attention to detail, that kind of joy, should be considered a basic need. Humans should be able to thrive and not just survive.
"That kind of community involvement, that kind of attention to detail, that kind of joy, should be considered a basic need. Humans should be able to thrive and not just survive." —Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman
Nidhi: For sure. I feel like a lot of times, women of color, especially, feel like we’re being integrated and not included. There isn’t always space for your lived experience, your cultural-racial-socioeconomic mix to play out in that space. It’s more about safety in the future and less about your past and who you are as an individual. And that’s a shame, because over time all of us tend to lose those nuances if they’re not nurtured. That’s a huge loss. How can we create public spaces where people can tell their full story and not just say, this is a problem we have to solve, tell us what the solution is?
"How can we create public spaces where people can tell their full story and not just say, this is a problem we have to solve, tell us what the solution is?" —Nidhi Gulati
Alexa: I think that’s where we could use more listening and more observation about what people really want. That’s how we get places designed right. It shouldn’t be an afterthought; it should be a critical part of the early design of a space.
Lida: I feel like we should support safety as a first step because when you peel back concerns for safety and comfort, so much mental space opens up in women’s minds. All of those tiny little thoughts in the back of your mind that you don’t even realize you’re doing automatically—is that street lit well enough? Are there people on that street? If I went that way, would I have an escape route?—what opens up when we don’t have to be concerned about our safety or that of the children or elderly that we’re caring for in public space?
But to your point, Nidhi, about the intersectionality of what it means to be a woman, I think it’s important to understand the symbolism of space, and what that does to affirm or disaffirm a person’s identity and belonging there. As an immigrant coming to a public space with western symbolism around, like crosses on a church—that doesn’t necessarily affirm who you are. We can find ways that symbolism within spaces can give subtle visual cues that tell a person from any given background, “We see you. You belong here.”
Nidhi: Right. Oftentimes we say, “Treat others like you would like to be treated.” The problem with that statement is that we don’t all want to be treated the same. A better way to think about it is, “Treat others like they would like to be treated.” But it requires a lot more listening and observing in order to treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way I want them to treat me. That process creates space for more than one identity to exist in a relationship between two people, and that principle can and should apply to the way we design cities, too.
Katrina: A big theme here is about changing the status quo, which is a pretty heavy lift. But you have to do your part wherever you can, whether that’s a one-on-one interaction, or it’s the way you decide to do community engagement, or it’s writing your syllabus to include women, and especially women of color. Changing the status quo is about being intentional—thinking critically about the way that any given thing has been done, and then listening to ideas about what a better way to do it might be.
"Changing the status quo is about being intentional—thinking critically about the way that any given thing has been done, and then listening to ideas about what a better way to do it might be." —Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman
Nidhi: All of these things are too systemic and entrenched, so we’re going to have to change everything eventually! So as we wrap up, I’d love to end on a hopeful note. Tell us about one thing that’s happening around us that is helping us change the dynamics of gender and placemaking.
Alexa: Visibility—the fact that we have more female leaders. We definitely need more, but we have to remember to look back and see how far we’ve come. We also have to do our best to be mentors, to be the people that we wish we had along the way.
"We have to do our best to be mentors, to be the people that we wish we had along the way." —Alexa Gonzalez
Lida: Yes, building on this moment of relative visibility, I’ve experienced a lot of male colleagues and friends beginning to understand their own ignorance and asking questions for the first time, for example, about what it means to be gender sensitive in the workplace or in outreach. It gives me hope to hear people starting to ask the right questions about gender, and in doing so, placing a higher value on the lived experience and expertise of women on these matters.
"It gives me hope to hear people starting to ask the right questions about gender, and in doing so, placing a higher value on the lived experience and expertise of women on these matters." —Lida Aljabar
Katrina: This is a bit more specific to the kind of work that I do, but as I am pitching more qualitative research, I am getting extremely positive feedback right now. People have a willingness to try something new. They understand that they need to assess public space differently and that they need new people doing that assessment. They need to listen to the people who use those public spaces in order to make changes in a more thoughtful way. Now more than ever, people seem open to that idea.
And technically speaking, I think it’s a female-led trend to be more qualitative, to collect more stories, to be open and welcoming and transparent to individuals, rather than just focusing on economic gain or quantitative measurement. That gives me a lot of hope.
Nidhi: Piggybacking on a couple of things you all said, here are a few of the things that give me hope. I was recently at Meeting of the Minds in Phoenix, and they had a group of young female mayors come on stage to talk about future plans for their cities. They were cheered on by the crowd, and they were talking about their vision for the future. All the power to them to make good on those promises.
In protests worldwide, women are being represented in numbers that we’ve never seen before, including in India. These protests are not just about one issue, they’re about the way we have or have not been represented in our civic processes for centuries.
Cities are changing their policies to improve gender equity in data gathering and decision-making, in writing manuals and designing infrastructure. We’re starting to see gender equity play a greater role at the same time as racial and cultural equity because all of these efforts need to move forward together to get to a better world.
"We’re starting to see gender equity play a greater role at the same time as racial and cultural equity because all of these efforts need to move forward together to get to a better world." —Nidhi Gulati