A little more conversation?

OK, so Elvis sang “A little less conversation, a little more action please.” And action is critical. But if we are going to build a consensus for change, conversations are also vital. We talk quite a lot about the importance of safety when making the public realm welcoming to teenage girls. So we’re always keen to hear about new initiatives that make these conversations thrive. Kirsty Watt and Amelia Amelia Powell have co-founded “HerCollective;” a new feminist design collective whose aim is to help connect public and professional conversations around women’s safety in the public realm with the physical design of urban places. In this guest blog they explain why and how the collective seeks to do this

Content Warning: The work of HerCollective mentions women’s safety and violence against women. The authors want to note that people may identify as a different gender based on their own internal or individual experience of gender. When referring to ‘gender’, the authors are referring to women. This does not mean to say that other genders should be less considered when it comes to planning and design but it is hoped that this is one step in opening up that dialogue.

With women making up more than half of the population, it is vital to consider the needs of women when creating urban spaces. We forget how much planning and design shapes the world around us and impacts people’s everyday lives. Many women feel a sense of unsafety or anxiety when passing through urban spaces due to past experiences, the news or just the design and planning of the built environment being dark, closed off or intimidating. The UK has made huge steps in recent decades to close the gender gap however, cities were planned by men, reflecting traditional gender roles and the gendered division of labour whilst lacking female involvement in the built environment sector. This has resulted in our public spaces preventing men and women from perceiving or experiencing urban areas equally. Improving urban areas through inclusive design that fully considers all members of society can have a catalytic impact on a city, not only economically and environmentally with spaces thriving and looking better, but also socially, by society being based upon mutual respect.

Changes to the built environment can impact the emotions and subsequent behaviours of people who occupy public areas. Placemaking is a key initiative of transforming communities or the public space by providing an opportunity for different groups of women of all ages and backgrounds to have new and varied interactions. These conversations can discover what needs to change or what works for enhancing women’s right to the street. Placemaking and gender is rarely considered in planning policy and strategy yet is commonly discussed as a method to promote gender-inclusivity in urban areas.

Image: Structure for the reclaiming public space by girls, HerCollective.

The UK’s historic cities are designed by and for men. Gender-equal space is now recognised as fundamental to achieving sustainability by the United Nations. This is defined as a public domain that is ‘open and accessible to all people, regardless of gender’. There is an urgent need – as identified by Make Space For Girls – for women and girls to reclaim space that previously would make them feel unwelcome and unsafe. This could be helped by the engagement of the community, and thus an understanding of what issues different groups of people are aware of in their public space. However, the formality of community engagement within the planning system lends itself to a poor reflection of community needs in design. People need to become involved – and importantly feel involved – at informal, grassroots levels, as well as more formally so that the marginalised members of a community are at the forefront of the process.

Image: Proposal for the demonstration of safe and unsafe space through community engagement, HerCollective.

Although collaboration and engagement with the community is a key initiative of making better spaces for women, it is also important to incorporate the topic of inclusivity in education. This involves education and engagement at all levels – from architecture and planning students at university to children in schools. Our younger generations are key players in enhancing sustainability and making better urban places. Inclusivity is frequently discussed in education, but does not recognise that men and women often use space differently. By discussing obstacles women face in reclaiming cities, young people can be inspired to get involved in the planning and design process – as well as local initiatives – in a creative and inclusive manner on a short term basis and potentially in their later career choices.

Having an equal balance of both men and women in the built environment professions may result in the public realm being more inclusive however, people are not always aware of the structural sexism by which our cities were built. For example, narrow pavements that result in poor accessibility for carers or those with pushchairs and in wheelchairs, as well as being intimidating to women travelling alone who feel unsafe in public space. By educating both girls and boys from a young age of the difficulties women face, then we are inspiring younger planners and architects, who will one day be re-designing our cities, with a better understanding of how to make better spaces for women. Not only that, but we are encouraging young girls and women to have a better relationship to their public space and immediate surroundings.

Image: Our manifesto drawing, HerCollective.

We have created HerCollective with the ambition of opening up the dialogue about marginalisation of communities and safety in public space across professional silos, but also within communities themselves. The impact that thorough community-based research can have on modern built environment practice is invaluable, but we need to acknowledge that designers can no longer put themselves on a pedestal as everyone deserves to engage with the design of their public space. We are developing methods to interact with communities, organisations and local authorities, whilst also continuously learning, engaging and collaborating with the “forgotten” people of urban planning. This includes women, girls, the LGBTQ+ community, or the BAME communities. Every community network is important and brings a fresh perspective to our research, and we hope that this ongoing process will encourage others to follow suit and design from feedback from those most in need, rather than super-imposing their ideals on environments in which they do not fit.

Links to HerCollective website – https://www.hercollective.co.uk/

Links to our LinkedIn pages – https://www.linkedin.com/in/kirsty-watt-413152165/

https://www.linkedin.com/in/amelia-powell-22a923159/

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