Feminist geographer Leslie Kern says the urban environment is deeply gendered. Photo by Mitchel Raphael

Last year, a viral Tik Tok video posed the question: “what would women worldwide do if there were no men on Earth for 24 hours?” The overwhelming response was, “go on walks at night”. The freedom to walk around the city at night is not a given, especially if you’re a woman or a girl.

Urban feminist geographer Leslie Kern summed this up in her 2020 book Feminist City: Claiming Space in the Man-Made World: “As a woman, my everyday urban experiences are deeply gendered. My gender identity shapes how I move through the city, how I live my life day-to-day, and the choices available to me. … It’s the space where my experiences lead me to ask, ‘Why do I have to walk an extra half mile home because the shortcut is too dangerous'”?

If cities had a gender, they would be male? 

It’s a blokey thing to play with cars and trucks, dig things up, and build towering skyscrapers. The opposite of a blokey built environment — I’ll call it “blokey urbanism”—is “feminist urbanism”. Sounds sexist, but it’s more about egalitarianism than it is about suffragettes and women’s rights. 

Feminist urbanism is urbanism without a gender bias, founded on the premise that our cities and neighbourhoods and other pseudo-urbanised enclaves like remote mining sites have been shaped by our patriarchal past. Thus, historically, consigning women to a footnote in the planning and design of our urban form.

Poorly lit pathways and laneways, public transport that’s too expensive, too slow, and too unreliable. Sexual harassment and abuse, racial abuse, a lack of clean, safe public toilets, and unaffordable housing and childcare impact women’s freedoms, mobility, work opportunities and thus, everyday life.

In short: our cities derive from a set of assumptions about the typical urban dweller: a white heterosexual husband and father — the breadwinner, able-bodied and cisgender —precast in concrete around men and their cars and their nine-to-five jobs.

If only Le Corbusier had been a woman

When the famed Swiss-French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier developed his proportional system in the 1940s and 1950s, Le Modulor I and Le Modulor II, he based it on the mathematical dimensions of the “ideal man”. A human figure with a narrow waist and broad shoulders, standing 1.75 metres tall in Modulor I and increased to 1.829 metres (corresponding to six feet) in Modulor II

In the tradition of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, Le Corbusier’s proportional system would shape the post-war world. It governed everything from ceiling height and the height of a door handle to the size of a city block that would accommodate the fundamentals of a car so his “ideal man” could drive to work in the most optimal mode.

It is fair to say, in his quest to combine the human form with the urban form, Le Corbusier had no sense of women’s proportionalities and needs. And it hardly seems appropriate to talk about the sexual assault and murder of young women in the context of urban planning, but, sadly, the two are inextricably linked.

The insidious side of our blokey built environment

Australian of the Year Grace Tame has remained “unflinchingly determined” to expose the insidious and clandestine side of child sexual assault and grooming. The other side is more explicit. 

The city of Melbourne, for instance, despite being ranked the world’s most liveable city seven years running to 2017 by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), and still ranked number two in 2019 before dropping to eighth in 2020, has a most horrific record of young women being murdered while walking home at night: 

Seventeen-year-old schoolgirl Masa Vukotic found murdered in Melbourne’s Doncaster Park on 17 March 2015; 22-year-old comedian and writer Eurydice Dixon found murdered in Melbourne’s Princes Park on 13 June 2018; 21-year-old student Aya Maasarwe found murdered near La Trobe University on 16 January 2019; 25-year-old Courtney Herron found murdered in Melbourne’s Royal Park on 25 May 2019. 

The insensibility of this, the paternalistic undertones, were demonstrated by Victoria Police detective inspector Mick Hughes’ advice after the murder of 17-year-old Masa Vukotic: “I suggest to people, particularly females, they shouldn’t be alone in parks.” 

Reminiscent of Toronto police constable Michael Sanguinetti’s infamous 2011 remark: “I’m not supposed to say this; however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.”

Dr Ellie Cosgrove, an associate professor of urban innovation at University College London, was more to the point in a 2019 forum titled The Feminist City: “It is the multiple and constant threats that young women experience that tells us that the city is not a place where they belong.” 

A brutal heritage and a blokey PM don’t help

In the tradition of Leonardo and Le Corbusier but not nearly as talented, can we get more blokey than our ultra-blokey PM Scott Morrison—aka “Scomo; The liar from the Shire; Scotty from Marketing”, as per the Betoota Advocate

And true to his fallibilities, it seems, in a moment of blokey paranoia, our PM put it clumsily, arrogantly, oblivious to the time, place, and issue with this excruciatingly anti-feminist faux pas at, of all places, the 2019 International Women’s Day address: “We want to see women rise. But we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse.” 

“Others”, one presumes, means men. But like the caption below, “equal rights for others doesn’t mean fewer rights for you—it’s not pie”!

Photo by That’s Her Business 

Hence, is our PM a misguided misogynist or simply disoriented and disconnected to planet Australia? And oh, from French President Emmanuel Macron’s perspective post the “sub snub” and the spectacular spin dispensed by our PM at COP26, we can addScotty the Scammer” to our PM’s growing list of alienating impressions. 

We might thus concede that our cities’ social and physical infrastructure survives as a constant reminder of our patriarchal values. “Patriarchy”, as a social and political system, alludes to a deep-rooted culture of brutality that dates back to colonialism and the broader reaches of our antipodean society, aggrieved and banished from its original homeland. 

I mean, is there anything more brutal than the act of colonisation or the maltreatment of the defenceless?

Benjamin Law, writing in the 2021 exploration of Robin Boyd’s work, After the Australian Ugliness, describes how “Every country has its own unspeakable shame, rooted deep in its psyche and history. Australia’s are two-fold: the horrors of and legacies of colonialism for Indigenous Australians, and our seemingly limitless capacity for cruelty toward refugees”. 

Should urban feminism be integrated into urban planning as a first-principles foundation to create more equitable cities?

The COVID-19 pandemic presented a prime opportunity to arrest past inequities and inject some urban feminism into creating our neighbourhoods and cities. The climate crisis offers the same opportunity but on a much broader and larger scale. The federal government’s COVID recovery response, however, smacked of patriarchy. 

The HomeBuilder package was designed to stimulate the economy via home renovation and construction and, coupled with the JobMaker plan that brought large-scale infrastructure projects forward, were straight out the “building a blokey built environment handbook”.

Both programs focused on boosting male-dominated trades and construction jobs. Nearly 90 per cent of workers in the Construction Industry, which comprises nine per cent of the total Australian workforce, are male.

While the female-dominated care economy, in a time of great need, was begrudgingly addressed as what seemed like an afterthought. Notably, the Healthcare and Social Assistance Industry comprises 14 per cent of the total Australian workforce, of which nearly 80 per cent are female.

Policy analyst Susan Maury, from the Women’s Policy Action Tank, made the pertinent point: “Policymakers need to treat childcare, and all elements of the care economy, in the same way that it treats public expenditure on roads, rail and dams — as a productive investment in our economic infrastructure”.

And it makes good economic sense to do this. In monetary terms, failing to account for women, people with disabilities, racialized communities, children, the elderly, and low-income earners is a fiscal risk Australia can ill afford. 

According to a KPMG report, based on the 2016 Personal Safety Survey (PSS), in 2015-16, violence against women and their children alone cost $22 billion. Most vulnerable were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, followed by young women, pregnant women, women with disabilities, and women experiencing financial hardship.

Inclusive means “everyone!”

Women’s and girls’ safety remains a contentious issue. But claims to urban space must be viewed in the context of fundamental freedoms and human rights for all. Not a paternalistic demand for protection from perpetrators of domestic violence or park predators, as this routinely devolves into victim-blaming and, thus, the same default mindset that underlies the design of our cities.

If women and young girls cannot walk safely around their city at night, cannot access all the services a modern city should offer, go where they want to, it has failed in its most fundamental of functions, to be accessible and inclusive. Inclusive means “everyone”. 

Trans-activist, musician, and architect Simona Castricum, in her 2018 keynote lecture titled Queer Some Space that centred on mitigating the risks people experience in space, argued that a change in narrative is needed:

“I think we need to shift the language to how we mitigate risk and be honest about the limitations of architecture to be safe. We need to talk about how all spaces in some way are prone to risk. … it’s amazing how little architects know about the people they exclude.” 

To me, this means thinking of cities as centres of community as opposed to centres of commerce. In essence, the Jane Jacobs community-centred approach to urban planning dating back to the early 1960s — now more broadly referred to as “feminist urbanism”.

Jane Jacobs’s mentor William H. Whyte, the urbanist and journalist renowned for his studies on human behaviour in public spaces, put it plainly: “It is difficult to design a place that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished”.

Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science. He has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design, teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the UDIA (Urban Development Institute of Australia) and author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

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  1. There is an un-revered great Aussie movie called ‘All Men Are Liars’. The bit left out of the quote is: ‘and all women are angels’. This author is in total agreement as I read his article.
    Le Corbusier in the evolution of Le Modular said he did not think anybody using the imperial system would have come up with Le Modular , or had the same need to, as the imperial system was based on the human body: feet, inches, yards etc. So was the ancient Egyptian system of cubits [the length from elbow to the tip of the finger] palms [width of the hand] and digits, [ the length of finger joints]. Corbu also chose 183 cm [6 foot] as better to have a little larger than smaller to best accommodate all beings. The gender bias is non existent in Le Modular.
    The devil is metric: a system for simplified scientific calculations and stuff all to do with the size of the human body be they man or woman. You could not get a more stupid system for building for humans than metric that’s why Australia changed to it.
    Answers in the article elude me : so enough street lights to make all night day. What’s the limit here? Has anybody tested no streets lights verses a never ending sun? Maybe no street lights is safer. Cars have lights. Are street lights necessary in suburbs? Solar panels give zero at night– the answer massive batteries to power the lights, I now see none of the magnificence of the celestial beauty of the night sky I enjoyed as a rural kid. With illumination pollution I guess I wont see the moon any more.
    Tree lined streets would also be a problem.
    Maths solved problems by taking matters to the infinite limit.
    My answer is: the first part of the equation– men are the problem.
    So there are two cities. The female city totally designed and made and used by angels only: a heavenly wonder world of extreme beauty and equality . The other male, made and used by liars: a hades of rule of the mighty, subjugation and depravity. Since IVF, procreation can continue; send the sperm across in a drone.
    Problem solved, easy!

    1. Of course women are angels (as you say), you are one! If a city is made for the average woman, then it is not livable for the average man. If you want an “angel” city – build it. Drive the nails, shovel the dirt, mix the concrete, tote the bricks and shingle the roofs. There won’t be any drone deliveries – you can figure out how to conceive on your own, too. Women are far from “angels” and your ideas are counter to the goals of feminism (at least it’s not what feminists have been telling men for years) — that feminism is about equality. It sucks that women aren’t safe at night. Men aren’t either, and while you may get raped, the chances are greater that I’ll be murdered.