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We – men and women both - work, live and play on city streets. Over the past century, we’ve seen how the shifting roles of women in society have impacted facets of urban design. The 1970s, for example, saw cities welcome single women more than ever before. Families followed suit, thanks to women’s entry in the workforce, now making up nearly half of the Canadian workforce. Delayed marriage and childbearing as well as suburban isolation and investment in downtowns helped turn city living for women from a trend into a paradigm shift.

Yet, elements of cities that were once designed as a male-centred hub of industrial activity and government dealings still exist today in some of our streets, condos, and public spaces. As we enter a new decade, a growing population asks - what does a city look like when it’s designed with women in mind?

I posed this question at a recent panel discussion hosted by Evergreen on women’s impact on urban design. Three women leaders in real estate development discussed the role of female-led design in condo development, pedestrian access, and the need for more inclusive decision-making in the boardrooms of our real estate firms.

As we look at the major advances in city building, there have been some important innovations in the area of design sensitive to women’s perspective:

  • MIXED-USE ZONING: It may not have been the intention, but modern-day mixed-use zoning is an early win for feminist city design. In the 19th century, women were cautioned from venturing downtown. This shifted with the rise of mass industrialization, when off-the-shelf items were affordable and available at newly created department stores that drew women to the city. Fast forward a century to the age of co-ed universities, accessible birth control, and no-fault divorce. While still overseeing their households’ spending, women now must juggle this with earning a pay cheque, parenting, professional development and leisurely pursuits. For women looking to reduce the craziness of this daily juggle, living near retail, schools, work, and fun is highly coveted.
  • TRANSIT FOR ALL: Cities, such as Toronto and Montreal, have skipped the queue among world cities in feminist urban innovation. Transit riders can now hop on and off buses and subways for free within a two-hour window. This innovation maps closely to women’s daily commutes. Research shows that women are more likely to zigzag around town than make the twice-daily home-to-work commute. Daycare duties, running errands, checking in on elderly relatives, as well as heading to work has cost women significantly more in transit costs than men (called the “pink tax”) – until now.
  • CONDOS BUILT FOR INNOVATION: For years, the corner of the kitchen table was the laboratory-cum-backyard shed for many urban women. While supervising children’s homework, minding dinner on the stove, and finishing up housework, women would incubate businesses, launch political campaigns, solve scientific problems, and craft environmental manifestos. Advocates like geographer Ghislaine Hermanuz challenge developers to formalize these makeshift workspaces into the interior design of apartments. Denver-based design firm Kephart and co-working giant WeWork are incorporating makerspaces into residential towers that further integrate work and home in the city.

And yet, there are needs that we haven’t yet solved.

  • HANGOUTS: In the realm of civic space design, particularly for young adults, the bulk of public spaces are structured for sports like hockey or pickup basketball. When teenage girls in Sweden were asked for their input in designing public spaces, for example, they opted not for recreational sports but, rather, intimate spaces for connecting and opportunities to create a space of their own.

  • TOILETS: When we think of public spaces in the city, inevitably, the topic of toilets rears its head. The fact is that women take longer to use the facilities, require amenities like hangers to place their bags and coats, and need more privacy than their urinal-frequenting counterparts. Women are also disproportionately responsible for the toilet use of babies and toddlers as well as elderly relatives. Currently, the needs of women in this realm outstrip both design and quantity, especially for publicly accessible washrooms.

As we enter a new decade, a growing population asks - what does a city look like when it’s designed with women in mind?
  • FAMILY-SIZE CONDOS: Despite the wealth of housing construction and appealing amenities for residents with diverse needs, the bulk of new-build apartments are studio and one-bedroom units, fitting the needs of single people and small households. According to a 2017 study by Ryerson University’s City Building Institute and consulting firm Urbanation, under 50 per cent of condominiums in development across the Greater Toronto Area offer units with more than one bedroom. As the millennials of the past two decades expand to grow families, urban dwellings are struggling to keep up with changing demographics. How do today’s high rises anticipate these needs and likely new ones to come?

Positive change comes when we ensure that the changes needed fully respond to our urban dwellers. Let’s start with diversifying the boardroom. A 2015 study by Commercial Real Estate Women showed that women represent about 37 per cent of the real estate workforce in Canada and less than 10 per cent of executive positions. A greater representation of women in development decision making (and active recruitment of women) can help fuel more change.

With jobs and careers and more flexibility in their lifestyles, women are seeking a dynamic and vital environment where they can live, work, and play and do so seamlessly.

I’m optimistic that by responding to the needs of single working women as well as city living households will result in greater accessibility, an organic blending of work and home, and a move towards universal urban design compatible with the diversity of residents who call the city home.

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