Heeding women's needs

Latest research suggests that planners and designers are still failing to put measures into practice that can improve the way that towns and cities work for women, Ben Lee discovers.

You have finished work and are on your way home. It has been a long day. All you really want to do is put your feet up. But those chores need taking care of first - picking up the kids from school, the clothes from the dry cleaners, the weekly shop from the supermarket. If only things were closer to home.

Sound familiar? If so you must be a woman, at least according to a University of Cambridge centre for housing and planning research report. You are likely to be travelling on a bus. Your husband has commandeered the car for the day. You are worried about walking home too, if it is late at night.

The centre wants to know what planners are doing for women. It urges them to consider women's needs more carefully when creating our towns and cities. It says current policy ignores the fact that women and men use public space very differently. The report's author, Dr Gemma Burgess, argues that planet Earth is more like Mars than Venus. She wants planners and regeneration teams to examine who is actually benefiting from their projects.

Burgess recognises that gender is still a relatively new consideration for councils. "There is still a long way to go," she says. "Although there are cases where good practice is evident, they are not the norm." The subject needs better corporate backing from local authority leaders, she believes. "In local authorities that have been more proactive and engaged, it is the result of one or two passionate individuals or senior women in management roles who have been driving their efforts."

Policy spells out equality duty

For planners already feeling crowded out by the number of statutory consultees peering over their shoulders as they make decisions, such findings may feel like the last thing they need. But PPS12 requires councils to consider gender equality. The DCLG points to planning departments' duties to take steps to eliminate discrimination, which came into force in April 2006. Its Diversity and Equality in Planning good practice guide was published in 2005.

The case for environments designed to meet women's needs has been acknowledged in the new millennium, but is the task best assigned to planners? Some best practice examples suggest that it can be. Greater Govan - a diverse area of inner city Glasgow and home to 28,000 people - was the subject of a social inclusion project in 1999. In 2001, Oxfam began working with the project team, using gender analysis in an effort to make the area a better place to live. It asked local women to help redesign the neighbourhood's green spaces so they would meet their needs.

"The list of facilities they wanted included safety features such as improved lighting and broader pathways based on the routes that people take rather than those the planners decide," says Oxfam UK policy and communications manager for poverty Antonia Bance. "The result is a park plan that has been drawn directly from the experiences of the women who use the space rather than being based on assumptions or design conventions."

The London Borough of Lewisham used an equalities impact assessment spreadsheet to assess gender implications for each policy area in its unitary development plan. As a result, Lewisham shifted its policy on employment site provision to provide more local jobs to benefit women and reduce the need for long-distance commuting.

The British Urban Regeneration Association (BURA) is making its own push for gender equality, having launched an equality and diversity framework earlier this year. "We believe that sustainable regeneration can only be achieved when equality and diversity are fully considered from the start, whenever regeneration programmes are developed," says chairwoman Jackie Sadek. "BURA is helping to put the issue high on the agenda but we still have some way to go."

Good practice guide reinforced

It is not the first time that the gender planning issue has come to the forefront. In 2003, the RTPI published a tool kit outlining the techniques that planners can use to interpret the concept of "gender mainstreaming". Last year, it brought out a good practice note (GPN7) on gender and spatial planning. Burgess is asking planners of both sexes to look at their record once more.

But a Local Government Association spokesman gives the research short shrift. "Democratically elected members do not need to be told what is best for their area by a Cambridge academic," he declares. "Councils simply will not recognise the findings of this report. A monumental amount of time and effort goes into ensuring that new developments are places where people want to live and work. Town halls feel that there are enough planning policies to make their heads spin."

So if policy has been slow to seep through, planners do not seem to know the best way for women to walk home and women cannot get jobs where they need them, just what will it take to achieve equality? Perhaps simple behavioural changes would make a difference. Maybe women should just tell men to pick up the children from school instead. If men are listening, that is.

- Planning, Regeneration and the Gender Equality Duty - Why Does Gender Matter? is available at PlanningResource.co.uk.

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