Built for women

The Women's Design Service is celebrating 20 years of feminist activism from the planners' office to the building site. Eeva Berglund reports

, 9 November 2007

Architecture is not the first word that springs to mind when you think of feminism. Yet this year marks 20 years since the Women’s Design Service was established to put the forces of planning and building to work to improve the lot of women.

The Women’s Design Service is the only organisation in the country dedicated to improving the built environment for women: making it easier for women to get involved in planning, campaigning to provide space for parents with small children, doing research into urban safety, lobbying for public transport that accommodates buggies and, still, after all these years, giving advice on improving public toilets.

To celebrate the anniversary I wrote a history of the service, Doing Things Differently: Women’s Design Service at Twenty. It traces the ups and downs of this remarkable organisation, whose origins were most definitely feminist and undoubtedly socialist. Since then it has zig-zagged a route through some challenging political times. Given the dwindling political priority for women’s rights it’s fantastic – and somewhat surprising – that the WDS is still here and still championing high quality and carefully built environments that everyone can safely access and enjoy. It does this in the spirit of the thoughtful feminist politics that inspired it in the first place. That is, not waging a battle of the sexes, rather challenging the ways privilege and prejudice are built into the physical environment to the detriment of certain sections of the population, notably women.

It has often been feminists who have tried hardest to understand and to challenge the ways in which other dimensions of inequality, like disability, ethnicity, religion and sexuality, cross-cut, coexist with and compound gendered injustices

Having worked with and for women from its beginnings, the WDS knows how limiting and frustrating life can be when women’s specific needs are overlooked in the design and maintenance of buildings. And the problem is often that women, economically insecure and tied to one place because of social responsibilities, have little choice but to put up with it. Among those who simply can’t vote with their feet to avoid low-quality environments and reduced services are startling numbers of women and more specifically, minority women.

Far too many still have to cope with broken lifts and underpasses that stink of piss, and most women and girls know the discomfort and insult – and worse – of public places draped in sexualised images or of simply feeling unsafe. Women still make up the bulk of those who have to go the long way around to avoid the dangers of motor traffic. Fewer women than men enjoy the freedom and benefits that come from use of a private car. Yet given the caring responsibilities for others that many shoulder, it would make impeccable sense for cars to be the realm of women. Men, generally less encumbered by shopping or push-chairs, could more easily use public transport.

My involvement with the WDS doesn’t come out of architectural expertise but rather from my interest in feminism, society and politics. As I understand it, nobody escapes gender (even a sex change is a demonstration of how significant it is). But it has been women rather than men who have historically been the ones to notice and to think through gender. And it has often been feminists – of all kinds – who have tried hardest to understand and to challenge the ways in which other dimensions of inequality, like disability, ethnicity, religion and sexuality, cross-cut, coexist with and compound gendered injustices.

The core framework of Britain’s built environment was put in place at a time when citizenship was a privilege of a few men and talk of women’s rights was too marginal even to be dismissed as madness

Thirty or 40 years ago, women really started to speak out and make changes. I believe this has been to the benefit of politics in general. The results have helped both men and women. But Amanda Ariss, of the now closed-down Equal Opportunities Commission, reminded us at our party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the WDS that just because some – rather few – women are in positions of power, this hardly means that gender has become irrelevant. In the built environment, able-bodied masculine norms are still standard.

On reflection it is hardly surprising that the physical environment isn’t particularly woman-friendly. After all, the core framework of Britain’s built environment was put in place at a time when citizenship was a privilege of a few men and talk of women’s rights was too marginal even to be dismissed as madness. It was only after feminists forced change that planners, engineers and architects had to accept the fact that there’s more to their work than technology. And the WDS, although one of many, many women’s groups, was unique in keeping its eye on the whole range of problems facing women in the built environment. (I put it like that because in the UK at the time, there were several feminist architects’ practices and many feminist professional networks).

According to the greatest architect of the 20th century, Le Corbusier, the ‘average man’ was between 5’6″ and 6’2″ and it was according to his needs that the ideal city should be built. Even when they weren’t made invisible like this, women found that their needs were stereotyped, often reduced to the happy housewife’s desire to purchase domestic bliss in the shape of white goods. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own captured a banal but painful truth about how little society valued female intellectual activity and about how limited women’s options were even at home. As for public space and the effort to prevent sexual crimes by securing women indoors – where do you begin?!

That there were no women’s toilets in some Whitehall buildings was not just embarrassing, it was disgraceful

Since the 1970s, feminists have put across the message that there is nothing inevitable about how our streets are laid out or our homes and work places are designed. Feminists, both female and male, argued that engineering and architecture aren’t ‘purely technical’ pursuits at all, they are the results of cultural conventions, that is, politics. But because for so long the built environment had been treated as a technical rather than a political or social realm for so long, and clearly a male-dominated professional arena at that, the feminist challenge was hugely radical. It was also startlingly obvious. That there were no women’s toilets in some Whitehall buildings was not just embarrassing, it was disgraceful. That the motorcar was swallowing up more and more land, while space for children and pedestrians got squeezed out, was a social problem, not a private one.

Feminist challenges of all sorts emerged and flourished. The Greater London Council’s Women’s Committee was set up in 1982, the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act were amended in 1985 and 1986 to further promote equality and in 1985 the GLC’s Women’s Committee even organised a seminar on women and planning. This kind of political support gave those setting up the WDS legitimacy.

The WDS’ most successful publication was “the toilet book”. It was launched with great fanfare and amused media-coverage, but it made serious points about the way that inadequate provision – including nappy-changing facilities – made life difficult for a substantial sector of the population

The WDS was supported by the GLC through a grant. And the women’s groups that turned to it for technical architectural assistance in those early days were themselves the fruits of the feminist success. “There was money sloshing around for women’s groups at the time,” said one of the people I interviewed. Basically, a group of women architects saw an opportunity to do something unique and applied for funds. It was an opportunistic move but they all passionately believed that they could best address sexism through their professional contribution.

Then Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC in 1986, making the work of voluntary organisations like the WDS much harder. Until it was reconstituted as a charitable company in 1987, the WDS lived a precarious existence, often “with just a few of us, hanging on by a hair”, as Nelica LaGro of the original group recalled.

womensloosbook.jpgThe Conservatives’ years in power also hastened the erosion of the public services that many women, being economically weaker, relied on. It seems all this just made the WDS even more determined. The first three workers of the newly set up organisation, Rosy Martin, Sue Cavanagh and Vron Ware, produced a mass of innovative and still valuable research and consultancy. Clara Greed, now professor of urban planning at University of the West of England, described the WDS as “absolutely pioneering”. In those early years they could hardly keep up with the demand for their work and soon the staff expanded to six part-timers. They produced innovative research and provided consultancy on play spaces for the under-sevens, design for people with disabilities, the safety of women on housing estates, advice on participating in design and planning, and much more.

Over the years, the WDS has made its expertise available not just through direct consultation and its unique library, but in various publication formats (a list of available publications is available on the website). Though much has improved over the years, the key issues and principles have not changed dramatically since the 1980s. The WDS seemed radical in those days, when it insisted that the experts on a built environment are the people who use it. It developed ways of getting women to participate in design and planning, and adopted a principle of never assuming, but always asking. In the intervening years participation and consultation have become as taken for granted in the regeneration and planning world as steel and concrete.

Probably the organisation’s all-time greatest success has been At Women’s Convenience, published in 1990. Known as “the toilet book”, it was launched with great fanfare and amused media-coverage, but it made serious points about the way that inadequate provision – including nappy-changing facilities – made life difficult for a substantial sector of the population. The issue is still – amazingly – a problem in many cities, especially London, and it’s probable that WDS will continue providing input into the design and management of public toilets for some time to come.

Another WDS-staple has been its work Making Safer Place. Published in 1998, this is a programme of work that includes a safety audit carried out by female users of an area. It has been shown to be a particularly effective tool for improving community safety. Not only does it give a voice to women who are easily marginalised, it helps put gender at the heart of professional thinking about community safety. In practice it has involved providing training and making policy recommendations, and through the networks and linkages with partner organisations, such as Oxfam’s ReGender, it has helped broadcast the message that regeneration needs to take account of gender. One of the more recent spin-offs from this work has been the WDS’ focus on safety in parks, published earlier this year as What to do About Women’s Safety in Parks.

planninginaction.jpgIf the world accommodates many women’s lives better now than it did 20-odd years ago, much of the credit should go to WDS. On the other hand, today such organisations have to operate in an environment that’s rife with fanciful talk about there being no need for feminism or women-only services.

A fortnight after the party at WDS, an event at the Women’s Resource Centre (WRC) made it clear that women are quite literally being given less and less space. WRC was launching the report, Why Women-Only? It shows that women-only services and the places that house them are facing serious threats to their funding. The most vulnerable in society are again being made to vanish by those who have the power to ignore them.

As heart-warming as it has been to celebrate the successes of the past, I am certain that we will need a WDS for some time to come. Real gender equality is still a long way off. Too much of the design of the built environment is still in the hands of men and, despite all the talk of participation and consultation, the pressures to build cheaply and quickly make it extremely unlikely that adequate time and care will be invested in inclusive design.

I also believe that the WDS and its experiences can be applied to thinking through a host of other injustices that have been built into our towns, cities and suburbs. That’s because the legacy of the ‘f-word’ is so very rich. Feminism is used to dealing with paradoxes and feminists are brilliant at making the invisible reappear and showing how destructive are the self-delusions of those in power. In the built environment, feminism can be made a crucial part of a careful and sophisticated approach that creates better, longer-lasting and more inclusive outcomes.

I’ll finish on a quick example. The country is being blanketed with CCTV cameras in the belief that they’ll reassure women. The WDS’ survey showed that they don’t. In fact, seeing them makes women suspect that an area might be dangerous and so avoid them. Alas, in a society in a hurry, trying to offer one-size-fits all solutions is a seductive idea.

A women’s design service could never be so cruelly deceived. I think that’s because of the strong legacy of feminism as an intellectual and a political force.

Eeva Berglund was a lecturer in social anthropology but now spends her time on writing and various voluntary jobs. She has been a trustee of the WDS since 2005. Her book about it, Doing Things Differently: WDS at Twenty and other WDS publications including those mentioned in this article can be ordered from the WDS’ offices. Contact us at wds.org.uk

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