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Vienna, a feminist urbanism pioneer

By Justine Vonpierre

Gender planning, gender-sensitive cities, inclusive cities… these  concepts are rightly all the rage in European cities but what exactly  do they involve? No, they don’t mean repainting the pavements  pink, as some may have worried. In the Austrian capital these concerns  go back 30 years. In 1990, Eva Kail, an urban planner with the City of Vienna,  launched an exhibition entitled "Who owns public space? Women's daily life in  the city" ("Wem gehört der öffentliche Raum? Frauenalltag in der Stadt"). This  successful exhibition raised questions about the ownership of public space by  all its inhabitants, and marked the beginning of a new urban era for Vienna, with  the creation of an Urban Planning Coordination Office responsible for women's  needs.  

The exhibition highlighted the fact that, whether due to gender roles, their age,  their socio-economic background or their belonging to a minority community,  not all inhabitants live in their city in the same way. The city therefore needs to  be redesigned according to the needs of each individual, in order to guarantee  the wellbeing and safety of everyone in public spaces and in their own homes. In  2022, Vienna, which has a population of almost 2 million, topped The  Economist's list of the best cities to live in, and here’s why. 

In her work, Kail immediately noticed that the experience of the city is different  for people caring for others something done usually for free. Noting, for  example, that cars are predominantly used by men, and pavements and public  transport by women, children and the elderly, it became clear that including care  in urban planning could benefit people in their pursuit of this work. That's why  priority seating for carers has been introduced on the city's buses, along with a  range of signage. Pictograms depicting a person with a child can be seen in both  feminine and masculine versions, – details that turn our gendered perceptions  on their head. 

A good example has been the 'Women Work City' social housing estate ('Frauen  Werk Stadt’), built by 4 women architects with the aim of facilitating, as far as  possible, the unpaid activities of daily life which are mainly carried out by  women, i.e. caring for others, household chores, etc. 

At the heart of the project is the 15-minute city concept, with everything  designed to be within walking distance, including a public kindergarten and a  doctor's practice located at the heart of the homes. The notions of sharing,  exchange and community are also strong and innovative aspects of this project,  with a large number of protected and pedestrianised communal areas brimming  with play areas for children, gardens, garages, walkways, etc. Everything has been designed so that human contacts and links can be created in complete  safety, away from cars, breaking down the hostility and anonymity that could have reigned in the space between these 357 flats which are no higher than 6  storeys. 

The feeling of safety in the public space is undoubtedly a priority for the city of  Vienna and depends enormously on the way it is designed. Safety is a factor in wellbeing, as "Frauen Werk Stadt" shows, but it is also a factor in mobility. Bad  Lighting at night, for example, creates fear and drastically reduces women's  mobility and can even put them in danger. In the Mariahilf district, night-time  lighting has been increased and more public toilets have been installed.  Women's access to public space is therefore intrinsically linked to their sense of  safety and their freedom. The visibility of women in public space is symbolically  reflected as well, for example, in the new Seestadt Aspern district, where almost  all the squares and streets are named after famous female artists or researchers,  a way of feminising our spatial reference points by introducing new role models  for children and teenagers. 

Mädchenbühne Wien @ Filmgut Thomas Zeller 

A particularly stimulating and characteristic feature of the planning process for  the city of Vienna is that, little by little, a process of citizen participation has  been set in motion to better shape change. In order to ensure that all residents  have a sense of belonging to their city and can make the best possible plans for  it, consultations are held on the areas to be renovated in a variety of ways. There  are "planning cafés", quick and fun activities where passers-by have to stick a  sticker (the colour of the sticker depends on the gender of the person) on the  future development of their choice, and so on. Residents themselves become  active players in the development of their city, taking responsibility, getting  involved and listening to what they have to say. 

This leads me to lastly mention the importance of squares, green spaces and  parks in the renewal of the city. In this way, the town realised that girls over the  age of 10 were deserting the parks. In fact, the current infrastructure, such as  open-air weight machines, football stadiums and basketball courts, which are  taken over by mainly male groups, drives young girls away. The girls needed  space, and the city responded to this need by creating the “Girls Stage”  ("Mädchenbühne"), a slightly raised stage on Reumann square, visible to all,  where the girls could meet up and where events could also be held. An open-air  football stadium reserved for girls has also been installed, as well as a volleyball  court that better meets girls' sporting expectations. Shared gardens, green  pavements, rented vegetable patches under trees, places to sit in the shade and  more democratic seating facilities- the influence of the Austrian artist and  architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who wanted to reconcile cities and  homes with nature - is evident here. The city is overflowing with green, solidary and innovative ideas that guarantee its residents but especially children, elderly,  homeless and people with reduced mobility, who are ill or lonely a more pleasant  and healthy pace of life. Moreover, it guarantees quiet, playful spaces where  women, mostly pedestrians and carers, can stroll and relax in complete safety and with public toilets available. Setting up no-car zones in the city is a real  challenge, but without a doubt it slows down life, giving the streets back to  children’s joy. 

The horizontal belongs to nature- the vertical may belong to men. All  that is white in winter must be green in summer. All that gets wet with  rain, all horizontal surfaces under the sky, belong to the realm of plant  life. Woods shall grow on streets and roofs. One must again be able to  breathe woodland air in the cities.” 

Your Window Right, Your Tree Duty, F. Hundertwasser, 1972 Justine Vonpierre 

If you are interested in this subject and would like to learn  more, join us online or in person in Edinburgh for the final  round table in our series entitled "Urban Crossroads: where  policy meets community". UN House Scotland 2024" and Click  here to register. 

Sources and links : 

• Hundertwasser, Architektur und Philosophie, 2015, Wörner Verlag GmbH (P.12)

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