A year in the diary of a feminist city: how good design with and for women and girls benefits all


A year ago, Glasgow City Council passed a motion declaring Glasgow as the UK’s first feminist city in terms of city development. The intention to make Glasgow a city that works better with and for women and girls originated from the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). which brought together 120 world leaders and over 40,000 registered participants. The city faced significant travel disruption as a result of the conference as a considerable portion of its Westend was cordoned off, affecting women’s mobility in the area.

Kelvingrove Park is one of Glasgow’s best loved historic parks, considered almost as a back garden for those who lack their own private greenspaces in the area. However, park lighting remains a long standing issue, with several women participants of my PhD research confirming that as soon as it gets dark, they avoid crossing the Park. This issue was re-ignited during the UN Conference, when a police diversion forced women to walk through a dimly lit area of the park to get home. Police Scotland later issued an apology.

The campaign Light the Way amplified women’s voices advocating for better lighting in parks and public spaces

Clyde Radio led an effective Light the Way campaign, resulting in the Council decision to enhance lighting in three of its parks- Kelvingrove, Cranhill and Queens Park. This was achieved through engagement with a wide range of users representing both women and biodiversity groups to reach a workable balance between lighting for safety and impact of light pollution on wildlife. Improved safety measures included up-graded signage and pruning of trees to enhance visibility along routes.

Active travel is at the heart of the feminist city approach. My research indicates that If women were to design cities they would be planned for proximity rather than motorised mobility. The uniqueness of each neighbourhood would be interwoven by bike and pedestrian paths, along with well-networked, easy-to-navigate transportation systems. For women, walkable streets are vital for generating a sense of community. Several of my research participants shared a vision of streets for people not cars. While some argued for a city-wide approach, others talked about the pedestrianisation of parts of their neighbourhood, and making their high streets no-through roads. Still, some emphasised the importance of negotiating with the urban and peri-urban land use pattern. Sarah Shaw, Glasgow City Council Head of Planning agrees:

“Mobility is another area where we’ve recognised that women’s experience can be different from men’s. And that’s travel patterns in the city. Arterial routes, including public transport routes, tend to radiate out from the city centre, and this reflects a traditional commuting travel pattern based on male experience.”

In this context, Glasgow’s planning policies are actively promoting walkable proximity to essential services and public transportation routes. The emphasis is on encouraging local residents to live within 20-minute neighbourhoods, which constitute connected and compact areas where people can conveniently meet most of their daily needs within a reasonable distance from their homes. Here, active travel becomes the preferred mode of transportation – walking, wheeling, cycling – combined with well-connected public transportation.

The ‘Liveable Neighbourhoods’ initiative represents Glasgow’s approach to blending the 20-minute neighbourhood concept with the place principle into its planning approach. It engages local communities to develop their own liveable neighbourhoods’ plans. This may include pedestrian priority, additional seating arrangements, making cycling more welcoming, all of which will benefit people with different needs, but will also specifically benefit women.

“Place is where people, location and resources combine to create a sense of identity and purpose, and is at the heart of addressing the needs and realising the full potential of communities. Places are shaped by the way resources, services and assets are directed and used by the people who live in and invest in them.”

Scottish Government

In my forthcoming book What if Women Designed the City?, I discuss how implementing 20-minute neighbourhoods cannot be achieved by policies or planners alone. Rather, women who have an animated knowledge of their surroundings can become protagonists in the promotion of urban proximity, where residents can more easily access local jobs, retail, health, education, and cultural services within a short distance of their homes. Through living locally and embodying this spatial metaphor, women can reconfigure power dynamics while enacting an urbanism of proximity.

Glasgow City Council elected members and civil servants advancing the gender sensitive planning agenda

What’s next for Glasgow?

For Glasgow City Council leadership, the next steps of the city is to make sure that the feminist city approach is embedded in all aspects of the city, not just within planning and development. This includes representational committees, city budgeting, equality, impact assessments, use of data, engagement with education, and many other aspects where further engaging women and their views can create urban change to the benefit of all. The path of gender-sensitive planning is one that benefits all, according to Sarah Shaw:

“I think the main thing to remember is that any good design for women is good design for everybody. It’s just making sure that women’s lived experience is being taken into account. If it works for women, it works for everybody.”

May East is an International Urbanist, Educator, Author, Regenerative Designer & Researcher. Her forthcoming book What if Women Designed the City? 33 leverage points to make your city work better for women and girls can be pre-ordered from Triarchy Press.

Visit www.mayeast.co.uk for further articles, blogs, projects, research and educational insights from May’s portfolio career.

Feature Pic: Head of Planning Sarah Shaw shows how the city centre is becoming a people-centred, socially inclusive and climate resilient place  

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