It seems straightforward that a city should be built to serve all its inhabitants, rather than a select subset. Yet when those designing our cities reflect a narrow set of perspectives, it’s impossible to shape cities that enable everyone to thrive. For example, in the United States, only 25% of working architects, 20% of architectural school deans, and 15% of licensed American Institute of Architects members are women — and only 13% of engineers.
At Arup, we are interested in what happens when you design cities that are truly meant to be shared. Women’s History Month offers an opportunity to engage in a conversation that is by no means new, but still both relevant and necessary. By hearing from and addressing the needs of often-overlooked populations, including women, we can build safer, healthier, happier, and more successful cities.
To delve further into how cities are shaped and who they are designed for, Arup associate principal and logistics consultant Melody Ablola, Foresight and Innovation leader Francesca Birks, and planning policy leader Kate White weighed in on the bright possibilities of equitable design and what it will take to get there.
Inclusive design encompasses an improved quality of life for all — including aging populations, youth, people with disabilities, and other underrepresented groups. Why is gender equity a useful way to frame this conversation?
Melody: Well, women hold up half the sky. For me, a meaningful approach to creating socially integrated communities means caring for and supporting half of the population. Oakland native Lillian Moller Gilbreth — one of the first females to earn a PhD and of Cheaper by the Dozen fame — focused on simplifying work tasks, creating a linear home kitchen design, and improving housework tasks so that women could seek paid employment outside the home. The fight for gender equity starts with design but has far-reaching impacts to improve the quality of life for everyone.
Francesca: I hosted a panel at TEDWomen about designing cities for women, and one of the speakers, Laura Sydell, a digital culture correspondent for NPR, had interesting things to say about her experiences in Silicon Valley. Unsurprisingly, many tech startups are run by men, and Laura said that the things men focus on in building a company are not necessarily the things women might find important.
The way I envision her comment is that it’s like applying a different filter. Most architects, planners, and public agencies are still primarily led by men, so the investment priorities and what they identify as pervasive problems differ from what women would consider. The difference is in the filter they’re applying. Their filters are, naturally, driven by their experiences as men. A lot of things are scaled for men or are designed to be used by people in traditionally male attire — think overhead bins on planes, the height of water fountains, or staircases with transparent steps.
Or how sidewalks are too narrow for wheelchairs or strollers — which are still primarily operated by women, although that is changing. Women might also feel more at risk while walking on poorly lit streets or waiting for unreliable transportation, which inhibits our mobility. Accessibility to green spaces and playgrounds is also important, as well as to decentralized childcare facilities.
Kate: In the complete streets context, we note how if you design a sidewalk for ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] accessibility, it actually helps everyone, such as a dad pushing a stroller up the curb. I think similarly in terms of designing for gender equity. If you think about how women use buildings or public spaces, you’ll come up with design ideas that don’t just benefit women. It’s about adopting a broader, human-centered approach to city life.
Since we’re living longer and our aging population has grown, it seems like this is another major design driver, alongside gender. How important is it to consider accessibility in terms of age?
Francesca: There's a growing realization that we need to think and plan for an aging population. One of the challenges with older cities like New York is that a lot of infrastructure is old.
The same could be said about aging accessibility as with designing women-friendly cities: you’d be designing better cities for everyone. I think 70 to 75% of the subways here in New York aren’t wheelchair accessible or walker accessible.
Melody: Accessibility for our aging population is extremely important. Designers need to recalibrate for the needs of older communities to enhance their quality of life. I brought my mom to the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers and she has limited mobility, so it was great that there were facilities for wheelchairs. But on Sundays, the roads are closed in Golden Gate Park. To catch a Lyft, we had to slowly make our way to the edge of the park for pickup in the rain!
People’s needs change over time, and thoughtful design — and operations — for all types of people allows for multifaceted communities to continue to grow and evolve together, which makes for better urban environments overall. That kind of design could be achieved through remote healthcare monitoring, grocery delivery services, or digital technology encouraging new ways of communication to support shifting abilities and levels of comfort as we age.
What role will technology and data play in addressing critical equity issues in cities?
Kate: Some solutions for data collection are actually low-tech. In her book, former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan discusses the idea of “desire lines.” Everyone has routes and shortcuts, like cutting diagonally through a park, that they choose over the actual path. Simple human observation can allow us to understand what people want versus what designers think they want.
There’s also opportunities for higher-tech applications as well. At Arup we’re trialing a travel-based survey app we’ve developed called Mobility Mosaic. Products like this can help stakeholders understand how much our transit is being used, and by whom, which can then inform better design and operations decisions.
Francesca: I agree, technology can help us see where there’s high usage across different city infrastructure. Hopefully that can convince public officials and agencies that these are important areas to direct investments.
Tracking in aggregate could also hopefully offer some real-time feedback. How was your journey? Horrible, great, unsafe, fun, there was dancing, who knows!
How can community outreach and engagement help create more equitable cities?
Francesca: Community engagement matters if you do it in a meaningful way — if you see it as a strategic and intentional exercise. You can’t use it as a check box. It should be a way to take feedback and redirect it toward the design of places, spaces, and systems.
Hopefully, this will end up diversifying who has a seat at the table in terms of thinking about what should happen next, rather than just having one or a few individuals deciding for entire communities. Obviously, I also hope to see more diversity across the design industry professionals who are shaping our cities, but meaningful community engagement is another important way to ensure that different filters are applied to the design process.
Kate: Exactly as Francesca says: it must be an inclusive, meaningful process. I recently heard LA Department of Transportation’s Destiny Thomas speak about “dignity-infused planning.” She says you need to meet people where they are. Partnering with community-based organizations that different demographic groups are already engaged with will allow for ease of outreach and feedback — instead of expecting a single mom to come to your workshop downtown at 6:30 on a Tuesday night.
Melody: Absolutely. Community outreach helps those women, immigrants, and minorities who certainly don’t have the time or sometimes the language skills to communicate their needs. And these groups are so important in defining and shaping the problems that designers, architects, planners, and engineers need to address. No one should be left behind.
What are the biggest challenges that we face in creating more inclusive cities?
Kate: The housing crisis. I’m hopeful our leaders in California are addressing this issue with a dramatic increase in affordable housing, as we have so many people on the street. And Arup has a part to play. By designing more efficient cities that are transit-oriented and affordable-by-design microunits, now that family sizes are shrinking, we can have a major impact in developing a more inclusive city.
Francesca: I completely agree. I think we’re seeing a tipping point in the real estate sector. We’ve been working with Brian Swett (Arup's director of cities and sustainable real estate) and the Urban Land Institute, the oldest and largest network of real estate professionals, researching how to integrate equity and wellness into their development investments. It’s amazing that we’re seeing this major network, which has championed sustainability for some time, taking up the equity agenda.
I truly believe social equity lies at the center of our industry. If we don’t create inclusive environments and if we don’t have every community living healthily and sustainably, we’re all suffering as a result.