At first glance, a gathering of 60 or so women in Detroit earlier this month looked like a typical networking event -- a few speeches, lots of mingling, plenty of wine. But instead of making contacts to boost their careers, the women discussed how to use their collective power to improve the city.
“The grassroots, networking aspect of what is going on right now in the city is just extremely powerful,” Wendy Lewis Jackson, interim co-managing director for the Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Program, told The Huffington Post. She was also a speaker at the Sister City event, which the Detroit Women's Leadership Network held at the Urban Consulate, a new space that hosts conversations about city life.
“It is shaping decisions and conversations about improving the quality of life in the city as a whole," she added.
The Invisible Barriers Holding Women Back In Cities
The need for women-focused solutions in cities becomes clear when you look at how they have been ignored in urban design. The built environment -- things like the accessibility of public space, zoning for housing and transportation design -- can marginalize women and jeopardize their safety.
Women use cities differently from men in many ways, according to the American Planning Association and Cornell University's Women’s Planning Forum: They have higher poverty rates and different housing needs, are still "responsible for the majority of housework and childcare” and "have unique travel behavior related to their combination of work and household responsibilities."
Cities’ plans overwhelmingly don't address women's needs, their planning or zoning boards aren’t aware of them and local developers aren’t responsive to them, according to a 2014 survey of more than 600 planners that is cited in the report.
Some of the challenges women face may seem simple, such as having to navigate poorly maintained sidewalks or stairs with a stroller or use restrooms without trash containers or changing tables. But many are more consequential, such as avoiding public transit rather than facing conditions, like desolate and poorly lit bus stops, that make them feel unsafe.
How Cities Can Bring Women Into Public Space
Awareness of those challenges is growing. The most transformative changes have occurred overseas -- like in Vienna, which has been redesigning its parks, streets and housing for decades in response to female residents’ concerns.
“We basically do not have good examples of gender-sensitive planning in the U.S.,” Mildred Warner, the Cornell planning professor who led the survey with the APA, told HuffPost in an email. “That is part of the problem. We have policy blindness around gender.”
One of the encouraging areas of change is in public transit. Several U.S. cities have acknowledged the issue of sexual harassment and worked to combat it with publicity campaigns and tools that allow victims to easily report it.
There’s more that can be done, however. For example, a Toronto-based organization created a “safety audits” program, which allows women to identify where they feel unsafe and has been replicated in cities around the world.
Considering women's concerns doesn’t hurt men or other groups. Instead, it helps cities reflect the needs of all residents, Warner and the other researchers argue in their report:
Asking “Would a woman feel comfortable walking here at dusk?” and getting an affirmative response likely means that most people will feel comfortable using the space. Women can be used as a bellwether for safety, as well as other planning priorities. Regarding transportation planning, women are choice riders: if more women ride transit, more people will ride.
Who's Shaping City Policy
There aren't many women in political power or at the helm of influential organizations that steer cities' futures, said Daphne Spain, author of Constructive Feminism: Women's Spaces and Women's Rights in the American City.
Women are often at the forefront of grassroots efforts to address issues that affect themselves and their families, like tenants’ rights and environmental hazards, but they’re underrepresented in leadership roles, Spain told HuffPost.
Fewer than one-fifth of U.S. cities with populations over 30,000 have female mayors. Thirty percent of council members in the largest cities are women, down from 33 percent in 2010. Women are underrepresented in the fields of planning, architecture and real estate development, particularly at the top.
“We have policy blindness around gender.”
Jackson often sees few, if any, other women of color in meetings, she told the audience at the Sister City event.
“We play really critical and central roles in developing our city’s future but we don’t always have an equitable role, and in fact we often don’t have a seat at the table where decisions are being made," she said.
When Women Take Charge
Women speak less at planning meetings and are less engaged in the planning process, the APA survey found. But when they do get involved and combine forces with other women in leadership roles, they have the ability to move cities forward in powerful ways.
Stop Street Harassment founder and executive director Holly Kearl described the challenge of getting her message to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority several years ago.
They were "saying that one person’s harassment was another person’s flirting, and it wasn’t a problem on their system,” Kearl said.
Muriel Bowser, D.C.'s current mayor who was a councilwoman at the time, arranged for Kearl's organization to testify at a city council meeting. It now works with the transit authority, assisting with anti-harassment campaigns and a recent rider survey.
“Clearly it wasn’t on their minds at all until this happened,” Kearl said. “That’s sort of what we’re left with, being the advocates for ourselves, or on behalf of others, to make sure our needs are being heard and that we are able to navigate cities and public transit safely.”
In Detroit, Jackson pointed to the response when 11,000 untested rape kits were found in police storage in 2009, some dating back to the 1980s. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy's fierce advocacy brought local funding and widespread attention to the national problem of untested rape kits. Last year, a group of black Detroit women stepped up to keep focus on the issue and fill the funding gap, calling on their peers for donations.
The African-American 490 Challenge, which has Worthy's support, has raised $235,000 since October, more than one-third of their $657,000 goal to cover the testing of the remaining kits.
“No city can truly thrive if it discounts the talents, contribution and leadership of its women,” Jackson said. “We're women who can work together to transform cities into places where women and girls are seen, they are safe and they can fully participate in all aspects of city life.”