“We have to bring the village back to the city”

Traffic, houses, infrastructure: cities are planned for the needs of men, says urban planner Eva Kail. In Vienna, she has been doing things differently for 30 years.

The original article was published in German by the ZEIT. Find the original article here: Stadtplanung: “Wir müssen grundsätzlich zu einem anderen Mobilitätsverhalten kommen” | ZEIT ONLINE

Translated into English by TUMI

The Austrian urban planner Eva Kail has been working for 30 years to ensure that Vienna is not only a liveable city, but also a green and safe one – for men and especially for women. Kail has brought gender mainstreaming into urban planning and is considered a pioneer in this field. In the interview, she tells us why public space almost everywhere in the world primarily serves the concerns of men, what can be done to make cities more attractive for all genders, and why the traffic turnaround is a historic opportunity to do so.

ZEIT ONLINE: Ms Kail, Vienna is considered the most livable city in the world, partly because gender planning is part of transport and urban planning?

Eva Kail: From my point of view, it has certainly helped to focus on people’s quality of life and to take different perspectives into account. Basically, most cities were planned for men.

ZEIT ONLINE: In what way?

Kail: For a long time, the premise was that cities had to be car friendly. Roads, traffic routing, living spaces – in the end, many things were based on the model of the breadwinner who drives to work in the morning and comes back in the evening. The immediate living environment took little account of the reality of life for the people who were in charge of the housework and child-rearing. This is what gender planning takes into focus. It is a strategy of systematic quality assurance oriented towards different target groups. Urban planning should also be oriented towards statistical values.

ZEIT ONLINE: What do you mean?

Kail: Overall, the share of journeys made by car in Vienna is declining, and car ownership is also decreasing. Women make up 55 percent of people who walk. When I started gender planning 30 years ago, it was even more than two thirds. The perspective of these road users had to be taken into account. Gender planning therefore means more accessibility, more space on pavements. This benefits the elderly and the infirm, children and those who push a pram. The majority of these are women. This then also means that the traffic lights favour them and they are not forced to wait on a traffic island to be able to cross a road at all. Gender planning takes into account how the public space as a whole is designed. This also includes green spaces and parks, and that these – as well as schools and day-care centres – are easily accessible on foot, by bicycle and by public transport.

ZEIT ONLINE: But isn’t urban planning fundamentally gender-neutral?

Kail: Planning decisions are always shaped by our own everyday experiences. Thirty years ago there was the saying “planners are car-driving, white middle-class men” – and that’s how cities looked. That has changed. Many groups benefit from women-friendly planning and building. For me, it’s about a gender equality policy that is also reflected in the cityscape and that ensures that the available space and resources are used fairly.

But it is also about concrete women’s policy, for example on the issue of security. Although young men are statistically the most frequent victims – but also perpetrators – in public spaces, they do not let this influence their mobility behaviour. Women tend to be more afraid because they are more often exposed to unpleasant situations in everyday life that cause insecurity, such as sexual harassment, for example. There are too many spaces of fear in cities because streets and squares are not well enough lit. As a result, especially older women often no longer leave the house in the evening or only do so in company. Yet the subjective feeling of safety can be improved considerably with simple means.


Kail: It’s about increasing social control in the street space, creating spaces with “social eyes”. On the urban planning level, that means creating mixed structures, not monofunctional areas that are dead in the evening. You also have to provide illuminated windows in the buildings themselves, create a lively ground floor zone and, above all, provide good lighting in a street so that it is also lively in the evening. It is also important to think about the design of areas for vulnerable groups, such as the homeless, that do not create irritation. Station forecourts are always a point of attraction for so-called fringe groups.

ZEIT ONLINE: How much resistance and criticism do you encounter with gender planning?

Kail: When we started 30 years ago from the Vienna Women’s Office to think gender mainstreaming and urban planning together, there was a lot of resistance. It was dismissed and questioned. Even today, gender kind of a fighting term, but the approach is now established.

ZEIT ONLINE: What makes gender planning different in citizen participation?

Kail: In order for all groups to be involved in the planning, you have to turn the whole process upside down. It is not enough to present a project in the evening at a meeting in the district office – not all citizens are reached by this. Especially women with small children do not attend such events, and it is also difficult to reach migrants and young people in this way.

If you want real citizen participation, you have to go new ways. We conduct surveys among residents, organise events and workshops on site, and offer additional digital formats that are independent of time and place. Groups that are difficult to approach are also approached in a targeted manner, and site visits are made with them in order to be able to include their perspective. So-called social space analyses in the run-up to square redesigns complement the whole process. It is also important to observe the behaviour of the users after the realisation. For example, are there more girls or women there now? We have also developed a way-chain check for different everyday patterns in order to check urban planning designs.

ZEIT ONLINE: What do the individual groups need?

Kail: Toddlers are very dependent on caregivers for their use of space and mobility. If there are playgrounds close to the flats and if they are easy to use and safe to reach, because they are centrally located in the complex, with sight and call contact to many flats, but also to common rooms such as laundromats, children can use them independently. However, a certain distance and clear demarcation from windows and open spaces of private flats on the ground floor are also important to reduce conflicts. In this way, the residential environment supports the everyday life of those who are taken care of with family and household chores.

Services for young people should rather be located in peripheral areas, also because of noise.

Another example is the elderly over 75. Their radius of action becomes smaller with increasing frailty, so they have different requirements for their living environment and want quieter areas with visual contact to everyday events. People in midlife, on the other hand, who have to reconcile a job and a family, need a good range of everyday infrastructure in their neighbourhood, such as shopping facilities, doctors, schools, kindergartens, parks and bus stops. Such a city of short distances ensures everyday suitability for this group. Comprehensive planning takes all this into account.

ZEIT ONLINE: Isn’t that extremely complex?

Kail: This certainly places some new demands on planning, it becomes more complex. In fact, however, it is usually cheaper in the end to build the city for many and for women in particular – because by taking care work into account, other groups are also considered, all groups are taken into account as far as possible, and mistakes are thus avoided. The city is made fairer and more efficient. Scarce space is better used and planning also has a broader acceptance due to a higher participation of the population in the process. Ideally, the social and green infrastructure is built at the same time and thus also creates the conditions for a functioning neighbourhood.

ZEIT ONLINE: That sounds too good to be true. Isn’t such urban and transport planning very expensive?

Kail: No – you do need more time and personnel for planning, but in the end, projects realised in this way are cheaper because the city or municipality has fewer follow-up costs overall. In a city of short distances, it is easier to reconcile working, family and care work. A diverse mix of housing, workplaces, supply and leisure facilities creates a dense network of different services in the neighbourhood. Then, for example, the damage caused by vandalism by young people will decrease. For the city, the life-cycle costs of a project are also important; maintenance usually has a greater impact than construction costs. Children, older people and those with special needs can move around and care for themselves independently in the neighbourhood. If the traffic planning is then also aligned accordingly, so that children get to school more safely, fewer accidents occur and all groups save time, are less stressed and have their place in the public space. In a city of short distances, car traffic is usually reduced automatically because people can take their bikes or walk for short distances. That is also good for the climate.

ZEIT ONLINE: Are there practical examples of such building projects in Vienna?

Kail: In Vienna, when planning the Seestadt Aspern – one of the largest urban development areas in Europe, which will be realised in the north-east of Vienna by 2028 – we looked at the everyday expenditure of different target groups. In doing so, we paid attention to creating the ideal design and a good distribution of residential areas, businesses, schools and daycare centres, parks and sports facilities, but also shopping facilities and doctors. The Urban Lakeside is to provide housing for more than 20,000 people, and just as many jobs will be located here.

In social and subsidised housing in Vienna, we make sure to work a lot with flexible and compact floor plans so that people can live well and for a long time in their flats. A lot of space can be saved, and quality of life created if activities such as washing and hanging up laundry or carrying out repairs can be outsourced from the flat to communal spaces such as launderettes or workshops. Such spaces in turn create neighbourliness and support quasi village communities. Such a positive microclimate can be strengthened through building groups and neighbourhood gardens, but also with community terraces.

ZEIT ONLINE: Many people prefer real villages and are moving back out to the countryside. What then must the city of the future look like?

Kail: It is worth living in because, in addition to the qualities of the city such as diversity of supply, it also offers such a village idyll in the local residential area in many places. We must therefore bring the village back into the city. It is essential to create functioning neighbourhoods. Often it is enough to create small parks and green spaces. We found out in surveys that people mainly named parks where neighbourhoods developed: older people who go for walks there, families with small children who play there, young people who let off steam here, but also adults who use the park for sports. In Vienna we have created or redesigned many such green spaces. This is not expensive, often it is enough to buy sports equipment, more public benches, play facilities and good lighting. One must not forget that public space has a very central influence on our quality of life in the neighbourhood, generates social capital, so to speak.

ZEIT ONLINE: Is the Corona pandemic an opportunity for urban planning in general to change, and what needs to be done about it now?

Kail: I think there is a very big opportunity in the crisis. We have to fundamentally come to a different mobility behaviour – the climate crisis and the necessary adaptation to climate change force us to do so. In the cities, it is important to establish an attractive main road network for the rather slow traffic, i.e. for cyclists and pedestrians. Incidentally, it is the children in the cities who benefit most from this. And as we all know, they are the future.

©Pavel Liik / Unsplash

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