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What would a city built by women look like?

Catherine Carter

If our buildings, communities and cities are built by men, what does that mean for the women who live in them?

If women designed our cities, would they look different?

Just 12 per cent of Australia’s property and construction industry is female. While there are a range of implications in this statistic – from equity issues to the future productivity of the nation’s largest industry – there is another story that we rarely consider.

The famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier was obsessed with designing buildings and objects at the ‘human scale’ – which happened to be modelled on a six foot tall man. But what if the human happens to be a woman or even a child?

The way women interact with their environment is very different to that of men.

While the long queues to the toilets is an obvious example, women are more likely to feel vulnerable after dark, are more likely to be the ones struggling to push a pram down a steep set of steps or breastfeed a baby in public.

Understanding what it’s like to have to tackle these tasks can inform designs of streets and spaces that are accessible and safe.

Beyond the ‘fine grain’, a female view of our cities may change the pattern of them altogether. The garden city movement – of which Canberra is perhaps the best example around the world – was based on a philosophy of families living in leafy outer suburbs while work happened ‘somewhere else’. In this model, the man commuted to work while the woman stayed at home with the children.

Perhaps this worked in the era of Mad Men, but today the breadwinner/homemaker model is far more complex.

And yet, we still have what Barbara Pocock, Director of the University of South Australia’s Centre for Work and Life, calls the “spatial leash”. She’s found that how much a woman earns is determined by her postcode.

The Grattan Institute, an independent think tank that looks at issues affecting the nation’s productivity, has found the further out from the city centre a woman lives, the less likely she is to be employed.

Why is this? Because women, who carry most of the responsibilities for caring in our society, more often need to be within a shorter distance of home.

So, what can we do about it? Applying a ‘gender lens’ to the way we design and build our cities is essential.

We need to think about how we build communities that provide jobs and education opportunities close to where people live. We need to build communities that are accessible and equitable. We need to consider a human scale that may sometimes be slightly shorter than six foot tall.

And of course, we need more women in the property and construction industry. The Property Council continues to drive a strong diversity agenda, and has established the Male Champions of Change initiative to get male leaders thinking and acting on the issue.

We also continue to host events that ‘shake up the status quo’. Next week, we are staging the annual Pedal Pursuit – with 20km or 40km rides through Stromlo Forest – and are working hard to encourage as many women as possible to take part. So join us and register online. We’d love to see you there.

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia

Image of ‘Workplace business woman‘ via Shutterstock

Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and creative thinker, Catherine is passionate about Canberra. Catherine is intensely interested in how Canberrans can work together to create an amazing city, and how our built environment can provide the places our community needs to flourish. The mother of twins, Catherine is committed to diversity, and supporting and promoting the careers of women. She was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women's ACT Community and Government Award in 2010. More about the Author

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