Umeå – Gender equality at the heart of the city

Linda Gustafsson

By Linda Gustafsson, on December 21st, 2017

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It is, or should be, in the interest of everyone to create more equal and inclusive cities, since that is how we generate long-term sustainability for European citizens – socially, financially and environmentally. The current development of urban infrastructure and the built environment needs to be redesigned to promote greater gender equality in the use and benefits of urban space. If gender equality doesn’t become a part of all planning, many perspectives and gains will be lost. Off the cuff it might, however, be difficult to know how to integrate gender equality perspectives in the planning of urban spaces.

Gender: changing perspective in urban planning

Trends in urban planning and development, both in the past and at present, mainly reflect the male perspective and needs – while women are primarily regarded as caregivers. This difference between male and female care-giving roles and responsibilities is the one thing that affects the use of urban spaces the most. As a consequence of the gender-specific division of labour, women do the absolute most part of the direct care-giving within families and communities. It is essential to actively take women into account in urban planning and development as their role as home managers, key producers of residential environments (in their role as community leaders), and initiators of neighbourhood networks make them crucial users of the urban space. If this is not taken into account in the development of infrastructure and the built environment the present unsustainable gender roles and power structures will continue to be maintained and consolidated. It takes a radical shift both in thinking and actions in order to be able to look at regions, cities, towns, communities and families from a gender perspective.

The Gendered Landscape Tour of Umeå

3.1 Ange - Fotograf Kristina LarssonSo, what has Umeå done as an attempt to address this? In 2009 the city of Umeå created and launched a guided bus tour around the city to show “the gendered landscape of Umeå” During the tour the spectator is taken to various parts of the city to be shown and informed about the design, historical context and present use of its different places and spaces. The bus tour becomes a tool to address the issue, and importance, of gender equality in the planning and use of public spaces. By displaying changes and strategies that have been successful, as well as acknowledging remaining issues, the tour is an innovative way to show how gender equality (or inequality) can take form in a city.

The method is used to educate and create awareness on the importance of having a cohesive understanding of gendered power structures, concerning all urban planning in the city. Further, this method is a way to raise questions about the city’s development and identity issues. It opens for questions and thoughts that are norm critical, in some cases provocative, as well as challenging and dynamic. The specific focus and content of these questions are likely to vary across different contexts. Some examples of issues that have been actualised in connection to the bus tours in Umeå are:

  • Do we plan our public transport for those who use it, or for those we wish would use it?
  • Why are women using public transport more frequently than men?
  • Who has the power to decide?
  • What knowledge do we use when we are working to develop the city and our public spaces?
  • How, and for whom, do we design new tunnels, playgrounds, meeting places, recreation centres etc.?

From Questions to Action: Impact of the Gendered Landscape Tour

uik gammliaThe gendered city bus tour is part of the Strategy for Gender Equality Work in Umeå Municipality and there are several examples of how the tour has had an impact on the planning and development of the city. Here follows examples of a few of them:

The Freezone initiative – Umeå Street and Parks department changed their methods for dialogues with citizens and they gender mainstreamed the content of their steering documents.

More equal use of sport arenas – the municipal board of leisure made a political decision so that the practice hours were divided according to what division the soccer teams plays in, regardless of gender. As the women’s team were leading their division, they now got to choose practice hours before the men’s team, compared to earlier when the women’s team were among the last to choose.

Gender representation on the city’s cultural scenesthe cultural sector continually monitors the gender ratio among the performances on the main cultural stages in Umeå. A positive trend towards gender equality can be observed over the last few years, with 45% women represented (out of 2000 events) in 2015.

A participatory tool in constant evolution

The gendered landscape has been a city tour since 2009 and is under constant development. In 2016 the tour was expanded with a virtual reality element, allowing it to be used by, for example, primary and secondary schools as a pedagogic tool. It is necessary that the gendered landscape remains a flexible practice, as it depends on a constant and continuous development of knowledge about the city as an arena for the gendered landscape. The tour has been adapted regularly, it currently include 25 ‘stops’, where some have remained since the start, some have disappeared and even more have been added during the years.

Lev tunneln uppgång centrum Foto Jennie Brandén

A practice highly adaptable to other cities

The method is easily adapted to different local cultural and social contexts, so there is a strong potential to reuse it in an international context, not least within the URBACT framework. International exchanges have been done earlier within the context of Umeå as European Capital of Culture as well as roughly 30 other international exchanges.

The Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) have highlighted Umeå as an international town for gender equality. Further, the jury of the European Green Capital accentuates the gender work and states that, “Umeå has taken into account how gender impacts engagement with the environment. This approach was appreciated by the Jury” (European Green Capital, 2016).

Some of the links

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