Three Parisian feminist public spaces: a guided tour with FéminiCités.

Anais de Muret

By Anais de Muret, on August 22nd, 2019

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How can gender and urbanism connect? How can we make a truly gender equal public space? Which tools do you need to reach that goal? On 13 July 2019 FéminiCités organised a workshop to visit three public spaces where an architect, an urban anthropologist, an urbanist and a skateboarder explained how to integrate the gender perspective into the revitalisation and use of public spaces. FéminiCités is a French association that organises events to highlight the connections between gender equality and the city.

As a woman working in Paris (FR) living in the southern suburb and who therefore takes the metro pretty much every day, I have developed many strategies to walk around the city – most of which I didn’t realise I had developed! For instance I do my best not to make eye-contact with men while walking in the street or standing in the crowded metro not to be annoyed.

It is no longer breaking news to say that the city was made by and for men mainly, but to undo those years of social construction and make women feel comfortable in the city is a challenge that all cities must face. Most of the time people tend to think (at best!) that gender equality is just a box to tick or worse, an additional administrative burden. However the goal is to add a point of view so that everyone can feel comfortable in a public space.

How do biodiversity and co-construction challenges match gender equality challenges

We first explored the Eastern part of the Petite Ceinture, as known as the most popular playground for Parisian street artists. Anne Labroille, architect, accompanied us to present the project she’s been working on along with other companies. The first challenge set by the city of Paris was to revitalise the long linear space in close collaboration with the inhabitants and to maintain the biodiversity of the fringe that is thriving since trains stopped running there in the 1980’s.

Anne and her co-workers organised explorative walks with the inhabitants. And that’s when it hit her! During the day mostly men were present, but the groups built up for these walks were mainly made out of women! Why is that so, she asked herself?

In order to answer that question she added a gender perspective in their pre-revitalisation work. Armed with analytical tools from sociology, architecture and urbanism (answering questions such as how is the space used, who uses it, when), they occupied the space several days at different times and analysed men and women’s behavior. It was not surprising that both groups didn’t use the same space in the same way:

  • “While men could just sit wherever and do nothing in particular besides strolling, women always came there with a purpose as if they had to justify their presence in a way” Anne says;
  • Women were always near an exit point while men got more adventurous;
  • Women’s motto in public spaces could be resumed as such: “to see and be seen”.

In practice, (and with little money as their budget has been cut in the middle of the process), urban furniture was disposed so that people could sit, lay down, alone or in a group, see, be seen and be near an exit point.

A picnic lunch: getting tanned in a crowded square

After enjoying a nice group walk to claim back our right to the city, we headed to the Pantheon in the center of Paris where Pascale Lapalud and Chris Blache, founder of Genre et Ville joined us to give us a tour as well.

Genre et Ville is an urban innovation agency quite famous for their activism and gendered analysis of public spaces. They run actions in close collaboration with cities and inhabitants in France and abroad to bring a gendered perspective on urban projects.

With other organisations they won a call that aims at revitalising the Pantheon square and created a collective called Les MonumentalEs with a big ‘E’ to highlight the importance of involving women in urban projects. As you guessed, MonumentalEs sounds like “monument” because the Pantheon is one of the main monuments in Paris where some great French personalities throughout French history were buried.

On the 30 June 2017, Simone Veil died and on July 2018, she became the first woman buried in the Pantheon.

As for the Petite Ceinture, the challenges were numerous:

  • Low budget
  • Reuse of material from other constructions in Paris
  • Co-construction with neighbours

The gender prism has been put on the table by Genre et Ville in many ways:

  • Equality between working men and working women on the construction and installation sites;
  • Gendered analysis of the different uses of the square;
  • Carvings of 200 names of world-wide important women on the urban furniture installed as a very important symbol when we know how little women are present in the Pantheon.

Chris Blache says that the square has changed a lot thanks to the urban furniture they installed: “One fun fact we witnessed is that we have seen women lying on the urban furniture simply enjoying the sun, more or less dressed up, just like they would do in a park or on the beach!” Thinking back to what Anne said during our tour about the fact that women always had to justify their presence on a space, this is a great victory.

Skateboarding with your crew in a supportive environment

L’Espace de Glisse Parisien du 18ème (EGP), which can be translated by the “Parisian Boards’ sports Space of the 18th arrondissement” is the third place we visited accompanied by Randja, a member of the association Realaxe. Realaxe is a feminine skateboarding association. The boards’ sports space allows 14+ girls and women to practice skateboard, scooter or BMX in a non-mixed environment on Tuesday evenings during two and a half hours. As Randja reminded us “non-mixity in sport is highly important because that’s the way girls can feel comfortable and really improve their practice”.

As a reminder, in France 75% of the people enjoying the sports infrastructures are men.

As Randja said, “skateboarding in its very own culture is about reclaiming the street, no matter what the rules are… more or less!” To reclaim the street by skateboarding as a girl is therefore even braver because in a patriarchal prism, girls are always pushed back home where it is allegedly “safer” than the street…

Many girls wanted to skate but didn’t dare to start, or started but easily quit because there was no specific event open to skating girls and women.” Hence the idea of creating an association dedicated to skating for girls and women.

That’s great, but…

In those three examples the most pressing challenge to include a gender perspective was the communication with the city departments. It’s always difficult to make people understand the importance of adding a gender perspective to all projects.

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