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Deconstructing the default male landscape

Alanis Burgess

From unequal provision of toilets to a preference for male-favoured outdoor activities, urban planning is gendered. Alanis Burgess considers ways to reverse this imbalance, in this article commended in the 2023 RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition

Credit: Isabel Fox/Harry Groom for Make Space for Girls

Alanis Burgess
Part II, Northumbria University

Architecture is gendered. Whether consciously or unconsciously – as such a personal and subjective discipline – gender bias creeps into all aspects of practice and design, from imbalanced staffing ratios and pay gaps to data on which the assumptions of Approved Documents are based.

Guidance on thermal comfort levels for offices, as prescribed in building and sustainability standards, are based on the metabolic rate of a 40-year-old, 70kg man. Due to, on average, having more body fat and less body mass than men, women have significantly lower metabolic rates. Therefore, the ideal temperature to achieve thermal comfort for women is several degrees higher than the standard.

Even when our buildings meet the guidelines, they fail to perform for women.

Urban planning is also a victim of gendered bias. Our cities have long been designed by men for men – the ‘man’-made environment. Again, this is pervasive, from public data sets dominated by the male perspective to insufficient provision of facilities for women.

In the Victorian period, an intentional lack of public toilets for women restricted their movements. Without resorting to drinking less water or holding urine for hours – both with obvious health implications – women were confined to within a small radius of their homes.

Sport England’s guidance for active landscapes suggests spaces that create distinctly male territories within our public realm

Even in 2023, inequity of public facilities has an impact on a woman’s urban experience. In public buildings, a 50/50 division of floor space for male and female toilets is commonly adopted, but when we consider that women take up to 2.3 times as long as men to use the toilet, are more likely to be accompanied by children, and experience menstruation, equal floor space does not achieve equity. All women will relate to the frustration of queuing for facilities, moving one step closer for every handful of men that come and go.

This bias extends beyond the built environment and into our outdoor spaces. In the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), the requirements for ‘recreational’ and ‘open’ space focus heavily on sports facilities and areas for physical activity that disproportionally attract male usage. Additionally, consultation with Sport England is recommended for proposed developments of 300 or more homes. Sport England’s guidance for active landscapes suggests spaces such as skateparks, off-road bike tracks, multi-use games areas (MUGAs), and outdoor gyms. These recommendations create distinctly male territories within our public realm. When we consider that this guidance is recommended by government policy, it is evident that inequality is embedded into the system.

The issue of gender inequality in the built environment is not a new topic, yet simply reiterating the rhetoric has not brought about change. Just as sustainability standards, such as BREEAM, ensure an environmentally conscious future, is an inclusive, social building standard the answer to finally achieving gender parity?

A search for an inclusivity framework is met with Approved Document M and BS 8300 Parts 1 and 2, both aimed towards ensuring buildings are accessible for users with physical impairments. An essential consideration, however, there is no mention of gender.

Creation of a standard implies creation of a metric. Existing, widely adopted building standards use a credit system assigned to different strategies to calculate a rating. What would this look like for gender inclusivity?

Research by the campaign group Make Space For Girls shows that young women and girls prefer social seating, accessible public toilets and walking loops. A new standard could contain a spatial programming requirement to include these areas across varying scales, inspired by the NPPF’s guidance to consult Sport England on large proposals. Make Space For Girls’ research also highlights that a higher quantity of smaller spaces is more inclusive than one large space. The new gender-inclusive standard could suggest a ratio of spaces per square metre. For example, where there may be a current recommendation for one large multi-use games area, this would be replaced by a recommendation for three smaller play spaces, an inviting area of social seating and well-maintained, accessible toilets.

Guidance could recommend toilet ratios at 2:1 in favour of women’s toilets, with cubicles, sanitary bins and free period products. Despite recent legislation requiring gendered toilet facilities, guidance could include a recommendation for gender-neutral, accessible toilets. These should be equipped with sanitary bins and access to free period products for anyone who menstruates regardless of gender identity, inspired by Scotland’s Period Products (Free Provision) Act 2021 as part of their Equality Impact Assessment.

A new standard could also promote more accessible streets by requiring good visibility for pedestrians on walking routes – comparable to the visibility splays required for cars in road design. Adequate visibility would eliminate blind corners, encourage additional forms of street activity and enable passive surveillance to enhance actual and perceived safety for all pedestrians, especially women, navigating the urban landscape.

Similarly, a maximum height could be introduced for barrier interventions such as hedges, solid fencing and walls. While these obstructions provide spatial structure, they also limit visibility and, if too large, could be perceived as creating opportunities for a potential attacker to hide.

New guidelines for street lighting could be adopted. Ironically, bright streetlamps often decrease the feeling of safety in the city by creating pools of bright light surrounded by pockets of darkness. An inclusive standard could define lux levels, stating a minimum requirement for any given area within the space, eliminating a stark contrast in light levels that create areas of potential danger.

Architects and designers bear the responsibility to recognise spatial inequalities and react. With this in mind, we must acknowledge evidence of gender bias within the built environment, systemic in our planning policies and standards. As future architects designing for a more progressive, inclusive society, we must also be critical of the frameworks that support us. The tool to achieve this is a move towards more formal consideration of gender equity is the future of design practice, and a building standard with social justice at its heart.

Alanis Burgess is a Part II student at Northumbria University

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