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How to Design a City for Women
September 21, 2013 7:18 AM   Subscribe

In 1999, officials in Vienna, Austria, asked residents of the city's ninth district how often and why they used public transportation. "Most of the men filled out the questionnaire in less than five minutes," says Ursula Bauer, one of the city administrators tasked with carrying out the survey. "But the women couldn't stop writing."
posted by cthuljew (38 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
I want to live in a Frauen-Werk-Stadt!
posted by bq at 7:31 AM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm curious to know if a city designed for men equates to the city as it was before these initiatives, i.e. that city planning somehow defaulted to a male perspective and first and foremost considered the needs of men. A breakdown of a city or mere district from this perspective would be super interesting.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:47 AM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


"What made the project unique was that we worked to define the needs of the people using the space first and then looked for technical solutions," Kail says. "Very often it is the opposite, where technical or aesthetic solutions determine the end result."

This is an enormous problem for almost all design. The designers build it with criteria and viewpoints that they understand and they appreciate, but which often leave actual users out in the cold (in some cases, literally). Then, when whatever system is unveiled, it takes about 10 minutes for flaws to begin emerging and then the ass-covering begins. This is one reason why engineers should be allowed final say on almost nothing -- for the most part, they build for engineers. Of course, politicians, artists, designers, and so on have their own faults. Architect should be required to live and/or work in the buildings they design for some specified period. Likewise, city planners. And the people who run bus companies to be required to only travel by bus....
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:02 AM on September 21, 2013 [19 favorites]


I agree Foci. Here in Calgary, a lot of the LRT stations are being rebuilt to accommodate not only four car trains, but accessibility. The old downtown stations were designed not only as cheaply as possible, but narrowly as well. If you were disabled, elderly or had a stroller, these stations were not for you! Obviously not designed with actual people in mind. They were also a haven for crime with the tight spaces and poor sightlines they created. Now the downtown stations are wider with gentle ramps that flow with the sidewalk and pedestrian movement. I wish the stations had been designed properly in the first place, like Edmonton's system.
posted by Calzephyr at 8:06 AM on September 21, 2013


Heh, my wife is in Vienna now and has been complaining bitterly about the public transport.
posted by dhruva at 8:24 AM on September 21, 2013


What a wonderful idea. As someone who pushed a stroller around for a good long while, I learned that you can tell whether a city cares about keeping families with kids in the city or not by looking at just this issue. As much as I still love New York, the plain message was "if you have an infant or you're disabled, just go away." Most American cities I visited are no better. This is slightly remedied by kind residents who will help you with your stroller, something that happened often in some places and never in others.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:36 AM on September 21, 2013


I'm curious to know if a city designed for men equates to the city as it was before these initiatives, i.e. that city planning somehow defaulted to a male perspective and first and foremost considered the needs of men.

Well yeah, that seemed to be the result of their study. The men who just went to work and came home didn't have any problems. Given that it was probably designed by men, and that user-centered design is only a recent thing, it seems like this would be the natural result.

I'm amazed this project got off the ground, but not surprised at the results. I can't wait for the time user-centered design becomes the standard and not some radical new idea.
posted by bleep at 8:47 AM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Studying abroad forty years ago in Uppsala, Sweden, I took a class in urban architecture/city planning, and studied a lot of similar projects/ideas "Gender" was not explicitly mentioned, although "families" were, which amounts to the same thing, as it is discussed in the above article.

But in Scandinavia, with their more centralized planning (more so than USA cities/towns) has always been more human-scaled. I remember the town as being (outside of the old mercantile core) a lot of three/four story apartment buildings with a lot of green space.

I had come from a town even smaller in population - Richmond, Indiana - and the difference was striking. In Uppsala, it did not feel crowded, yet from the castle on the hill in the center of town you could clearly see the borders. It looked pretty small.

On the other hand, had there been such a hill in Richmond, the town would look like it spread to the horizon. Yet there was little public space/green space.

I know it's not this simple, but in a way the difference between these two different approaches to urban planning are related to Socialism vs. Capitalism.
posted by kozad at 8:51 AM on September 21, 2013 [8 favorites]


The designers build it with criteria and viewpoints that they understand and they appreciate, but which often leave actual users out in the cold (in some cases, literally). Then, when whatever system is unveiled, it takes about 10 minutes for flaws to begin emerging and then the ass-covering begins. This is one reason why engineers should be allowed final say on almost nothing -- for the most part, they build for engineers.

This reminds me of a meeting I was in full of dudes in their 30s where someone asked "What do teenage girls like and need?" After a moment of stunned silence, they all began smugly holding court on the topic as if they had any idea what they were talking about. I was naturally the bad guy because I just started laughing one of those hysterical "This is the most absurd situation I've ever seen" laughs and had to excuse myself.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:03 AM on September 21, 2013 [25 favorites]


"But the women couldn't stop writing."

Just imagine how much more the women would've written if they'd had the BIC Cristal For Her!
posted by Strange Interlude at 9:26 AM on September 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


That staircase is the ugliest urban structure I have ever seen. And it is considered an improvement? What was there before, barbed wire and climbing ropes? And how accessible is it in winter, and who has to shovel the snow and ice?
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:27 AM on September 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


When I was in Vienna I noticed their institutional gender-awareness in the signage on trains. The icons of "people for whom you should give up your seat"--the elderly, the disabled, parents with children, and pregnant women--came in both male and female versions (except for the last one, of course.) I'm not sure when else I've seen a parent-with-child icon with an unambiguously male (he had a charming Van Dyke beard) parent.
posted by fermion at 9:34 AM on September 21, 2013


What was there before, barbed wire and climbing ropes?

I bet it was just regular stairs. Which are just as inaccessible to people in wheelchairs, on crutches, or pushing strollers or grocery carts as a wall with barbed wire and ropes. In the winter, snow and ice would have to be shoveled/salted/sanded off regular stairs as well. From previous snow-shoveling experience, it's easier to clear a ramp structure than stairs.
posted by rtha at 9:38 AM on September 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


File under: ideas that should be obvious, but that I'd have bloody well never thought of...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 9:43 AM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


That staircase is the ugliest urban structure I have ever seen.

Yeah that was my first thought too. After thinking about it I wonder if the intention behind having the ramp structured that way is to improve safety -- so if you roll backwards or forwards, you only roll a short way instead of all the way down?

There must be a reason behind that design other than misanthropy.
posted by trunk muffins at 9:51 AM on September 21, 2013


Ok yes it looks like ideal ramp slope is A Thing. I have learned something today.
posted by trunk muffins at 9:54 AM on September 21, 2013


> Heh, my wife is in Vienna now and has been complaining bitterly about the public transport.

Wow, really? What are her complaints and where did she live before? Vienna's public transport is excellent to the extent that I'm impressed by it every time I visit. I don't think it's easy to find anything cleaner, faster, more reliable and more comprehensive than what Wiener Linien offer. I hear the 13A is hell and people wish they'd finally turn it into the 13 again, but other than that…
posted by wachhundfisch at 9:54 AM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Regarding the ramp slope, the gentler the slope, the easier it is to get up it, particularly in a wheelchair. Of course, gentle slopes take up a lot more space than steeper ones, and I'd imagine that's a factor in all the switchbacks too.
posted by peppermind at 10:02 AM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


> Ok yes it looks like ideal ramp slope is A Thing. I have learned something today.

The Austrian standards say 4%, or up to 6% if there are level platforms in between. My city and state governments don't care, so this happens.
posted by wachhundfisch at 10:06 AM on September 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


That staircase was brilliant until they broke it by putting the handrail. Now everyone has to funnel to one end or other, and you might as well just have a straight subway-station-style stairs, and a ramp next to it.
posted by ctmf at 10:13 AM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


wachhundfisch, I love how the guy speaking at the beginning of your clip has perfectly synced his hair to the building in the background. Although that is definitely one lousy ramp for people in wheelchairs.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:18 AM on September 21, 2013


The photo of the staircase/ramp thing done more correctly I saw recently was this one. The full width of the stairs is usable to walk up, and ramp users have a ramp. Putting in the handrail and the art-y rock obstacles defeats the whole thing.
posted by ctmf at 10:23 AM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sure the handrail is very ugly and all but, all things considered, if I were in a wheelchair I'd rather have an ugly ramp that minimized my chance of my falling down a flight of stairs.
posted by cthuljew at 10:30 AM on September 21, 2013 [17 favorites]


Yeah, I was in a wheelchair for couple of months. When you're going up a ramp you're pushing something very heavy using quite a lot of force. If one of your hands slips, you'll be pushing hard on one wheel while the other one goes backwards. Suddenly, you'll be facing a different direction, necessitating correction, while being dragged backwards by gravity. With no handrail, you'd be in a very dangerous spot.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:52 AM on September 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


charlie don't surf: "That staircase is the ugliest urban structure "

Beauty should never be at the cost of utility, especially for something that is as utilitarian as a public staircase.

Give me an ugly but useful staircase any day over a slim, slender beautiful structure that's a pain and a risk to actually use.

Of course, it will be best to have something useful and beautiful but if we cant have everything, town planners are right to go for utility than beauty.

I like that staircase. It seems to incorporate whats existing with whats required while not needing a lot of investment to make the changes.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 11:01 AM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


This article was fascinating, thanks. The idea that the design of parks can make them more friendly to girls is really interesting.

And people think that ramp is literally the ugliest thing they've ever seen? Have you never seen a parking lot?
posted by medusa at 11:03 AM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I can see that. My beef isn't with the ugliness of the handrail, or that I don't think handrails are good, it's that the handrail defeats the purpose of making the staircase like that. The beauty of it was in it's cleverness in using the whole space as both things, stairs and ramp, at once. With the handrail, that doesn't work, and they might as well have done something else more visually appealing.
posted by ctmf at 11:04 AM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Without the handrail, it's not nearly as functional for people with mobility issues as you seem to think it is, and the stairs are still usable, they're just not as convenient.
posted by peppermind at 11:16 AM on September 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


> The photo of the staircase/ramp thing done more correctly I saw recently was this one. The full width of the stairs is usable to walk up, and ramp users have a ramp. Putting in the handrail and the art-y rock obstacles defeats the whole thing.

While that looks pretty, the parts of the steps that meet the ramp will have inconsistent height from base step to top step. Also it looks like the slope of the stairs change, which means you would probably have more people stumble / trip as we take for granted how quickly we acclimatize to a set of stairs. I imagine in practise, people using the steps probably only use the parts at the far edges as that is the only way to guarantee that you will step onto a level surface (not a sloped) one when you transition from step to ramp area.

As for handrails. Many people who have mobility issues with stairs might not be in wheelchairs, but do need something for extra stability, so a ramp without handrails is a very poorly thought out design. Granted they could add more visually appealing handrails (not just a visually confusion cross section of metal bars), but then for a users perspectve how often are you staring at the ramp from a distance vs walking the up the ramp up close. Architecture doesn't have to photograph beautifully for their designer porn blogs to be great design, and beautifully shot photos of ramps and staircases don't necessarily mean they are well designed.
posted by mrzarquon at 11:21 AM on September 21, 2013 [9 favorites]


it's that the handrail defeats the purpose of making the staircase like that.

No, it makes the ramp more safe for people who have to use the ramp. There are stairs-no-ramp on both the right and left sides for people who can just walk up and down on their feet.
posted by rtha at 11:22 AM on September 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


> While that looks pretty, the parts of the steps that meet the ramp will have inconsistent height from base step to top step. Also it looks like the slope of the stairs change, which means you would probably have more people stumble / trip as we take for granted how quickly we acclimatize to a set of stairs. I imagine in practise, people using the steps probably only use the parts at the far edges as that is the only way to guarantee that you will step onto a level surface (not a sloped) one when you transition from step to ramp area.

You're exactly right. In summer 2012 I lived very close to AachenMünchener Platz in Aachen, where the last picture in the article linked by ctmf was taken, and often used the stairs on the way between my flat and the big supermarket at Kapuzinerkarree. Most pedestrians seemed to avoid the ramps.
posted by wachhundfisch at 11:40 AM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I guess you're right. You win; I'm convinced. That staircase is awesome. End of derail.
posted by ctmf at 11:43 AM on September 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


wachhundfisch: I wondered that. As a piece of art, it's neat, but I'm not sure I would like to walk up with the occasional odd-height, sideways-slanted step either.
posted by ctmf at 12:09 PM on September 21, 2013


I wish the stations had been designed properly in the first place, like Edmonton's system.

Edmonton didn't have stations on a street like Calgary does.

The reason the old platforms were so narrow is that the city didn't design them as an extension of the sidewalk. It's possible that property owners had something to do with that - think about the storefronts behind the old Centre St station or the old 1 St SW station. They probably wanted as much space as possible between their front door and the high platform.

The old stations were wheelchair-accessible. They had a ramp next to the sidewalk.

They were also built cheaply (but not completely bare-bones! They had, for example, planters beside the sidewalk) because the city expected to replace them with a 8 Ave subway Any Day Now. Today, we're still going to build the subway someday, but we're keeping the tracks and stations on 7 Ave. We need 4 tracks through downtown.

I agree that the new ones are much better. Love the high canopy especially.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:47 PM on September 21, 2013


I worked near one of those ramp-and-stairs dealies one summer, and while commuters did tend to dash up and down the extreme outer ends where the stairs were direct, during the daytime there were lots of tourists and school groups and whatnot who would climb the center (and watch their feet) and at lunch time the stair risers between the ramps would be FULL of people eating lunch in the sun in groups (risers make it easier for a group to arrange themselves to chat) and pairs and singles, leaving the ramps and extreme edges free for people going up and down. In the morning and afternoon you'd see a pretty steady stream of little kids climbing up and down the steps for a while, on walks with their moms.

One of the very first things I learned when I had kids was that ADA-accessible means small child accessible too -- wheelchair ramps and curb cuts make it easier to get places with strollers, low water fountains for wheelchair users are more convenient for children, nice wide aisles and sidewalks accommodate mobility aids but also give you space to easily hold two children's hands. Designing public spaces to make them more useful and accessible for any particular group has positive knock-on effects for lots of other users.

(Except for disabled-accessible elevator buttons, which are also toddler-accessible, and there's always one button that is BRIGHT RED. Stupid elevator alarm button. But that is the only not-positive knock-on effect I have found!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:40 PM on September 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Have you never seen a parking lot?

Michael Stipe once said of them, "Often we forget their beauty."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:56 PM on September 21, 2013


Except for disabled-accessible elevator buttons, which are also toddler-accessible, and there's always one button that is BRIGHT RED.

It's never too early to start training kids not to press the big red button. Who knows? Maybe that kid will grow up to be president!
posted by asperity at 9:18 AM on September 22, 2013


Ha! One of my favorite books as a kid was Grover's Please Don't Push the Red Button. Of course, as a child, you HAVE to push the red button and he gets so frustrated that he ends up painting the whole page red to confuse you about the location of the red button.

I'm grinning, just thinking about it now!

Love the article, especially the park redesign!
posted by jillithd at 9:32 AM on September 22, 2013


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