While attitudes may have changed around women’s public roles and capacities, the concrete around us takes longer to break down. The meek may inherit the earth, but they’re unlikely to find it fit for purpose. Our built environment has solidified over centuries, and it’s a sobering thought that the concrete around us reflects the lay of the land through which it was poured.
Every time you queue interminably for the ladies’ loos while marvelling at the brisk turnaround in the men’s, or shove a heavy door, or heft a buggy down the tube steps, or perch awkwardly on a bus stop bench too high for your bottom, or hurry through shadowy public realm, or even when you leave the office at 4.30pm to rush home for a nursery pick-up, your life is being dictated by a million, often imperceptible, decisions in planning policy or building design. Decisions made largely in the absence of women.
Great corporate strides are underway to address the startling lack of female agents or surveyors, but while the city is opening its doors for female careers, the in-built failure of our bricks and mortar to cater for women is rarely recognised, or even discussed. Moreover, as the gender balance is addressed in the workplace, the lack of it outside the office starts to affect all of us.
Consider, for example, Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s great plan for rebuilding London after the Second World War. Schools, childcare, leisure parks, shopping – every element of domestic life (the life a wife should lead) was designed to take place away from the city. The impetus to clear squalid inner-city slums was understandable, but the construction of homes for heroes meant zoning domesticity far away from the professional centre.
From the 1940s, planning policy has seen women physically relegated to the suburbs, without transport and, more often than not, jobs. City workplaces may be opening up but now, in order to buy a family home, most London workers lose countless (wo)man hours a day commuting to far-flung suburban reaches, on transport networks that were planned for half the number of passengers using them today. And while women are coming out of the kitchen, someone still has to look after the kids.
It’s always difficult to avoid making sweeping gender role generalisations, but many professional women still have backstop responsibility for childcare, and many firms have only recently accepted that pick-ups need an early finish.
It’s a brief window in a working life, but few suburban after-school clubs accommodate a city commute, and most male industry leaders will freely admit that their career progression was facilitated by a stay-at-home partner. Something has to give. In this context, spatial planning is of monumental importance.
The concrete around us is taking longer to break down than the attitudes. A growth in female planners may bring new perspectives but it’s necessarily slow work, and for all its hazy aspirations, UK planning law places little emphasis on social facilitation. Instead, change is slipping through the back door. The mobility demands of the Disability Discrimination Act opened paths for buggies as well as wheelchairs.
Gender tends, for obvious reasons, to pick a toilets-based battlefield, and the facilities debate has been thrown wide open with the Gender Recognition Act and mixed-sex toilets. Technology facilitates remote working in the suburbs, recapturing those hours otherwise lost to the commute.
Most exciting, however, is the prospect of mixed-use areas that genuinely blend work, play and home, offering opportunities to restructure our lives entirely. The Mayor of London’s current plan highlights the central activities zone, where housing and offices are neighbours.
It’s an ambitious vision, albeit a long overdue one. And it might just mean that we’re on the cusp of (re)building a brave new world for everyone.
This article was first published in Estates Gazette on 8 March 2019.