Designing Cities for Women: Lessons from Barcelona’s ‘Feminist City’

In my recent streets.mn article, “Want Equitable Cities? We’ll Need More Women in Transportation Planning,” I argued that women’s under-representation in transportation planning and policy making leads to the creation of urban spaces that fail to meet the needs of girls and women. I ended the article with a bold question: What would cities look like if they were designed by women, for women?

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Image: Barcelona Alleyway (Credit: Stefan Tärnell via Creative Commons)

Clearly, no simple answer exists. “Gender sensitive” urban design projects have been few in number, with little time for long-term analysis. These efforts, however, provide useful insights to what future egalitarian cities may include in order to prioritize the needs of both men and women.

The ongoing transformation of Barcelona into a so-called “feminist city” illuminates the importance of having women at the forefront of the planning process.

Feminization of Politics

In 2015, Ada Colau was sworn in as Barcelona’s first woman mayor. On that day, all members of Colau’s newly appointed government declared themselves feminists. From the beginning of her term, Colau ignited a “feminization of politics,” which the Barcelona Council website describes as “incorporat[ing] the gender perspective in every area of politics and society.” For all decisions regarding the city budget, urban planning and public services, implications for both women and men must be considered.

The city in many ways has come to embody its leader. Under Colau’s guidance, Barcelona has passed landmark legislation and implemented progressive urban design initiatives to improve women’s urban experiences.

Pedestrian Super Blocks

Although over 80 percent of trips in Barcelona are made by foot or public transit, over 60 percent of Barcelona’s public space is dedicated to cars (source: Physical Activity Through Sustainable Transport Approaches). Since women are  more apt to walk than men, women are disproportionately impacted by the city’s lack of pedestrian space.

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Image: Barcelona Superblock (Credit: BBC News)

Janet Sanz, Barcelona’s deputy mayor for urbanism, is leading one of the city’s most ambitious plans to allow pedestrians to reclaim the city through “super blocks” or superilles. A super block is formed by conjoining nine city blocks and closing it to most traffic (with the exception of local traffic, which is restricted to a 10-kilometers-per-hour speed limit). All parked cars go underground, allowing parks, landscaping, seating and play areas filled with people to replace busy junctions.

Barcelona built its first super block in 2018 and now has six. The ultimate goal is to build over 500 super blocks.

Orthogonal Bus Network

Many cities around the world have radial public transport systems. This means the majority of transit routes lead to a single downtown. The few circular routes that exist are typically concentrated in the city’s center. This system can be incredibly efficient for commuters, who prioritize traveling to and from work quickly and efficiently. However, for people who use transit for a greater diversity of reasons (grocery shopping, visiting relatives, etc.), which often requires travel between different neighborhoods, this system can be slow and cumbersome.

But transit systems cannot easily be improved, as Sánchez de Madariaga, an urban planning professor at Madrid’s Technical University, explained: There is not much you can easily or cheaply do to address this historical bias [of transit]. You can improve their accessibility…and that’s about it. Buses, on the other hand, are flexible and their routes and stops can and should be ‘moved and adjusted for need” (source: Invisible Women).

And Barcelona did just that. In 2012, the city began building an orthogonal bus network that complemented the subway’s spiderweb transit map. To date, at least eight new bus lines have been installed, with 28 more bus lines planned or underway. This systems allows for greater ease of trip-chaining, which particularly benefits women who are responsible for “care-related trips.”

Eyes on the Streets

In order for a street to be a safe place, there must be “eyes upon the street,” said author Jane Jacobs in her 1961 landmark book, The Life and Death of American Cities. People should be engaged in activities along the street, and people should be able to see the street from nearby buildings. For there to be eyes on the street, public spaces must be interesting and vibrant. 

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Image Credit: Justice for Families

Vibrant public spaces and streets are abundant in Barcelona, due in part to its high density and stunning architecture. But some areas of the city lack “transparency,” meaning it is difficult to see the outside from within a building, and vice versa. Lack of transparency can also manifest along streets themselves, as particular street designs can make it difficult for people to see the urban environment in its entirety. 

This is particularly relevant for those who fear sexual harassment and violence — acts that often occur behind closed doors. Dark corners and masked spaces invoke fear because they are perfect places for potential attackers to hide. 

Collective Point 6, a Barcelona architecture collective, is developing design guidelines to increase women’s perceived and actual safety. Among their suggestions:

  • Vegetation is no higher than one meter.
  • Trees are properly maintained, to avoid blocking lighting.

Other municipalities in  Spain have approved bylaws to ensure that the entrances to new housing-related buildings are on street level and avoid creating hiding spaces.

‘Anti-Sexist’ Stands

In an attempt to take a firm stance against violence and harassment, “Anti-Masclista” (Anti-Sexist) stands were first set up outside of large music festivals and areas of nightlife in 2016. Two specialists staff each stand, offering information on sexual violence, explaining municipal and public services offered in the city, and providing support should a sexual aggression have occurred.

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Image: ‘Anti-Sexist’ stand located at a music festival in Barcelona (Credit: barcelona.cat)

The program that operates the stands (NOésNO) has also built a phone application which allows people to anonymously report sexual harassment and assaults (source: BBC News). Data from the phone application eventually are shared with policy makers to help inform decision making.

Diversifying Street Names

In cities across the world, most streets are named after men. A 2015 survey of the streets in seven different cities across the world found that only 27.5 percent of streets were named after women (source: City Lab). At the time, Paris fared the worst, with only 2.6 percent of its streets named after women. Of course, streets alone are not the problem; it’s also the male-oriented monuments and building names.

This patriarchal theme is ever present in Spain, where over 90 percent of streets in Spain were named after men in 2016 (source: Quartz). That same year, Spanish officials announced they would identify streets named after members of Francisco Franco’s totalitarian regime and replace them with names of prominent women leaders. Barcelona gained a head start on this effort, with the number of streets named after women soaring from 7 percent in 1996 to 27.7 percent in 2010. Murals and public art, which pay tribute to feminist values and the contributions of women, have also been implemented throughout Barcelona in the past decade.

These improvements diversify Barcelona’s urban fabric. They may also improve women’s perceived safety, reminding women that they are not alone in cities that sometimes appear as if they were built only for able-bodied men.

Questions for Urban Designers in Minnesota

In pursuing gender-equity in planning, policy makers and city designers must consider the context-sensitive nature of urban initiatives. What is effective in one area of the world may be less useful in another. Ultimately, decisions will need to be made at the city and community level.

As urban planners and designers in Minnesota, and beyond, consider how best to meet the needs of girls and women, I would argue that we examine our communities and ask:

  • Do transportation options allow for safe, efficient and affordable travel to nearby neighborhoods, in addition to downtown employment centers?
  • Are pedestrian facilities and public space amenities, such as parks, safe and accessible for women, children and the elderly?
  • Are streets and buildings designed to encourage residents to engage and socialize with one another, and care for one another’s safety?
  • Do urban design elements (poor lighting, masked spaces) contribute to girls and women feeling unsafe?
  • Are resources available if someone faces sexual harassment or assault while walking, biking or riding public transit?
  • Do the streets, monuments, murals and other features of the city’s fabric embody the community’s demographics?

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