• Mel Butcher

Envisioning Equitable Urban Design

A while ago, I got to interview one of the designers at Punt6, an urban design collective seeking to update cities to accomodate the lives of women and families better. I couldn't figurer out a way to work it into the Design Thinking series for ASCE, so I'm bringing it here. You can find the video where I first learned about Punt 6 at the bottom of this post.

Brace yourself. I’m about to use the F word. The F word that many people are uncomfortable with, offended by, or bristle at.

That’s right: Feminism.

Now before you get out your pitchfork, I invite you to take a journey with me. In our minds, let’s go to Barcelona, Spain. There, we might run into Punt 6, a cooperative of architects, sociologists and urban planners. They put feminism at the foundation of their work, but to understand why, we first have to understand what they mean by the word. I spoke with Punt6 member Sara Ortiz Escalante to learn more.

“Intersectional feminism means being anti-racist. We acknowledge that gender oppressions are interconnected with oppression of race, class, sexual orientation, etcetera. We also acknowledge how gender violence impacts women’s right to a city, and that perceptions of safety impact our lives and accessibility.”

What does it mean to have a “right to a city,” I inquired.

“This notion was coined by Henry LeFabre. It means the right to use, enjoy, and participate in building. It also means that one is able to move freely in the space, use it, and can participate in the decision-making on how to transform it. It includes the right to housing, education, and to live a life free of gender violence.”

With those values in mind, the work of Punt 6 grew when they started asking some questions and working with their local governments to answer them. Questions like:

How might a city designed by women be different than the cities we currently have?

If we designed with the “right to a city” in mind, how might we experience cities differently?

Some of the projects Punt 6 has led are participatory action research projects, which are not well funded, but the contributions of which are deep and lasting. In one such project, redevelopment of an area was being planned. Escalante and her cohort tapped into the richest knowledge for the region to understand needs – the citizenry.

A central idea in the Punt 6 work is evaluating public life at the scale of the neighborhood. When we dig deep and investigate at this scale, with this specificity, we find our knowledge as “experts” pales in comparison to the public’s knowledge, those who experience and interact with the space day after day.

“You must acknowledge you are not the expert. Your professional background and culture, your expertise… all of this has to be put aside”. She went on to describe. “We sought out women who work the nightshift in different sectors. Notice that most of the women living in this area held roles related to care – custodians at hospitals, street cleaners, airport custodians, police officers, social workers, and sex workers. We gathered qualitative issues and learned about their mobility at different scales, their mobility at night, and perceptions of safety. As designers we must think about mobility and safety related to care and work, not just leisure.”

By “care” what we’re referring to here are caretaking type roles that are often shouldered more by women than men and, many of which, are unpaid labor – things like childcare, care of the elderly, cooking, and household cleaning, etc.

The outcomes for the neighborhood in this case were influence of the redesign to include safety considerations for night time commutes (walking to/from home to trains stations, and to/from train stations to work site), and influencing participants to continue advocating into the future for their own and others’ needs.

Between getting input from the community and the expertise of designers & planners, I asked how Punt 6 facilitates the intersection of these varying ideas?

Escalante shared, “the planners don’t decide, they facilitate.” She expanded, “First we must understand context – who are the people that will be impacted by the changes? We then search for channels of communication that are as broad as possible to engage the maximum amount of participation. If we’re missing participation, we report this and think it through - why didn’t certain people participate. Are they tired? Are they disgruntled with the government or organization and, therefore, don’t want to participate? It is our responsibility to communicate the objectives of the process clearly and transparently. Our goal is not to find consensus. Consensus means silencing a minority.”

At the core, urban planning, design, and implementation must consider the diversity of who will use the space. This means remembering and deliberately designing for equity for: children, people caring for children and elderly, and people with different physical abilities. Furthermore, we must consider how decisions to “solve” one problem, can create new problems.

Escalante shared an example. “Many cities have intentionally limited benches in public space, believing this was the way to prevent crime through environmental design.” She went on to explain, “After the crisis of 2008, the homeless population grew. [Cities] either removed benches or added obstacles so people couldn’t sleep. Did this solve the problem? No, it solved nothing and created new problems. Benches are essential in the urban environment for childcare – waiting for kids, socializing with families, and to take rest.”

Curious to hear about take-aways, I asked what Punt 6 hoped others might do upon learning about them. Escalante explained that they hope other designers and people with power will learn that, “the people who live in a place have the most expertise and knowledge about it. We have the capacity and the collective power to influence the transformation of those spaces. In Spain, Urban planning has been attached to architecture. It’s been hierarchical and elite. When we finish our workshops and training, people can realize that they know about urban planning.

The values at the (Punt 6) collective’s foundation include:

  • The solidarity economy: the economy that gives priority to people’s lives through design and development

  • Intersectional gender perspective: deliberate evaluation of positions, power, and how these influence the use and configuration of spaces

  • Architecture of proximity and everyday life urban planning: recognizing the need to deconstruct and rethink domestic, community, and public spaces based on the needs, uses, and desires of the people who inhabit them

  • Holistic approach: using quantitative, qualitative, and participatory techniques with an emphasis on including diverse voices of the community from all walks of life

Learn more at Punt6.org

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