Industry Intel

Gendered Spaces: From Public Toilets to Public Policy

Ettienne Gioia

Principal Consultant | Architecture & Planning

Jul 26, 2022

Modern cities define a modern lifestyle. An urban space is designed with maximum efficiency to effectively cater to professional and domestic needs within its space.

With modern life being the embodiment of a shift in gendered norms, and careers expanding a lifetime now accessible to both men and women, cities serve to cater to the daily needs of a changed demographic of workers and residents, with Town and City Planning being a key factor in how cities are experienced by different genders.

In theory, cities are an ideal setting to lay the foundations for equality. With metropolitan lifestyles paving the way for a society with equality woven into its very fabric, and careers in the city defining the goals and aspirations of young boys and girls, these spaces should have the capacity to support this shift in social behaviours and habits.

However, a question that has been considered more widely with cities such as Vienna serving as an example is:

Do modern cities have the capacity to cater for this gradual shift in socio-economic behaviour? And how can Planning accommodate for these changes in the future?

Men and women tend to use cities differently, yet it has been observed that more ‘urban policies, services, and developments fail to take this into account (European Commission, Building gender equality into urban planning in seven European cities-Projects – Regional Policy – European Commission ( It is arguable that because the typical user of modern urban spaces has, since the emergence of modernism, been ‘the young, professional, white male’ this informs the universal experience of a city (Gardner and Begault, 2019).

A 1990’s study by public officials in Vienna found that on a closer analysis, men and women tended to exhibit different habits and behaviours when using city spaces. For example, girls were less likely to use parks after age nine, while boys continued frequenting these spaces well into their teens. Girls avoided certain areas at night for safety reasons, and women, certain streets that were inaccessible for the uses of pushchairs.

From this observation, Designers and Planners in the city aimed to impact these social habits through a change to social infrastructure in the area. To make the park more appealing to both girls and boys, park Planners increased benches in the area, divided open areas into smaller spaces which encouraged more socialising. The city also implemented measures such as improving street lighting, widening more than a kilometre of pavement, and adding footpaths and space for activities other than football in urban parks (Chalaby, 2017).

This approach is known as ‘Gender Mainstreaming’ – the practice of ensuring all genders are ‘accounted for equally in policy, legislation and resource allocation’. Vienna can be viewed as a pillar for this approach, having adopted around 60 gender-sensitive pilot projects, and assessed another 1,000 since 1985 (Hunt, 2019). Gender mainstreaming is an important concept, one which attempts to shine a light on cities by and large, throughout history, being designed by male Planners, for male city go-ers: ‘going between home and work, by car or public transport’ with no ‘accounting for unpaid labour such as childcare or shopping, carried out mostly by women’ (Hunt, 2019) generally by foot throughout the day.

This case study shines a light on a concept bigger than any one opinion piece could tackle, but I spoke to several people within the Architecture and Planning industry who shared their thoughts on gender mainstreaming in Planning, and whether it could be exploited more heavily in future Planning Policy.

Dr Karen Horwood, Senior Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University and committee member for Women in Planning Yorkshire, has dedicated a lot of her career to researching planning policy in relation to the needs of women, and kindly gives her take on Gender Mainstreaming in Town Planning.

Karen elaborates on the concept, explaining that it originated from a European Treaty which embedded equality of women into public policy. An idea that tries to ensure that when people are making policy decisions, the needs of all genders are considered in a wider context. Karen added that she is often impressed at the willingness of students, both men and women, during her teachings to discuss the importance of such an approach. She has observed more efforts given in discussion within classroom walls, compared to in her extensive research of the current Planning Policy. She says that, while it may be more of a long game to implement such thought into the policy norm, that perhaps it is these open conversations engaged in at such formative stages in an individual’s professional life that can really evoke longer-lasting change, and that these conversations should continue into an individual’s career.

Marianne McCallum MRTPI, Director of Planning, also shed some interesting perspective on this topic. After attending several Women in Planning lectures and conferences throughout her career, she says that she has become aware of certain norms within Planning that do not serve to benefit all members of society equally. In line with the efforts of Vienna, she detailed an example of a classic ‘I told you so’ moment where an MP within a London Borough made the effort to walk down the streets of this area with a pushchair. He was able to experience these difficulties first-hand and agreed that there are some limitations in Planning for those who use pushchairs on a regular basis, often women.

Additionally, she also used public toilets as an example of how Gender Mainstreaming in Planning can really make a difference. Ever considered the endless queues outside a women’s public toilet?

In the same vein as narrow pavements, this issue can also be put down to poor Planning procedures which fail to consider the needs of all of its citizens. She tells that when new public facilities are planned and designed, equal floor space is given for both male and female facilities. At face value, this seems fair. However, when one considers the additional needs of a woman when using these facilities, for example, menstruation uses, or the fact that traditionally baby changing facilities are located in the female facilities, by default they are at a disadvantage – and with urinals taking up less space than a cubicle, the disparity continues.

Marianne is optimistic for the future of Planning and looks to consultancies making an effort to shift these norms. Perhaps the public toilet narrative is trivial to some, but such disparities trickle their way down to the very fabrics of planning.

Emma Lancaster, Director at Quod Planning, takes a similar stance. Being a Director of Planning at a national reaching consultancy, she is no stranger to driving forward key decisions and strategies within the industry. In relation to Gender Mainstreaming, she has been a key part in shaping the strategy of Quod to align with such values. She adds that this topical approach to Planning has, of course, been at the forefront of the minds of many of us in the last few months, and that Quod have continued to drive forward measures that align with Gender Mainstreaming at a pace.

One of their main schemes at present is ensuring all footpaths in current projects are well lit, with adequate surveillance to promote a sustainable approach to Planning, reflective of the increasing light that has been shone on the topic of women’s safety in the past few months. The past few years at Quod, diversity, and inclusion has played a key part in strategy, and with women playing an instrumental role at the top, the importance of women in positions of seniority is ever apparent. Quod have paid particular attention to bridging the gender pay gap within their company and try to be as transparent as possible in the process, cultivating a healthy approach to inclusive progression across the board.

Perhaps the future of Town Planning can benefit from the approach of gender mainstreaming in ways that have not previously been considered in policy in the UK. It begins with small tweaks to the status quo, from the depths of a local public toilet, and escalates to the structure of those in control of Town Planning. The example of a public toilet may be insignificant to some, but with women now taking up more space and time in cities, this subsequent shift in behaviour has a chain reaction on how public space and infrastructure is used. It, therefore, becomes necessary to consider alternatives to the status quo of the Planning realm to accommodate for this shift in the social habits of society.

It is paramount that we make use of the evidence staring us hard in the face, embrace theories such as gender mainstreaming, continue to break the mould of workplace structures, and further these progressive conversations with our peers beyond the realm of Higher Education to plan more inclusive environments sustainably and with long-lasting social impact.

Share this article

Principal Consultant | Architecture & Planning

Ettienne Gioia

Ettie’s open, honest nature is something that clients and candidates alike respond to. She’s empathetic and takes a genuine interest in the lives of her candidates. Fiercely intelligent, Ettie knows her industry back to front, but is always open to learning and growing. Open-minded, caring, and loyal, you know you’ve struck gold when Ettie is the one guiding your job search.

More from our blog