How to Design a City with Women in Mind

Former COPE councillor Ellen Woodsworth is on a mission to make Vancouver the most woman-friendly city in the world.

March 14, 2017

By Petti Fong / Photo: Sébastien Thibault

Ellen Woodsworth

In her six years as a COPE councillor, Ellen Woodsworth helped establish some of Vancouver’s more left-leaning policies, including a Women’s Task Force, which commissioned a strategy for gender equality. In 2011, Woodsworth founded Women Transforming Cities to help make Vancouver the most woman-friendly city in the world. Are we there yet?

Q: Isn’t it a bit weird in 2016 to suggest that women are still mostly excluded from the planning process in our cities? From 1974 to 2006, we had a woman, Ann McAfee, who was the co-director of planning, and the city’s previous city manager was Penny Ballem. Women, it would seem, are already at the table and making the big decisions.

A: Yes, but don’t forget the last three major hires at the city were all white males. If you don’t have women at the table when you develop these strategies, what happens are unarticulated assumptions. Gregor [Robertson] wants to be the greenest city mayor, but to have an effective green strategy you have to put a gender lens on it or it won’t see the unpaid and volunteer work that women do. Then the strategies won’t be successful.

Q: What happens to cities if they don’t consider women?

A: A very clear example is in Japan. The green movement there was stopped and unable to move forward. Why? Women who were already doing most of the unpaid work in the home—they refused to add more work for themselves and recycle. That was the end of the environmental movement. If we don’t involve women, you lose the voices that can make things happen, create change.

Vancouver’s real coat of arms feature two white men (see it below).


Q: What’s one design change that could make Vancouver more ideal for women?

A: Think of a place like Little Mountain, the housing complex on Main Street that the provincial government demolished and sold to a private developer. It was designed so when people were cooking they could see their kids play in the courtyard and keep an eye on their own and everyone else’s children. How about in all the buildings we build you have to build in child-care centres, for not just the people who live in the complex, but also for people in the neighbourhood?

Q: Is it the city’s job to have affordable child care?

A: There’s a global movement called “the right to the city,” and that includes safety and affordable housing, it includes wages and many things we haven’t traditionally thought of as city issues. Here’s the reality: 67 percent of the population lives in the 25 biggest cities in Canada, and cities aren’t given the mandate or the funding to deal with these issues.

Q: If women could transform cities, what would that look like?

A: Vancouver should be the most women-friendly city in the world. It can do that by tackling the issues that hurt women: safety, affordable housing, affordable child-care, decent wages. Safety [on transit] is a major thing.

Q: How could Vancouver’s transit system be improved?

A: To be safer, public transit needs to run more frequently—buses should run all night long—and it needs to go to places where women work, including bars and restaurants. In Toronto, women can report if they’re feeling unsafe using an app; that can happen here. Making bus stops lit at night is one simple thing that can be done easily.

Q: What would you change about the city right now if you could?

A: The city’s crest is two white men. Look it up. Most people don’t know and when they see it, they’ll realize that keeping it that way keeps women and our diverse population invisible. I tried to change it when I was on council and it created such a backlash, I had to back off. But if you see it, you’ll know that the city’s crest doesn’t represent who we are.

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