“Gender” and “the weather” are terms rarely strung together in one sentence. But as a single mother of twins, and an urban geographer, I’ve been thinking a lot about how gender and the weather relate this past month. As recriminations start to fly in the face of the city’s failure to adequately cope with the cold of “Chiberia," the city’s response has remained the same. The weather affects everyone, but I would argue the city’s response to it was (and long has been) gendered. I am not suggessting that snow is sexist. Rather, getting around the city in weather like this is particularly fraught for those caring for children—more often than not, women.
We rarely talk about a city’s role in augmenting the physical elements of childcare. The other week in Chicago, the City was conspicuously absent from the side streets on which so many of the city's schools are located. I witnessed the problem up close. While the main arteries around my twin three-year-olds’ school were mostly cleared, the block on which the school itself sits had not been plowed, causing a ripple effect of traffic congestion. Stuck cars and angry drivers became a danger. Some drivers were so anxious to get through the overcrowded intersection that they ignored the crossing guard. It was a mess. Two weeks later, while not as severe, the story is the same. The school's surrounding blocks are left unplowed, resulting in horrendous traffic that makes many children late to school, and thus their parents, and others, late for work.
While the polar vortex is the real culprit here, there is a better way for the city to respond to extreme weather. In Sweden (ah, yes, always Sweden), there has been a move towards a practice called “gender equal snow plowing.” In many ways, the term gender equal snow plowing is a misnomer. The practice refers to attempts to realign plowing priorities to better serve families. The policy focuses on how to achieve the most effective street clearing for the greatest number of people, with priority given to areas around schools and daycares, first, and to pedestrians and bikers, next.
In the small Swedish city of Karlskoga, as in most cities, plowing priority had previously been assigned to major roadways and the city's center. Starting last year, the new policy dictates that areas near schools and daycares be cleared first, since that is where most parents start their day. Then, areas surrounding the largest employers are cleared, and so on, so that snow clearing is effective for the greatest possible number of people. Priority is given to sidewalks and bike paths, not cars. The experiment has been so successful that a similar plan is now being proposed for Stockholm, too.
This change in policy not only benefits women and others who are caring for children, but is part of a shift to a more sustainable city that encourages people to get out of their cars and take mass transit or bike. Chicago has been a leader in this respect with the successful rollout of Divvy bikes. But how sustainable are these policies if they shut down during the legendary Chicago winter? Many of the policies that could be termed “gender-sensitive” could just as easily be labeled “sustainable urbanism.” As a professor in DePaul University’s Master’s in Sustainable Urban Development, I encourage my students to look at sustainability as something that goes far beyond recycling and hybrid cars. Anything that gets people out of cars and into the streets is part of creating a city that is more sustainable. I am about to embark on a research project that explores how cities around the world have made themselves more sustainable by making themselves more friendly to children and caregivers. I hope to discover a set of best practices for making a city sustainable by making it an attractive place to raise families.
Some of the policies that might address this seem easy. For example, Chicago buses should have a stroller area to make it easier to travel with children. Have you ever tried to get on a bus with infant twins in a double stroller only to be told by the bus driver that the stroller has to be folded up? Trains should also be redesigned to remove poles from center aisles to make cars more navigable with strollers. These types of changes benefit not just those with children, but those with shopping carts as well. Changes such as these would keep some people out of their cars, and thus benefit the entire city.
Of course, universal pre-K and maternity leave would be nice, too. But the point is that there are many small, practical steps we can take to make the city a more equitable place for families, especially when bad weather hits. Think about these things as the winter grinds on. Shovel your walkways. Make sure there is a clear path at corners. Call your alderman and complain when streets with schools on them aren’t cleared. Help the mother struggling to haul her stroller over a snow bank. It does, in fact, take a village. I’m still looking for mine.
Winifred Curran is an associate professor of geography at DePaul University. She is currently a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project.