Design and Conquer

Design and Urban Planning Direly Needs Women’s Input, Says a CGI Panel

The absence of women in everything from land ownership to architecture needs remedying, says a CGI panel. By Nina Strochlic.

Ashraf Shazly, AFP / Getty Images

Women and girls used to be on a separate track at the Clinton Global Initiative, noted Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times columnist, at the start of his panel discussion on Monday. But now, he said, Clinton’s annual meeting has wisely integrated society’s better half into almost every aspect of the meeting, and the world is benefiting greatly from it.

As the moderator of a panel entitled “Women and the Built Environment: Designing for Opportunity,” Kristof said that women and girls are crucial additions in such male-dominated fields as building and construction.

Earlier in the conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton observed that when women enter the workforce, it transforms society. In that same spirit, panelists discussed how and why it’s necessary to transfer land control and urban design to women.

Joan Clos, director of U.N. Habitat, began the discussion with a shocking statistic: only 1 percent of the titled land in the world is registered to women. This lack of ownership and participation in the industry not only hinders the ability of women and girls to build independence within their own lives but affects everything from education to health.

In a world with a rapidly rising population, effective urban planning is “not a luxury, it’s a basic need,” said Yemen-based architect Salma Samar Damluji. “A better quality of life can only be achieved if you have a better urban culture.”

Design directly affects health and safety for girls and women, said Jonathan Reckford, executive director of Habitat for Humanity International. He pointed out that even the lack of such basic needs as a lock on a front door leaves women physically vulnerable. Improperly designed houses have made indoor air pollution a widespread problem, especially in poorer countries. In enclosed kitchens without proper ventilation, women cooking over stoves are more likely to develop breathing problems and lung cancer. By taking women into perspective, urban planning campaigns can be designed to eliminate this problem.

Kristof noted that impractical design also hinders education in the developing world, where 76 million girls aren’t attending primary school simply because that might mean creating separate buildings, adding more school buses, and building more bathrooms. Families won’t send their daughters to schools without proper facilities. In conservative areas that require gender division, girls are kept from school if there aren’t separate buildings. The problem, Kristof pointed out, is that developers in these areas are often smart men—but men who don’t fully understand the issues that prevent girls from getting an education.

The speakers stressed the need to think as big as possible when issues of land control and urban planning come to the table, and not to dismiss the role of women. “This is something that’s going to change the global discourse in the next 10 years,” Close predicted. With equal access to land ownership, Reckford added, women and girls will be able to lift themselves up in a society.