World Town Planning Day: A celebration of female pioneers in planning

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Principal | Chief Executive Officer

A few days ago, more than 30 countries celebrated the World Town Planning Day with different discussion panels and conferences that were held to review and promote the role of creating more sustainable and livable cities around the world.

As part of the event, the Alberta Institute of Planners included the screening of the film City Dreamers (2018), which portrays the stories of architects and city planners Phyllis Lambert, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel and Denise Scott Brown as well as landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. All of them worked with the most renowned architects of the 20th century, including Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi. With over 60 years of experience each, they became trailblazers for an inclusive profession, leaving an “indelible mark on several cities across North America and Europe.”

Similar to City Dreamers is the German film Bauhaus (2019), inspired by the life of the designer Alma Siedhoff-Buscher at the famous Bauhaus Design Academy.  The movie follows Siedhoff-Buscher as she enrolls at the school against her parent’s wishes, and becomes a pioneer in “re-imagining the role of women in architecture and design.”

Inspired by these two films, I wanted to learn more about the lives and work of these women and others who helped shape the cities we live in today. City Dreamers and Bauhaus represent an essential topic for discussion concerning the roles women play in the professional landscape.

I saw clearly from these stories the unique challenges women face when building a career in a ‘man-led working environment’ and how it became a constant reminder to apply a gender perspective into their design. In other words, while the men focused on transforming the cities from above [or applying the top-down theories], these women changed cities at the street level [also known as bottom-up approach].

You might remember the stories of mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Goble Johnson and engineer Mary Jackson. They worked at NASA and helped launch the early spatial explorations, which inspired the book and subsequent movie, Hidden figures. Similarly, in architecture and planning, there is a myriad example of women’s accomplishments being erased, working in silence or challenging to fit into their work environment.

In June 2013, more than 20 thousand people were disappointed when the Pritzker Prize jury rejected the petition to retroactively recognize the work of Denise Scott Brown for the architectural award her husband and partner of 30 years had received in 1991. A prize that left Robert Venturi himself feeling “sad they didn’t both get it” and encouraged Denise to write Room at the Top. Sexism and the Star System in 1989. The book was inspired by her 1973 lecture on the institutional discrimination against women that she experienced during her career.

At the time, no woman or joint professionals had ever received the Pritzker Prize in Architecture. Still, it wasn’t until 2001 when Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron were announced as Laureates of the year in a joint award, and then finally in 2004, when Zaha Hadid turned the tradition around and became the first woman to receive the prize by herself.

The untold stories and lack of recognition for women in architecture and urban planning are no different from any other profession, but having their role slowly revealed will help inspire others to continue shaping more inclusive and resilient cities.

In the present, different feminist groups are crucial in the education and transformation of cities from a social perspective. In Barcelona, for example, the work of women like Punt 6 or Equal Saree focus on the needs of children and women to design better playgrounds and public spaces. They use gender-neutral games and structures, urban furniture with more public toilets for mothers with strollers, and open spaces that include more benches for older residents and people with reduced mobility. Not to mention, more conscious lighting in certain corners to encourage crime prevention and reduce the statistics of rape and/or vandalism.

The network of professionals Un Día/Una Arquitecta in Latin America also work hard to promote the biographical work of women involved in architecture and planning. However, they struggle to find documented material to support their work and while many female architects in the past often faced discrimination and skepticism, their influence has led to better-designed cities.

Revisiting the stories of these women through film, documentaries and biographies reinforce the vision exposed in the Manifesto for the Commonwealth women in planning:

“When women directly participate in developing policy and are meaningfully included in the decision-making process, both as professionals, and as a stakeholder, development policies are more effective, inclusive, and sustainable, the built environment is more equitable, and community-wide resilience is enhanced, benefiting all members of the community.”

What stories of women in planning do you feel need to be told?

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