Whose Streets?

Women’s Streets

This is the first article in the ‘Whose Streets?’ feature, which reappraises the history and heritage of streets as politically active rather than neutral territories in the organisation of public life. Articles in this series focus on different street localities and are accompanied by a storymap (a free tool developed by Northwestern University Knight Lab). Each storymap appears after the article and pioneers an experimental form of spatial history-telling, walking you through city streets of the past.

Looking at and seeing walking women, makes us acutely aware of diverse inequalities of urban space. It also motivates us to think about the politics involved in everyday tasks of nurture and care that take place on the streets. With good reason, the history and present-day experience of sexual harassment is often discussed as something that has kept women from roaming the streets freely. As Rebecca Solnit points out, women are excluded from the public realm through street names and statuary which overwhelmingly commemorate men. There is evidence that women are less physically active than men in many places around the world, especially in cities that have unpleasant or unsafe walking environments. However, my own research indicates that women have walked the urban streets in large numbers, even if their presence and needs have often been overlooked. This article draws upon research in which I employ innovative methodologies for visual analysis, targeted at bringing a multitude of women on the streets into focus.

While studying the history of urban traffic, I consulted material which included 3,500 archival photographs depicting the streets of Turku, in Finland. Rather than being taken to record pedestrian activity, these photographs were intended to catalogue the built environment. In the process, they also captured vehicles and people moving in the street space. I analyzed the relative frequency of different traffic modes with the help of photographs, as statistical data was very scarce. This lack of data is no coincidence, as post-war traffic planning concentrated heavily on calculating and predicting the flows of motorized vehicles (mainly cars), and ignored non-motorized modes. I prepared dot maps of everyone on the street and decided to mark pedestrians by gender, whenever I could assume this from the photographs. Very soon, I realized that the photographic material revealed a city of walking women.

In rubber boots and high-heel shoes – walking women are everywhere in the historical photographic material. Photo: Kristiinankatu street 1954, Gustaf Welin/Turku Museum Centre.

Whereas written sources might capture attitudes towards walking or document special cases of extraordinary walking, photographs can offer glimpses of everyday walking on ordinary streets. When the photographic data set is large enough it can give insight into practices that have been very common but are rarely documented or studied in written form. Photographs show walking women as the largest group on the streets, larger than other recognizable group of persons (men or children or animals) or any type of moving vehicles. This is especially obvious in the photographs taken during the decades following the Second World War. Whereas the photographs from earlier decades concentrated on a couple of inner-city streets and squares, now a wider variety of streets was depicted and on almost all of them women were overwhelmingly in the majority. On residential streets with small stores but also on many busier streets, two-thirds or even three-quarters of pedestrians in the photographs are women. In the inner-city, the numbers of male and female pedestrians are even until the 1960s when the women start to outnumber men there as well.

Who are these women and what are they doing on the streets? In answering this question, it is essential to take account of diversity and resist over-simplification. Women in the photographs walk for many reasons: They walk alone and together. They walk in groups and pairs. They walk in rubber boots and high-heeled shoes. They wear headscarves and fashionable hats. They are young and old and everything in between. Many of them are probably housewives, but many have a paid job. Already in 1950 more than half of the women in Finnish cities worked outside the home. Many women walk with children, but even more of them walk completely alone. What unites almost all of them is that they seem to walk purposefully; they concentrate on going somewhere or reaching an implied destination rather than just taking a stroll or stopping to talk. And they almost always carry something: a bag, a parcel, a basket, a bucket. They are carrying groceries, taking out household waste, fetching and delivering things and people. Their walking serves others as much as themselves, taking care of hungry dependents and caring for the whole city. In many ways, this is still true today.

Present-day surveys show that women have different transport patterns from men, typically ‘chaining’ their trips to take care of domestic responsibilities and caregiving duties, alongside their day jobs and personal necessities. Women still make many trips on foot–in the EU countries twice as many as men–and in developing countries, the everyday domestic transport burden lays heavily on women and their walking labour.

Women’s walking is not a trivial question in urban transport and spatial justice policy making. Historical approaches can help us give due weight to these issues.
Photo: Puutarhakatu street 1958, C.J.Gardberg/Turku Museum Centre.

In the post-war period, many European cities went through a major transformation, and so did Turku. High-modernist ideals of urban design were based on the segregation of functions and traffic types. Planners saw American-inspired car cities as their goal. Making space for cars motivated large-scale demolitions and restructuring. This planning ideal was not particularly long-lived, but it coincided with a period of rapid urbanization and high building activity that formed the city for decades to come.

Planners sought to make cities more efficient, but the efficiency was unevenly distributed. For example, women had fewer possibilities of using privately-owned motor vehicles for their trips, compared to men. Car cities also made walking more difficult and unpleasant, by transforming urban streets into motorized traffic corridors. Dense, small-scale urban structures were replaced with massive suburbs, out-of-town shopping centres and industrial, commercial or business areas separated by long distances and car infrastructure.

Urban streets were streets of walking women, but they were redesigned like walking women did not exist or matter. Both walking and gender have been rendered invisible in the understanding of transport and in the planning of transport systems. All the while there have been voices drawing attention to this exclusion. Jane Jacobs wrote in her extremely influential 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities about the social importance of everyday movement on the sidewalks of a dense city. The London-based feminist architecture co-operative Matrix forcefully highlighted the gendered nature of urban planning in its 1984 book Making Space, pointing out that cities were planned for men and for male patterns of mobility:

Modern cities have been planned to segregate different aspects of life; homes, shops, factories and offices are all in separate areas. This segregation has affected women more than men, because our lives have never been so neatly partitioned between the different areas of work, leisure and home in the way that men’s have.
(Making Space, page 4.)

At the moment, there are new voices and initiatives calling for gender-sensitive planning in order to create more egalitarian cities. Walkability and bikeability have attracted broad new interest in the face of environmental threats. Still, most cities today are characterized by large-scale street infrastructure and parking solutions built for cars. The amount of space, money and infrastructural care allocated to all the other modes is modest in comparison. As middle-class men drive cars much more than other groups in society, the majority of public space; streets, roads and parking lots, is inequitably utilised. Rather than trying to provide equal access to automobility, we should demand urban streets that do not ignore walking women. This request is not about essentializing female typologies, but about making visible the care and bodies that form cities as much as concrete and asphalt do.

Judith Butler has argued that the politics of demonstrating is about exposing corporeal vulnerabilities and interdependencies–about people existing on the street as bodies with needs and requirements. Following walking women leads to the proposition that taking seriously the most mundane and basic needs can be the most radical thing to do. Taking those needs seriously also means giving them enough space and value in the urban landscape. Seeing walking women, past and present, is a good place to start.

The author wishes to thank the photography archive of Turku Museum Centre for all their help with the photographs.

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