For our penultimate event in this year’s WEdesign series, Relearning Place, we visited the city of Glasgow in Scotland on Wednesday 8 March to work with students and tutors Miranda Webster and Isabel Deakin from Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh School of Architecture and Missing in Architecture (MiA). Hosted at the beautiful Civic House, we welcomed a varied group of participants to explore our third Relearning Place theme, REdefine.
This event sought to explore how Glasgow and other cities across the UK can be redefined as feminist spaces, exploring these ideas through a creative and interactive co-design activity. This theme was inspired by Glasgow City Council backing a proposal in October 2022 which will see the city become the first in the UK to make women central to all aspects of planning, public realm design, policy development and budgets.
We were joined by students, academics, practitioners and community members from across the city on International Women’s Day 2023 to explore how feminist spaces, theories and practices can make a more inclusive and equitable built environment for us all. Jules Scheele, a Glasgow-based illustrator, also joined us to create a live illustration which captured the emerging ideas and themes from the evening’s discussion and activities.
Setting up The Space
We have been working with a group of post-graduate students from the Mackintosh School of Architecture, who, alongside leading the facilitation and discussion during our co-design task, also created a series of provocative photo prompts and activities for our event space. Inspired by the idea of feminist spaces and design, the students traversed Glasgow before the event to collect a series of thought-provoking images of non-feminist or inequitable built environment realities. These included images of raised curbs at crossing points, stair-only options at thresholds to public transport spaces, religious propaganda posters and uneven street surfaces, to name just a few.
The students also wanted to create a live capture of our participants, using a life-size outline of the ‘average’ man and woman (taken from the Architect’s Hand Book – an industry guide containing technical information that many designers use to inform the size, volume and shape of the spaces they create). These were printed life size and pinned to one of the walls. Arriving participants were then invited to stand in front of the images, and add their own outline to create a live map of the people in the room. Overwhelmingly, we saw that both the outlines were far too small compared to the average height of our participants, which sparked an interesting discussion of whether we are designing places to an average that is out of touch with reality.
Both these activities promoted conversation and introduced participants stepping into the room to what the students meant by a ‘feminist city’, and the themes that each of them are exploring within their own work and research.
Co-designing Feminist Interventions for the City
Sophia welcomed our participants into the space, introducing the event before inviting Miranda, a GSA tutor and one of founding members of MiA, to set the scene by exploring the theme of feminist cities and how they are exploring this within their work with students. We were also joined by Holly Bruce, who is the Green Councillor at Glasgow City Council who put forward the motion for a shift to feminist town planning, centred around the needs and perspectives of women.
Our participants were invited to sit at one of 4 tables which each explored the theme of redefine through the lens of either community, education, practice or ecology. Our student facilitation teams had each prepared a series of prompting thoughts, questions and provocations centred around their chosen theme and feminist city-making; “Pausing and extended pausing requires some degree of comfort”, “What is feminist ecology?”, “How can we encourage everyone to engage in their community?”. Using these prompts as starting points, the student teams then led each of the groups through a discussion and co-design task, exploring ‘what if’ interventions and ideas for urban spaces and cities across the UK that could redefine how we consider each of the lenses to create more feminist (and therefore equitable) spaces.
Our education table was interested in how we can shift perceptions of education, which currently value formal education (school, university etc.) over less formal examples (such as cooking), to bring both to the table as equal.
Their proposal, a feminist square which could be added to any urban space or city centre, sought to shift how we consider, define, and therefore value, education throughout our lives. The ‘square’, which would be located geographically centrally in a city, would be a welcome space designed for everyone. It would be a space for learning from others, stepping into each other’s shoes to understand how we each move through the city and the obstacles (both physical and otherwise) that we each face. The ‘square’ was actually designed as a circle, physically representing the lack of barriers to the space and inviting people in to learn freely.
The feminist square would not only aim to redefine education, but also current streetscapes, turning traditional cities on their heads by featuring feminist street names (for example, Chrystal Macmillan Street) and female statues to create a physical representation of change. This group challenged our current notions of education, and argued that emotional and social learning need to be valued on the same level as university degrees or other formal routes to bring about a more feminist future.
Our community table’s student facilitators started their conversation by asking each of their participants, “What does community mean to you?”. They settled on a definition rooted in good communication and lots of connections (represented by the many arrows in their model).
They acknowledged that whilst many places do have thriving communities and locally-based activities, these can often feel hidden or inaccessible to newcomers in an area, or people outside of local connections. This felt particularly poignant for people who don’t have the time or resources, often taken up with full-time working and family life, to dedicate energy to unearthing these networks and communities. They considered how the era of Covid has drawn particular focus and understanding (both as individuals and as a collective society) to the importance and power of local communities, how vital they are and how we need to be valuing them further.
In response to this, the community group proposed a community fair. Taking place in underutilised spaces across cities as a way to bring these spaces back into use, the community fair would be an open event to highlight and showcase the many initiatives going on in local areas or within local communities.
When considering how the community fair could work, participants noted that current policies (such as the Community Empowerment Act) put a strong onus on community-based groups to be leading local activities and conversations. They acknowledged that this is fantastic in principle, but in reality often communities are underfunded, both in terms of time and money, and members of these groups are already juggling multiple roles, both in more formal job roles but also as family members and carers. We can’t expect people to keep up with the increasing demands of modern life alongside carrying the health of their local community too. Therefore, we need to explore ways in which we can work together, bringing communities, local people, groups, councils and authorities into one space to ask “what can we do together?”.
Our ecology student facilitator also started their table’s discussion by asking what ecology meant to each of the participants, which fruited a range of definitions centred around the idea of a network, both human and inhuman (animals, plants etc.) of people, places and the natural world around us. One of the participants highlighted that Glasgow has one of the highest numbers of parks and green spaces of cities in Scotland, but that this is not obvious from their experience of living in the city as the green spaces are so disjointed, disconnected from the wider city and often penned in, hidden behind walls and fences. They wondered, how can we connect all of our city’s inhabitants, both human and animal, whilst considering safety and accessibility?
It was noted that often things that can be good for nature (e.g. fewer street lights, more wooded areas) can make cities feel less safe or secure for their human inhabitants. How can we balance ecological voices with human needs in cities? Is it about relearning our personal experience and responsibilities (e.g. carrying a head torch for dark spaces), challenging crime and antisocial behaviour that makes people feel unsafe or using interventions that aren’t detrimental to nature (e.g. certain coloured lighting which doesn’t interfere with bats). We acknowledged that the answer lay somewhere between all of these points, but also that this conversation should be underpinned with the very feminist principle of choice.
In that vein, our Ecology group proposed adding layers of pathways and routes into cities, with various layers of access for animals and humans. The crux of this idea was that there was no one prescriptive route or path to travel to get from place to place, but instead a network of journeys. This idea acknowledged that we are all different individuals with different wants and needs (nature included), and by offering lots of different choices, we are able to create multilayered cities which give us all a place to feel welcome and travel the routes and spaces we want to. On reflection, this group realised what they were proposing was an ecology in itself, a physical ecology for the city that created a network of somehow “messier” systems and connections between people, their places and nature which challenges the formal grid-like structures we so often impose on cities.
The practice group started by questioning and looking closely at how we currently practice cities in terms of designing and building, but with a particular focus on movement, freedom of movement and how this affects access and use. They wanted to consider what re-practicing cities might look like, and focused their conversation and proposition at street level, taking a typical Glaswegian street as their starting point. They added a range of propositions, from more lighting and green spaces, to free public transport and public toilets.
They discussed how often streets don’t feel comfortable, accessible or safe for lots of people, and feature design choices, such as high curbs or cobblestones, that impact modern accessibility needs. They pondered if the route of this discomfort draws from much of the urban fabric around us being inherited, made up of pre-1980’s material designed predominantly by able-bodied white, middle-class men (of course, this is a generalisation, but does hold true for many of our cities). As one participant put it, “Spaces weren’t designed by people like me, we’re not thought of.” It’s important to note that whilst this historical design bias has no intentional maliciousness, it does mean that current cityscapes function best for a particular demographic.
Looking back to practice, this group proposed more inclusive and diverse design teams that open up conversations to a wider group of voices. In doing so, their hope is that the design, building and management of our spaces becomes more equitable resulting in cities which work for us all. They also hoped that in time, this could also shift who the decision makers are to create a more democratic and equitable future.
Joining the Conversations Back Together
Following each of our tables sharing back their key discussion points, creations and propositions for change, we brought the room back together to close REdefine with a joined up conversation that summarised some of the key points from the evening:
- Inclusivity, a key feminist principle, is key to the success of designing, building, managing and maintaining our cities through all phases of its (and our) lives.
- Connection is vital and important, not only in how we create and manage cities, but also in how we operate as individuals within society. The theme of connection emerged strongly from within each of our groups, from connecting through community fairs and to creating a city-wide ecological network.
We wrapped up our evening by asking ourselves what needs to change to create a more feminist built environment now and in the future:
- We felt there was a need to acknowledge that the participants at REdefine were of a similar mindset, and to shift external perceptions we each need to do our part in cascading these ideas outside of our community of interest. Sophia challenged each of our participants to share one interesting thought or something they had learned from the evening with a friend, a colleague or even someone on the bus! Sharing (and communication) is key to trickling these ideas out further, sprinkling seeds that can grow in the future.
- We were also keen to keep creating spaces for hopeful, creative conversations about the future which don’t shy away from our collective problems in the here and now. We felt it was vital that these embed that element of hope, and create action now to form the future we all want to see.
Finally, coming back to the theme of REdefine, we agreed that through communication, we need to redefine what works in our shared spaces, and even re-examine what (and who) cities are for, and how we connect the built reality back to these ideas and hopes.
We like to extend a huge thank you to everyone who joined us in Glasgow, and offered their time, thoughts and creative energy to our evening. A big thank you also to our wonderful student facilitators from the Mackintosh School of Architecture, and Isabel Deakin and Miranda Webster, tutors and co-founders of Missing in Architecture. Finally, to Civic House for hosting us in their beautiful event space, which was the perfect setting for this inspiring and provocative event full of rich conversation and generosity.