Toward A More “Feminine” Urbanism

“A city must be a place where groups of women and men are seeking and developing the highest things they know.” ~Margaret Mead

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By Will Selman

In a recent blog post, I explored the vision and process by which Pierre L’Enfant designed the city of Washington. Essentially, I reported on the work of Nicholas Mann, in his book entitled “The Sacred Geometry of Washington DC.” At the end of the book, Mr. Mann touches on the idea of re-emphasizing what he terms the feminine aspects inherent in the grand power of the Golden Mean, the foundation of L’Enfant’s design. In this era of “metoo” and gender fluidity, this is a fairly intimidating topic for a male to approach; even so, the last paragraph of my article prompted a couple of people to suggest that I take on the matter of what a more feminine urbanism might involve.

The spiritual thinker Ken Wilber was once asked what meditation would look like if it had been developed by women rather than men, meditation being an effort to reach an elevated spiritual state. His answer was essentially that men will meditate by “staring at a blank wall” for torturous hours to gain that elevated state, while a feminine approach to spiritual growth comes in the form of healing, nurturing, and relationships, as exemplified by those women mystics of medieval Europe who served the victims of leprosy intimately and at the risk of their lives.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to a conventional view of the feminine as the more creative and artistic, and the masculine as the more practical and logical; men and women carry each within them. However, these notions provide a useful prism through which to view a potential future for American urbanism. Seen through this prism, what the Founding Fathers imagined for the nation was a move toward the feminine. In a letter to his wife, President John Adams wrote, “… I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” I see a progression here reminiscent of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But somehow it feels as if we have become stuck, not progressing as Adams envisioned. When we think of urbanism, the dominant setting in which we find ourselves, how can we move forward, beyond concrete and asphalt?

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Beginning in the early 1990’s the city of Vienna, Austria undertook a process of gender “mainstreaming” its physical infrastructure, in order to create greater equity. Over 60 projects have since focused on this, including improved street lighting, wider sidewalks, and making parks and recreation programming more accessible to girls. More significantly, the city studied transit modalities– large discrepancies were found between men and women; women use more varied modalities and routes to more destinations, and at different times of day. Transit policies were adjusted accordingly. There is even a gender expert on the city’s urban planning staff. The largest effort however, is the Frauen Werk Stadt projects. These Women’s Work Cities have been fully designed and programmed by and for women as mixed use residential projects. These projects are reminiscent of the medieval Begijnhofs of northern Europe, small clustered neighborhoods which provided unmarried women with a form of communal living. The featured image for this article shows the begijnhof in Brugge, Belgium. Numerous cities across Europe are now following Vienna’s lead.

How could considering the “feminine” in urbanism change the future of our cities? Urbanistically speaking, how do the masculine and feminine re-shape themselves? It might be cliché to think of the masculine as infrastructure, but these days, both infrastructure and the masculine are crumbling. Perhaps each of these two sides of the coin, the masculine and feminine, can benefit from taking on traits that are traditionally ascribed to the other. This is symbolized in the Vesica Piscis (sometimes called the Mandorla), the western equivalent of the eastern yin-yang. It signifies the process by which opposites take on each other’s qualities; masculine takes on the feminine, feminine takes on masculine qualities. What our cities need then, is an attitude of healing, nurturing, and relationship. What does this look like specifically?

Vesica Piscis

Here in the US, a distinct set of issues looms. Repair of the suburban pattern of sprawl, the re-enlivening of older abandoned cities, and the reversal of environmental degradation are primary concerns. With old infrastructure in desperate need of repair, a new way of imagining is in order. For instance, rather than simply rebuilding worn out stormwater systems, the process of “daylighting,” bringing streams back out of the underground pipes to which they have been relegated, may be more appropriate. The replacement of inner-city freeways with traditional boulevards can provide more gracious and sustainable solutions to more than just the single problem of transportation. Mixed uses rather than isolated pods of activity… street networks that offer options of connections and variety rather than street hierarchies that provide only one auto-centric path. Viewing water as an opportunity rather than a problem to be solved; better street lighting, greater variety in open space and recreational opportunities, a larger role for the arts, wetland restoration rather than only hardened infrastructure to protect low-lying cities from sea level rise, collaborative public charrettes rather than conventional design processes… these all are reflective of a more inclusive and “feminine” urbanism.

Specific to the design of Washington, the feminine aspects of geometry — inclusivity and relationship — should be emphasized. An approach to this includes the dispersion of “participatory” memorials throughout the entire city, rather than the clustering of “heroic” monuments in and around the Mall. In this way, the nation’s capital begins to reach out to the states, rather than metaphorically hoarding too much symbolic power to itself.

I don’t know what the center of an “urban Mandorla” looks like, nor do any of us– it is an emergent quality that comes from a recognition of the value of both sides of the divide we have created (masculine/ feminine, technical engineering/ naturalistic green). The Mandorla represents, as Mr. Mann has related to me, “an endlessly creative and generative process of birth.” We are only now as a culture beginning to value the two sides equally. The places we design reflect the values we hold. Both are in need of transition now.

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Will Selman is a New Urbanist land planner and developer who consults on land development, master plans and site planning, urban design, zoning ordinances, municipal visioning, and charrettes.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published March 26, 2018 on The Urban Evolutionary.

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