Advocacy, education and outreach in support of Vancouver's public spaces

By VPSN Blog

April 6, 2017 at 10:00 AM

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Vancouver’s new gender equity strategy: Weigh in now and on April 19

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Hot tub parklet, Vancouver. Photo: Paul Krueger under Creative Commons license

by Wendee Lang, VPSN Open Spaces

For those interested in Vancouver’s role in promoting gender equality, now is the time to chime in. Working with the Women’s Advisory Committee, City staff have recently launched a review of the 2005 Gender Equality Strategy, and they’re looking for your feedback. In fact, you can start participating immediately.

So what’s all this about?

Designed to spur action on gender-based discrimination and improve equality, Vancouver’s Gender Equality Strategy envisions a city where all those who self-identify as women “have opportunities to fully participate in the political, economic, cultural and social life of Vancouver.” The strategy is very much a localized complement to larger national and international efforts.

Now that the policy is dated by more than a decade, the City has recently resolved to establish a process to review and update it by having staff work with the Women’s Advisory Committee. The revised strategy will also integrate other “recently adopted policy, such as that in the Healthy City and Mental Health and Addictions Task Force, and [will take] into account a change in national and provincial context” (Council motion, April 16, 2016).

As part of this process, the City is looking for feedback from groups and individuals, which it will integrate into the updated strategy. You can provide comments on the strategy either via the Talk Vancouver survey (open now!) or at the April 19 gender equity forum (4–8 pm, Creekside Community Centre).

Where public space comes in

When we think about how gender politics play out in physical cityscapes, we need to think about for whom, and by whom, public spaces are designed. Often, the lens through which spaces are shaped is male by default and does not necessarily consider the different ways women navigate their environments. This lack of spatial inclusion in many ways perpetuates inequality between genders.

As a group, we at the VPSN believe that the points below are key to bridging the equity gap between genders in the context of public space.

The importance of data

Gathering local data on how women use public space is key to equitable planning. The collection must moreover take into account how different groups of women – based on dimensions such as age, race and economic class – use the space.

Without baseline data, planning rests on assumptions and information that are not specific to context. For instance, while we know that women tend to use transit in more heterogeneous ways than men, in part because of their propensity to fill caretaking roles, we don’t know how women residents of Vancouver use TransLink. In Vienna, gathering data on women’s use of transit and public space was key to the early progressive, gender-based planning projects for which that city is known worldwide, and such data-gathering continues to influence infrastructure design there.

Cycling on Union Street 3

Cycling on Union Street, Vancouver. Photo: Paul Krueger

Data are additionally integral to driving where we build new public spaces and what facilities they contain. For example, women with children – both their own and other people’s – tend to be among the most frequent users of public space. With this in mind, we can look at our city and make family-friendly public space decisions in the context of the services these women use.

City staff and foundational thinking

Gender should be integrated into the organization of the City through the creation of roles specific to the pursuit of gender equality (such as Vienna’s project manager of gender mainstreaming). Gender experts must work within a variety of City departments, from Engineering Services to Planning, Urban Design and Sustainability; from Community Services to Development, Buildings and Licensing.

The City can also implement gender budgeting, a process that “[reviews] all parts of the budget from a gender-perspective and [presents], in a separate chapter, who benefit from different items in the budget.”

Finally, gender awareness training should be a mandatory component of employing City workers. By embedding gender sensitivity in the DNA of the City as an organization, we can work towards more intersectional and equitable planning.

Visibility in public spaces

We’d like to see the City work to increase the visibility of women in public spaces, with a keen eye towards ensuring diverse representation. This can be done through events and marches like Take Back the Night or a women-led Jane’s Walk, and through public art that emphasizes and documents women’s presence in public space. This is key, as for centuries, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks, citizens have used public space as a way of exercising their rights and participating in democracy, and yet women, especially young girls above the age of 12, are much less likely to do so. Through the symbolic interactionism of making sure that women can see other women using public space, we can begin to change this.


Let’s treat our city as a living lab, experimenting with the creation of equitable spaces, without being afraid to fail. Since it began investing in gender-sensitive planning in the nineties, Vienna has completed more than 60 gender-mainstreaming pilot projects. Making use of the pilot project model would allow Vancouver to test-run options, see how public spaces are used by women and witness what works and what doesn’t. The City could also encourage women-only design competitions of varying scales, allowing women to remake previously male-designed spaces in their own ways.


While discussions around safety often focus on increased lighting and security cameras (whose importance we don’t dispute), we’d like to see the conversation broadened to include the protective role of actual human beings. To quote Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it behind.”

Additionally, women should be equally present as symbols of safety: as security guards, bus drivers and SkyTrain attendants. Thus they would not only serve as resources for women wishing to seek help from other women, but they would act as empowering symbols: women as purveyors of safety.


By understanding how women use transit in Vancouver, we can start to change the way we build infrastructure and better allow for mobility of care. Sidewalks can be widened where needed to allow more room for strollers and wheelchairs, a measure that has been taken in Vienna (significant given that European streets in general tend to be even narrower than Vancouver’s). The City could investigate methods of surfacing park pathways that would be environmentally sound while encouraging a diversity of abilities (wheelchairs, walkers, etc.). Research has also shown that as women tend to be more risk-averse than men, building bike lanes, especially separated ones, can help bridge the gender gap in cycling. And of course, we have to be vigilant when it comes to making public transit safe for women and continue to make people aware of the See Something, Say Something campaign run by Vancouver’s transit police.


Finally, there need to be more female washrooms in public space, period. This is a very simple requirement that’s consistently overlooked, particularly in the Downtown Eastside.

What you can do

Gender mainstreaming and equitable public space planning make up a vast topic, and this article only scratches the surface.

Speak your own mind! What do you think could make Vancouver work better for women? Come to the April 19 forum at Creekside Community Centre. If you can’t make it, share your thoughts via the Talk Vancouver survey.


Top image: Hot tub parklet, Vancouver. Photo: Paul Krueger

All photos under Creative Commons license 

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