Lessons from the Past and Looking to the Future: BUCPUA Celebrates Women’s History Month

(Graphic by Emanne Khan)

March is Women’s History Month, and amidst the hustle and bustle of the semester BUCPUA recognizes the unique role that women have played in urban planning throughout the years. Women are historically underrepresented as leaders in the profession, but change is happening both at BU and across the world to increase women’s visibility and participation in urban planning spaces.

Sexism in Our Cities

From its sidewalks to its public transportation systems, the average American city was not built with women’s needs in mind. Urban scholar and historian Dolores Hayden focused on this fact in her groundbreaking 1980 article, “What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work.”

Hayden argued that much of our physical environment was designed at a time when women were expected to stay at home caring for their families, and architects and urban planners did not prepare for women to enter the labor force as they did in large numbers during the 1960s. “Dwellings, neighborhoods, and cities designed for homebound women constrain women physically, socially, and economically,” Hayden wrote. 

From Hayden’s perspective, conventional, single-family homes with their private, self-contained spaces isolate women as they carry out housekeeping tasks. Women who attempt to move beyond the isolated, single-family home find it difficult navigating from residential areas to places of employment to childcare services, because cities were built around the idea that “the traditional household with a male worker and an unpaid homemaker is the goal to be achieved or stimulated.”

Today, women still face many challenges in their interactions with urban design. A 2011 Gallup poll identified a 23 percent gap in the number of men versus women in high income countries who say they feel safe walking alone in their cities at night. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, women use public transportation more than men, but public transportation infrastructure does not always include accommodations for women who might be traveling with children. Bus and train stations are often located far from employment hubs, forcing women to make long, potentially dangerous walks on poorly lit streets. Public parks do not always have bathrooms for women, or well-lit open spaces where women are less likely to be harassed. 

Why are women’s needs still being left out of the equation? It helps to start at the top. Women are woefully underrepresented in positions of authority and influence within the urban planning and design worlds. Urban anthropologist Katrina Zimmerman-Johnston observed in 2017 that women made up less than half of the speakers at the foremost urbanist conferences that year, and only six percent of contributors to a 2016 edition of the Routledge Press City Reader. Women hold only 17 spots on the most recent edition of Planetizen’s list of the 100 most influential urbanists.

“If you have the same people around the table who have been trying to solve the same challenges for 50 years, nothing will change,” planning advocate Lynn Ross told Zimmerman-Johnston. “I think it’s important to have women not only at the table, but women running the meeting, setting the table, bringing voices in and leading. She has a variety of perspectives, as a caretaker, as a mother, as a sister, but also—she’s an urbanist—and she has something to say about cities and how they work.”

Time for Change

The lack of recognition and space for woman urbanist leaders is a challenge current BUCPUA students Ashiyana Swar, MUA and Maria Alejandra Santa, MCP are tackling head-on through the new BU Women in Urban Planning (WUP) collaborative, which they launched in February.

Swar reached out to Santa, a fellow member of the BU Urban Planning Association, about starting a professional group for women after observing “all the remarkable women” in the CPUA program. “It was very enriching and enlightening to hear about all the diverse backgrounds of where these women were coming from both professionally and personally,” Swar said. “And as I reflected, I envisioned there can perhaps be a lot of growth, if all the women in our program came together to build a community for dialogue and advancement.”

Santa added that she hardly knew Swar before they got together to discuss starting a women’s group, but they immediately clicked once they started talking. “I wondered, well, if that [connection] happened to Ashiyana and [me], what is going to happen if we really build a community where we feel safe to talk about women’s problems, issues that we face, how we feel outside, how we feel walking?” Santa said. 

Santa and Swar began conducting research to inform WUP’s mission and goals, and the statistics they found were disappointing, if not surprising. According to a 2020 World Bank report, women occupy only 10 percent of the highest ranking jobs at leading architecture firms and urban planning offices worldwide. 

“And for the 10 percent of the women in these positions, we reflected on their journeys, and we were actually inspired to increase the percentage of women [in] these high ranking positions,” Swar said. 

After establishing the need for a group like WUP, Santa and Swar turned to Dr. Madhu Dutta-Koehler, CPUA Director and Associate Professor of Practice, for support. Dr. Dutta-Koehler is an MIT-trained planner who in addition to overseeing the CPUA program at BU, serves as the president and co-founder of Urbanability, a non-profit organization that designs technology-integrated strategies to improve the health and well-being of all urban residents.

As a woman holding multiple leadership roles in urban planning, Dr. Dutta-Koehler is well-acquainted with the challenges women face advancing in the field. “Historically, it is very hard and challenges the status quo when women think differently, speak differently, communicate differently,” Dutta-Koehler said. “And it always feels that [women] have to prove [themselves] more than most.”

Guided by their goal of creating a space for advancement, empowerment, and career-building, WUP held their inaugural event on March 5th. At the virtual event, a group of CPUA students and alumnae gathered to listen to a speech by Dr. Dutta-Koehler and connect with each other. Both Santa and Swar said it was a rousing success.

Santa shared that WUP’s next event will be a career development panel on March 26th where a professor and a planning alumna will give insight into their career journeys. Other upcoming events include a meditation event, a zumba session, and a wine and paint night.

“Without acknowledging the significance of personal and professional growth which go hand [in] hand, we cannot become the leaders we are aspiring to be in the future,” Swar added.

When asked if they have any advice for women at other institutions considering forming a group or collaborative, Swar and Santa said, “Just do it, representation matters. One of the most crucial things for us being in the urban planning field is [building] and creating a community that works for all. And we believe, this is one of those little pieces that can forge a new beginning of  building a stronger and hopeful community.”

Thanks to ambitious groups like WUP working to break down barriers to positions of power and influence, urban planning is slowly but surely becoming more equitable. Dr. Dutta-Koehler noted that like many sectors of our society, there’s still a long way to go, but change is possible with intentional effort. 

“I think it’s been a long time coming, that we are recognizing women’s contributions and their caliber,” Dutta-Koehler said. “And I think this is a really great time for us to understand that women leaders have had equal success, but in different ways. If we want to see that kind of inclusiveness, if we want to see that kind of representation, we have to be intentional and strong and make it happen.”

From BUCPUA, Happy Women’s History Month! 

To learn more about WUP, read about their mission and executive board https://www.bu.edu/cityplanning/people/students/buwomeninurbanplanning/ and follow them on Instagram @bu_wup for updates.

Emanne Khan, CAS ’23