Brief: After years of work in gender oriented projects and in gender sensitive criteria for the city of Vienna, urban planner Eva Kail discusses her background and work which has contributed in Vienna to be one of the leading Cities in regard to gender sensitive planning. An interview from Vienna by Eva Álvarez and Carlos Gómez.
Who defines what good architecture or good planning is? Who takes care of specific architectural problems? How do we assess the results? Who listens to users’ needs? Sometimes, as practitioners or teachers, we easily accept as good design what comes from abroad without inquiring it.
Eva Kail has been troubled with these questions since the 80’s, when she noticed cities were planned by designers who were not aware of all the urban inhabitants’ actual needs, particularly the needs of women. So, in Vienna, Kail has supported the mainstreaming of gender perspective in planning and architecture, that is to say, she has promoted Equality between women and men by first analysing the effects different designs hold on women and men, respectively, and secondly by establishing pilot projects and a good practices catalogues what actually means an attempt to contribute to social justice by opening new themes and processes to discussion.
We speak in this interview on her starting point and on her look back to the results until this moment.
Eva Álvarez, Carlos Gómez (EACG): How did you begin, in the early ‘90s, your approach to architecture and urban planning with gender perspective?
Eva Kail (EK): During my studies and the beginning of my professional life there was no connection between my private interest in feminist literature and my planning activities. The real initiative to engage me in the Planning Administration for Gender issues began with a weekend event, organized by the Viennese women’s section of the Social Democratic party. I was invited to head the urban planning workshop. I decided to work with the diverse experience of the women attending: every woman told us about her feelings about living in Vienna, her daily routines, and the description and identification of the constraints in her timetable and her mobility pattern which was also an important topic. This workshop was so interesting that we decided to continue a workshop series where attendant students were sociologist and architects and as well some elder women engaged in the Social Democratic party. I also invited some women from the Planning Administration in Vienna; one of them, a social worker, told us in how the 50’s the social democratic women organized in Vienna a large exhibition titled ‘Die Frau und ihre Wohnung’ - ‘Woman and her apartment’- where modern flats in a scale 1:1 were shown, so you could check the modern furniture. So we decided to make an exhibition too. We stated: “It’s time to occupy ourselves not only with housing and the apartments, the women’s traditional sphere, but with the whole city”; and especially with public space. At that time, this was not a usual topic for the planners…The title for the exhibition was ‘Whom does public space belong: Women’s everyday life in the city’ -Wem gehört der öffentliche Raum: Frauenalltag in der Stadt, 1991-. This was the beginning of everything.
EACG: How did you manage to organise this exhibition in Vienna? Who supported you?
EK: Inspired by the workshop I wrote a concept that was focused on pedestrian needs, green areas and public space to demonstrate their influence on daily life of women and girls. At that time, this was something new. With this concept, I went to the Planning City councillor who supported the idea. We engaged two professional photographers to document one day in the life of a girl, a young woman, an elder women, a student in a wheelchair, a Turkish woman, a family mother, a single mother, and very old woman, to show the different patterns of the use of space for different life situations; all this in order to comment on the city from a women’s perspective. At that time, I was already working at the Technical Direction as the first female expert. I also worked together with a co-worker in the City Development and Town Planning Department’s Jutta Kleedorfer. We worked for half a year, and published also a book, which was sold during the exhibition. The exhibition vernissage was in September 10th 1991 and it remained open for more than two months at Wiener Messepalast, a top exhibition space in the city. Since it was such an extraordinary topic at that time, there was a good resonance in the media. Four thousand people visited the exhibition, which was quite a lot for a planning exhibition. I think these positive reactions showed the responsible politicians that female issues in town planning were a promising field. And due to my engagement, I was asked to become the first head of the new established Women’s Department (MA 57) in Vienna City Council working with Ursula Bauer who, at that point in time, was allocated as assistant at this new Department. As head of this department, it was possible for me to initiate the Frauen Werk Stadt Vienna — at 360 apartments, the biggest housing project in Europe built by female architects with special regard to women’s interests and needs. I also fostered a study about the different use and attendance in parks and playgrounds by girls and boys. And we carried out a pilot project about security in public space.
EACG: Have you had any success in transforming the city of Vienna?
EK: Yes, we have. For instance, in the subsidised housing sector in Vienna – a very important one. This is really gender mainstreaming. Since 1997, I am part of the judgment of the developer competitions; another co-worker is part of the pre-qualification for small projects. Being part of the decision process for important financial means gave us influence. We understand our role in these competitions and qualification processes acts as “consumer protection”, trying to take the user’s perspective. We also pursue quality of the space. So we have assessed more than a thousand projects over the years.
We also tackled projects of gender-sensitive parks encouraging politicians to promote the design of open space which should take also into account the specific needs of girls and women since, as studies and analysis noticed, these needs are different. The broad scope research done by sociologists -we promoted- shows girls have less chances and opportunities to occupy the open space – playgrounds and public parks- by feeling unsafe or because the design of playgrounds and spatial structures are orientated on boys interests only. The study, with its evident results, created awareness for the responsible politicians in Vienna. Then, we conducted six pilot projects, four of them with participatory processes; and we made evaluations afterwards showing girls have really better chances to freely use and occupy open space with a gender-sensitive design what increases the visibility of women and girls in the public sphere. Out of the experience of these pilot projects, we developed a guideline for the gender-sensitive design of parks and playgrounds, which has become part of the official guidelines.
Another success is the public awareness of pedestrian needs — mostly women —, which now have a better “status” than before in traffic planning. In a pilot process along the years, involving all the planning activities in public space, we achieved impressive results by means of a policy of small, but effective measurements.
EACG: What about the strategy?
Looking back, I think an important factor of our success was the chosen strategy to undertake, first pilot projects which allowed politicians to have an easier understanding of the aims of a gender sensitive approach; after that, having good resonance in the media which was also important for them. With this political support, we could develop our new methods. After the period of being the head of the women department, I could engage myself in a small unit specialized on gender issues in planning .We were three planners at the coordination office for gender-sensitive planning in Vienna — which I headed for eleven years. We could invest enough time in developing themes and different projects, and this was a key, alongside the dialectical relationship between planning expertise and political support.
We have published these achievements in a book titled “Gender mainstreaming in urban planning and urban development “ –Gender Mainstreaming in der Stadtplanung und Stadtentwicklung-Werkstattbericht NR.130, Stadt Wien MA 18- which shows all our developed methods, tools and practical approach. There is also another brochure describing the most important of the sixty gender planning projects: “10+1 years Planning and Construction geared to the interests of daily life and women” – 10+1 Jahre Alltags und Frauengerechtes Planen und Bauen- both of them only in German language.
EACG: Why do you think mainstreaming a gender perspective into all policies and programmes -what is usually called a gender approach- is also so important in architecture and planning?
EK: Gender mainstreaming -or promoting Equality between women and men at all levels- has a political approach to Justice, and it contributes to Social Justice. At a pragmatic level, it improves quality of life, since you identify new themes. Among them, pedestrian needs and safety issues; the Cities of Short Ways or Compact City concept -which now is a very common planning goal, but which was firstly formulated by feminist planners, long ago- which use and optimization is a typical gender topic; so as good quality of social infrastructure. The materialisation of all these interests transforms the city. A gender approach sheds light onto new themes and develops new methods, assessing everyday life and the experience of people looking for a “fair share” of chances and resources in the urban environment.
EACG: Thank you very much. It has been a pleasure.
Text: (c) Eva Álvarez, Eva Kail, Carlos Gómez
Photographs: Courtesy (c) Carlos Gómez; (c) Hannah K. Jenal; Eva Kail