"Walking around Stockholm, we asked ourselves: ‘Where did all the teenage girls go?’” Rebecca Rubin and Angelica Åkerman of the Swedish firm White Arkitekter tell a rapt audience in East London. It’s peak hour for the London Festival of Architecture, an annual weeklong bonanza of panels, screenings, and other happenings across the city. Competition for attendance can be fierce, but White’s street-theater project Places for Girls readily distinguishes itself from the more passive events on offer.
We follow two teenage actresses who live locally around the gentrifying neighborhood of Hoxton for a little less than an hour as they wander through spaces that clearly weren’t made for them. All gangly legs and playful swagger, their movements are soundless, but their story plays out through portable headsets and is told in a thick and dreamy Swedish accent. The narrator asks us to concentrate a little harder on the cracks in the sidewalk as we shuffle through public squares and throngs of pubgoers; sometimes, as the girls wind around lampposts or gaze up at empty windows, we are whispered mantras from the "conspiracy of teenage girls": an imaginary global infrastructure weaving together the bedrooms of all the teenage girls who live in cities designed without them in mind.
White Arkitekter estimates that 80 percent of public space in cities is used by men and that girls feel ten times less secure in these public spaces than their male counterparts. Why? Because the gender imbalance is literally built into the physical structure of the city. Cities are still largely designed by men, for men. In the West, the introduction of zoned cities in the early 20th century relegated women to sprawling, single-family suburbs; nowadays, women are excluded from public space in cities by a combined lack of facilities and safety infrastructure, as well as increasing obligations in both professional and domestic spheres. At a time when shared parental leave is estimated to be as low as 2 percent in the U.K., and the number of working mothers is reaching an all-time high, the increasing closure of public toilets and exponential increase of childcare costs (up to five times as much as salary increases) have resulted in an urban commons that is hostile to expectant and current mothers. In Cape Town and Mumbai, the lack of public restroom facilities contributes almost a third of the total registered sexual assault cases. Female cyclists are more likely to be victims of fatal collisions in London.
On a global scale, more women walk and take public transport than men, where they are subject to additional sexual harassment. Poor quality sidewalks and lack of adequate lighting prove both a hazard for mothers with strollers and reduce nighttime mobility for women due to a higher likelihood of assault in practically any public space in the contemporary city.
Despite these sobering statistics, the topic of how such spaces exclude women, or how they can so quickly give way to a life-or-death situation for women who do use them, is rarely addressed in today’s urban planning process. Rarer still are discussions on how to come to terms with and correct that reality. The tricky part, then, is how to respond to the crisis of gendered cities in a creative and meaningful way, such that it isn’t relegated to yet another abstract panel discussion and doomed to be politely forgotten as soon as aperitifs are served.
Places for Girls tells a different story. Even the rigid urban landscapes built by dead men can be transformed into porous spaces of imaginative potential when seen through the eyes of those it attempts to stifle and shrink into submission. Isn’t that sheer resilience reason enough to give girls a say in how the spaces they use everyday ought to be designed?
The interactive experience was originally born in Stockholm in late 2015 as the final product of a collaboration between White Arkitekter and the Swedish theater company UngaTur. The project unfurled over the course of an entire month, mixing guerrilla street performances in a transitional area of Stockholm with a series of meetings between teenage girls living there and city planners as well as private developers with a stake in the neighborhood's future development. “We wanted to create a space for people who would never normally talk to each other, who are actually afraid of each other, to meet and discuss their ideas for the future of Stockholm,” say Rubin and Åkerman.
The effects were immediate and profound: After just one face-to-face meeting, the group had plans for interventions and pop-up spaces geared toward female users, as well as men, within both public and privately-owned areas of Stockholm. White’s decision to bring their project to London almost three years later was a logical one (their second office is based here) but also speaks to the crisis of public space in this city. Unlike Stockholm, so many of London’s so-called public spaces—gardens, large squares, and thoroughfares among them—are actually corporate-controlled sites masquerading as public space. The sort of space carved out by Places for Girls, one for transparent negotiation between between city designers and their users, is becoming increasingly urgent.
What would a city built without the constrictive bias of sexism look like? It would “transcend traditional definitions of home, neighborhood, city and workplace,” the American urbanist Dolores Hayden posited almost 50 years ago. As an animated and inclusive alternative to the panel discussion format (that’s also largely dominated by men), the message of Places for Girls rings loud and clear: These future cities will look nothing like what stands before us today, and they’re closer than you think.