Women in Urbanism member Gabriella Jimenez Rojas. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Making A Difference: Gabriella Jimenez Rojas

Viva and Dilmah Tea celebrate women creating change for a positive future

We might think of our cities as a neutral bunch of buildings and roads we use as we move through our lives but actually, whether we experience spaces as friendly or hostile often comes down to gender. As a group, women often have different needs, yet town planning tends to be dominated by men.

About this time last year, a group of Auckland women decided to get together to try to draw more attention to these needs, and to fight for better representation among those making decisions about how our rates are spent.

Their group, called Women in Urbanism, is leaderless, with a core committee of 15 who meet every Wednesday over a glass of wine or cup of tea. They also connect with more than 900 members through a Facebook group that includes engineers, architects, designers and quite a few nurses, and have nearly 1000 followers on Twitter — including former PM and current road-safety advocate Helen Clark.

One highly active member is 21-year-old honours student Gabriella Jimenez Rojas, who’s about to complete a degree in urban planning at the University of Auckland. “Urbanism is about the way cities change and grow, and how we interact with them,” she says. “It’s everything from your daily commute to the way you feel when you’re sitting in your town’s square, to the street art you see when you walk around the city.

“Our group is a big community and although there is a committee, anyone who likes to can come to the meetings, give input and bring ideas. We talk about potential events or collaborations we’d like to be involved in, or systems we’d like to see implemented in our cities, then we try to find a way to achieve it. Everyone brings their own expertise and networks and we use them to the best of our advantage. It’s constant knowledge-sharing, sprinkled with a bit of admin.”

So far, the group has hosted talks from Toronto’s former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat; Dr Matts-Ake Belin from Vision Zero, a Swedish initiative that aims to eliminate death and serious injury on the roads; and from Julie Anne Genter, the Minister for Women and Associate Minister of Transport. (“She’s pretty much the ultimate woman in urbanism”, says Gabriella).

They’ve invited BMX Olympian Sarah Walker to host a day, encouraging more girls to ride pump tracks, which tend to become boy-dominated spaces. They’ve run panel discussions and workshops, and given talks at conferences about women in urbanism, and hold networking events for women and students who are new to the industry.

“We often hear the ‘male, pale and stale’ rhetoric, but a few of our founders really have found themselves the only woman at the table in some big meetings, and decided that just wasn’t good enough,” says Gabriella. “We know that, in Aotearoa, women make up around 29 per cent of the architectural workforce and only 14 per cent of engineers. The number of Maori, Pasifika and Asian women in these industries is smaller still. So only a very slim proportion make it into senior decision-making positions to have a tangible impact on our environment.”

A lack of female representation on committees can result in clunky, hostile infrastructure that creates dark, unsafe spaces — such as Auckland’s Dominion Rd flyover, whose foreboding pedestrian tunnel reminds Gabriella of bleak Scandinavian crime dramas.

Women, who are more likely to walk than drive, are also disproportionately affected by suburban sprawl and by roads designed with commuters in mind (who are more often men) rather than the safety of all users.

“There’s not enough emphasis on local streets that are easy to cross or safe enough to allow your children to travel independently to school, for example,” she says. “Narrow footpaths are awful for women with prams or small children, and neither are they great for people in wheelchairs or who have other mobility issues.”

Gabriella points to Vienna, which has baked gender equality into its public policy since the 1990s, when a survey revealed that women were using public transport much more than men.

“Women have a much more varied pattern of movement. We’ll do chain trips like leave work, go pick up the kids, run errands, then go to the supermarket and then go home. Men tend to have more regular home-work-home commutes, although, of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone. They identified that women in their city walked more than men, yet they had a very poor walking network and a very good roading network that prioritised cars”.

Gabriella says early results from a Women in Urbanism survey currently underway suggests New Zealand women don’t feel safe using public transport (two-thirds have been harassed in public spaces), they have limited choices when it come to their mode of public transport, and scheduling is unhelpful.

Ultimately, it’s about demanding solutions that work harder for more people. The example of Vienna has proven that “having things like lighting, ramps and ‘active’ spaces, populated by things such as temporary markets or businesses like bars and shops, make such a difference to people’s feelings of comfort and belonging in a space, and have improved the city for elderly, children and men, as well as women”.

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