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Whānau on bikes in a city designed for everyone (Image: Tina Tiller)
Whānau on bikes in a city designed for everyone (Image: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONWellingtonMarch 13, 2024

Who benefits from a feminist city?

Whānau on bikes in a city designed for everyone (Image: Tina Tiller)
Whānau on bikes in a city designed for everyone (Image: Tina Tiller)

When a city is designed to consider the needs of women, it’s designed for everyone regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or culture, writes Miriam Moore of Women in Urbanism Aotearoa.

The legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs once said “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”. Unfortunately, New Zealand’s planning systems are determined by assumptions about how people want to live and move around their cities that do not resonate with everybody. For those unfamiliar with the feminist urbanista, Jacobs was an advocate for the mindful development of cities, famously saving her local park from being plowed through by a planned motorway in lower Manhattan.

Ironically, her approach to standing up for cities has been adopted by some communities to oppose anything being built in them. But enabling density is not the destruction of communities. It is the empowerment of cities to create thriving neighbourhoods that include all its people.

Cities have long been designed by and for men, a notion Jacobs raised, and which is now supported by an established and well-respected body of work. A key example is the way transport systems prioritise commuting in and out of the city centre, while effectively every other journey requires travel not met by public transport routes or off-peak frequencies. 

Home-making was traditionally done in the suburbs, away from the activity of the city. Gendered roles have of course become more nuanced over time, with more women in work and men at home. The result of this is our city needs to be planned differently, for instance people make more journeys with multiple stops to accommodate work and domestic lives, to drop off children, pick up groceries, and run other errands. These efforts are still mostly done by women. But our planning rules, steeped in this history, dictate where we live, limiting how we move.

The idea behind a feminist city is that when you design to consider the needs of women you design for all, regardless of your gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, culture and more. Women in Urbanism Aotearoa is an organisation that exists to channel this message in our local planning and design industries, to provide choice and inclusivity in where and how we live. A refreshed District Plan is an opportunity to address some of these planning inequities.   

Jane Jacobs, urbanism icon (Image: Tina Tiller)

People who are comfortably housed are often the ones to turn their noses up at density because “no one wants to live in a shoebox”. I live the one-tenth of a quarter acre dream in a medium-density new-build. My house is small, but vacuuming takes three minutes, our vegetable garden makes enough for my partner and I to harvest weekly and there’s even almost enough backyard for our dog to run around (there’s a park across the road to fulfil her fetch needs). Living next door to a supermarket and a train station means that every person in my 80-something-unit development walks out their front door to go to work or to shop.

It’s a fast way to meet each other, which has led to organising drinks, dog minding and borrowing tools in a way I have never experienced living as a young person in streets of detached houses. A quick look through the “Flats & Flatmates Wellington” Facebook page can tell you enough about where young people want to live, and the supply available. It must be said, however, that it is false to assume density is just for young folk or DINKs (double income, no kids).

Density is for families too. Speaking to our Women in Urbanism community, newish mum Emma is embracing apartment-dwelling. “I just wouldn’t have the capacity to do upkeep on a house. Someone else does the maintenance on the building and I don’t have to mow the lawns.” She enjoys the cheaper travel costs (particularly important while on maternity leave when she couldn’t even afford a coffee), the built-in social network (also important on maternity leave), her daughter playing with others’ pets without having to own one, and neighbours who helped her lift things in her home after undergoing a post-natal back injury.

Other mothers I spoke to stress the importance of being able to walk, cycle and bus everywhere with kids. Kate, another newish mother who lives in a multi-unit development, loves that her home is a 10-minute walk from three different playgrounds. The walks are vital for her sanity, and the location offsets the small size of her backyard. Louise likes the people-watching, and all the things happening on the street. She feels it gives kids exposure to ways of life that are different, helping develop an understanding of fairness and equity at an early age. She loves that the kids have freedom to walk and play on the street, because there is always someone looking out for them.

Density also benefits our older population (who actually have some of the best density designed for them, by way of retirement villages). Increasing height limits enables housing above and beyond the typical three-storey walk-ups, introducing more likelihood of lifts and accessible homes. This creates choice for older people, and also our mobility-impaired whānau who deserve equal independence and accessibility to their daily needs. Miranda loves that her single, superannuant mother lives in a complex where she can walk to the shops and public transport. It gives her peace of mind that her mother’s neighbours are always looking out for her. My own mother’s wishlist for a future home to retire in includes a walkable cinema and remaining around young people. So a retirement village probably wouldn’t cut it. 

It’s astonishing to hear talks of new developments to be “soulless” and that don’t “belong” in particular neighbourhoods or communities. Eighty families in my development were able to build a new community within our wider community from scratch. Developments like ours should be everywhere. Communities aren’t just for homeowners and Residents’ Associations. People, not character villas or leafy streets, create communities. Communities are for everyone who does or wants to live there.

I could sing home about the social benefits of density forever. The economic ones add up too, with network efficiencies being shorter and cheaper, and the costs split across more people. This includes water, power, public transport and roads. As Wellington upgrades its failing infrastructure, this is the most economically sensible time to align with an ambitious District Plan and do so at increased capacity. We cannot complain about rising rates while diminishing the city’s ability to bring in more ratepayers. Density is also a story of land-use, and we exist in a planning system that was invented shortly after the time New Zealand decided to adapt its cities to meet the needs of the car.

Enabling more density would change that land use and its uptake is critical to the social and economic vitality of Wellington. Even with the newer National Policy Statement for Urban Development attempting to shift the planning paradigms to be more enabling, interpretation within the existing system provides mechanisms to uphold long-held ways of doing things that are now detrimental to the evolvement, affordability, sustainability and simple function of our urban centres.

Matt Fordham and his family.
Well-designed cities make it easier for families to get around. (Photo: Auckland Council)

One of the critical components of successful urban mobility (ways to move around a city) is behaviour change. Behaviour change is harder to install in those who have lived somewhere and moved around by car for the majority of their life. To them, this naturally feeds the idea that density in their neighbourhoods is not appropriate, because they assume everyone around them has the same travel needs.

A recent development on Adelaide Road sold car parks independently of the apartments for an additional $80,000. Residents buying or renting into these homes are more aware of the costs of car ownership and storage. It enables prospective buyers to consider their need for private vehicle ownership when considered alongside the benefits of affordability and location. Comparing this price of vehicle storage to the pushback on the council’s proposal to introduce paid parking on this hotly contested street, it is evident the status quo of free parking is not feasible in a changing urban environment. Yet, forcing people to live further out further necessitates parking supply and road capacity, and increases costs of travel for those who rely on it. Car dependency is like living your life behind a paywall, and more and more people are asking for this paywall to be removed so they can live closer to their needs. As expected, the people who benefit from the paywall are the prime opponents. When we reduce the ability for these areas to increase in density, we ask ourselves: do we want to foster private wealth or public life?

Jane Jacobs importantly stood up for the empowerment of all city dwellers to contribute to the shaping of their cities. Those who want to be a part of a more compact city have equal voices in the shaping of Wellington. Density is essential to achieving a functional, sustainable and affordable future for our city. Those who don’t wish to live “like that” won’t have to, but it gives choice and opportunity to those who do. A highly enabling District Plan is an inclusive and responsible one, let us not miss this critical moment in time to adopt one.

Miriam Moore is an urban designer and member of Women in Urbanism, based in Pōneke. She is an elected member of the Tawa Community Board.

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