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Engender: City Planning and the Development of the Commonwealth Women in Planning Manifesto

15 March 2019 | By Kristin Agnello RPP MCIP Director, Plassurban

As International Development Week wraps up across Canada, professionals across the nation have been examining what it means to work together for gender equality.  As planners, we are aware of how the design of a space can influence the social behaviours of a population, but we are only beginning to understand the extent which the tools we use, and the infrastructure we create, encode a specific set of values. This year - 2019 - has been dubbed the “year of the woman.”  From the “Me Too” movement to “Girls on Boards,” women’s roles and experiences are being re-evaluated, renegotiated, and reimagined.  Perhaps, then, it is also time to re-examine the values that have long been embedded in the infrastructure of our societies – the policies, budgets, roads, buildings, and public spaces. Do these values represent citizens of all genders? Are these the values we aspire to as planners, as professionals, and as people?

In 2015, world leaders unanimously adopted the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a global development strategy that identifies 17 Sustainable Development Goals – more commonly referred to as the “SDGs” – to create a more liveable, equitable world by 2030.  More ambitious than the preceding Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the SDGs form a universal call to action, identifying quantitative, interconnected goals and targets that reflect the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of global sustainable development. In response to the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals, planners around the world have begun to re-examine what makes an equitable and sustainable city. Gender, class, and ability are often identified as three of the key categories that underlie social and spatial difference within our shared community spaces. As such, planners must acknowledge the role of gender as a considerable factor in understanding access to, and opportunities resulting from, participating in city or community life. 

In 2018, the Commonwealth Association of Planners reformed the Commonwealth Women in Planning Network to explore issues of gender in the built environment.  The first initiative of this Network was to develop a Manifesto, which would outline the impact and importance of considering the needs of women living and working in the built environment.  The Commonwealth Women in Planning Manifesto represents the world’s first international planning commitment to considering and advancing gender equality through the built environment and its professions. Created in collaboration with over 35 women from 11 countries, the Manifesto addresses several of the Sustainable Development Goals, including Gender Equality (SDG 5), Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11) and Partnerships for the Goals (SDG 17).  It serves as a call to action for planning professionals and a united voice for women living and working in the built environment across the Commonwealth.  By endorsing the Commonwealth Women in Planning Manifesto, the Commonwealth Association of Planners has affirmed its commitment to join the international community in supporting and developing a safe, sustainable, equitable, and prosperous planet with no one - and no place - left behind.

The development of a Manifesto is eye-opening, humbling and, at times, deeply personal. The opportunities and barriers presented by policy and development - and the ability to predict these impacts – is highly variable from person to person, and country to country.  Still, the commonalities between lived experiences across the Commonwealth – from feelings of safety or insecurity in public spaces, to a woman’s ability to access professional opportunities - are striking. But, perhaps most striking was the camaraderie that was instrumental in making this unprecedented project a reality.  Participants were honest with their opinions and generous with their experiences, and they were met, not with scrutiny or criticism, but with honest inquisitiveness and a desire to learn individually and support collectively.  In short, the process of developing a Manifesto mirrored the process of developing a city; allies over activism.

Now, the Commonwealth Women in Planning Network faces the challenge of putting its words into action.  Just as gender underlies social and spatial differences, geographical, political, and professional contexts influence gender-based impacts and understanding.  But, the seeds of understanding have already been planted.  At its heart, the Commonwealth Women in Planning Manifesto is about empathy and solidarity. It is about respecting the lived experiences of those around you, and especially of those who are different from you.  Really, it’s about being aware of the space you occupy in the world, how it relates to the experiences and opportunities of those around you - and sharing this awareness with others.

Author’s Note:

The Commonwealth Women in Planning Manifesto was fully endorsed by the Commonwealth Association of Planners on October 14, 2018 at their Biennial Business Meeting in Cape Town, South Africa.  This Manifesto has garnered the attention and support of numerous organizations, including UN-Habitat, Women in Cities International, Women Transforming Cities, and Women in Planning (UK). To date, the Manifesto has been further endorsed by the Canadian Institute of Planners and the Royal Town Planning Institute.

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