Feminist urban planning goes hand-in-hand with sustainable urban planning
Interview by: Milota Sidorová, edits: Michael Higgs, cover photo: Monika Grilli Wagnerová
Kristin Malmcrona Friberg grew up in Gothenburg and graduated in Sustainable Urban Planning and Management. She first visited Prague over two years ago, having spent several years in different European cities. Kristin obtained her MSc. degree at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and at the Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. This is also where she met her Czech partner, Vojta.
Since then, Kristin has focused on sustainable urban food systems and is involved in several networks and organisations, such as the Centre for Circular Economy and Sustainability at Exeter University and INCIEN (Institute for Circular Economy) with both platforms connecting various international actors engaged in the topic of sustainability and circular economy. Recently, she has moved to Prague – and for us this is a great opportunity to talk about the differences in our societies and planning practices.
How was the transition to Czech conditions and where can you see differences regarding feminist planning?
When I talk about feminist planning and strategies, people usually don’t know what it is. This is not so surprising though since the term itself is quite new - also in Sweden and Scandinavia. But let’s take a few practical examples: the very first thing I see here in Prague that affects me is that I cannot, or rather I chose, not to bike. Now, you may think that everyone is affected by the lack of bike lanes, which is of course true. However, if you look at the urban context and female mobility behavior, then you realise that women walk and bike to a considerably higher extent and don´t drive as many cars as men do. Women and girls use public transport and public spaces in a different, more sustainable way. Although Prague has a great public transport system, it should focus much more on walking and biking as mobility options. It will enhance the quality of life for all - both men and women.
In Sweden, walking and the ability to move anywhere by foot is considered by many the ultimate demonstration of freedom. Yet our society today, especially visible here in Prague, values and prioritises cars. That of course has dangerous consequences. The quality of air in Prague is far from great and people inhale poisonous particles generated by car transport every day. Women, who compared to men, walk more do not produce as many exhalates (but inhale them!). Urban planners together with the municipality should recognise how harmful this is – and then take action.
Another aspect of sustainable mobility within a feminist context is the abundance of green areas. In Gothenburg, there are plenty of parks and greenways that create a network which connects the city and allows you to move safely and freely. This is something that the city is really working hard on. Here in Prague, I feel safe since I live in the core of the city but I am missgreen areas that offer safe and fast opportunities to move and a worthwhile way to spend my time outdoors.
Regarding more sustainable mobility patterns, it is true that women use public transport, walk and bike more, except for women from the middle or upper classes living in suburbs. This mobility pattern behaves like men, meaning that they take cars and go into the city.
Yes but I also believe that this is a status factor in many cities. In Sweden, the trend goes more towards a minimalistic, sustainable living and that doesn’t go very well with this car dependency. However, if I were living outside of the city and needed to commute every day, I would understand that the car becomes very handy. But in this typical case, there must be an even more convenient and tempting option available, such as a well-planned public transport system.
One way, perhaps a somewhat more extreme, method of solving this issue, you will find in Östersund, situated in the middle of Sweden. Here they have built so-called Bike Highways, that allows its citizens to use their bikes all year round. At the same time, you have to keep in mind that in Östersund they have snowy winter conditions during quite a few months of the year. To many, this might sound a bit crazy but to me this is the right way to go. Östersund shows the correct, progressive attitude that we need to see much more of in urban planning.
Did you study feminist planning as an urban planner?
I think I was lucky because gender challenges in the urban context were already part of the curriculum, though it wasn´t specifically called feminist planning. But to have the theory followed by a systematic strategy and planning in our cities is crucial. In the Netherlands, I did not only learn because the university was testing, working with and implementing the results of such studies. Dutch people are a very enthusiastic, practical and inspiring people to work with. And it is true that they can literally build a bridge in 24 hours (laughs).
A great example of how a feminist agenda is being both theoretically and practically included in the development of urban spaces is the initiative #UrbanGirlsMovement. This idea of mapping out and gathering knowledge about feminist planning is created by the Swedish think tank Global Utmaning.
What was the history of female emancipation in Sweden?
Many factors of course, but Sweden wasn’t always as progressive as it is today. Women received their voting rights only in 1919. But after the war, women were quite quick to maintain working positions that opened up. Many public institutions followed the example and women remained there. You don´t want to go back to something worse when you have had a taste of what you can have and achieve. Of course, you will fight hard to keep it this way and always try to strive ahead.
With the level of rising populism, women’s rights become one of first targets to be hit publicly.
Look at Poland, Hungary or even the Czech Republic. In many ways, these countries are enforcing laws that endanger and threaten girls and women’s´ rights. But this is not a political phenomenon you only see here but also with the last election in Sweden few weeks ago with the right-wing party (the Swedish Democrats) gaining power. Not that they would take women as the chance to change and test new ways to move the society forward...
Here, you are asking me what the biggest cultural difference in planning is. Well, a very visible difference is that I see many sexist images in our public spaces everywhere that I look. This is something I don´t see as much in the Netherlands nor Sweden. My understanding is that people don´t question this so much here since it is something that they are exposed to on a daily basis.
So, you cannot place a sexist advertisement outdoors?
Well, you can but there is a self-regulatory organisation, The Swedish Advertising Ombudsman, that assesses whether your advertisement is sexist or not. I wish that there would be such an organisation active in the Czech Republic or even better, that it wouldn´t happen in the first place. I mean, why would a half-naked woman make you want to buy new car tires?
How do you define boundaries of what acceptable or not acceptable?
Of course, the line can sometimes be a bit blurry but the main question that is being asked and considered is whether the sexualised image really contributes and supports the message of the advertisement or it is just an attractor to support its product sales? All these images resonate within our society telling us how we are expected to act and to behave but this is far from a granted perception. Picture a Prague without all these images and billboards full of nonsense – how great wouldn’t that be?
What do you think we should be asking ourselves?
Well, ask yourselves if the city you are living and spending much of your time in is a good place for girls and women to feel safe and free. If it is, then it is also a great city for everyone else.