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Annette Harth

Open Space and Gender - Gender-Sensitive Open-Space Planning

1. Open Space and Gender
2. Current Findings on Gender-Specific Open-Space Behaviour
    2.1 Outdoor Children's Play
    2.2 Outdoor Sport
    2.3 Using and Appropriating Public Squares, Green Spaces, and Parks
    2.4 Interim Land Use and Gender
3. Two Projects and Their Results
4. Conclusion and Consequences for Gender-Sensitive Open-Space Planning


The consequences of changes in gender relations in society over the past 25 years for open-space planning have yet to be systematically examined. This article looks at current findings on outdoor children’s play and sport and the use of public places and green spaces in examining the thesis that outdoor behaviour shows similar changes to those occurring in gender relations as a whole, hence that girls and women are increasingly gaining access to “male” open spaces and modes of conduct while open-space appropriation by boys and men has largely remained true to role. There are indeed indications of such a change. On the basis of this analysis and of two open space plans, some general elements of gender-sensitive open space-planning are developed.

At the turn of the millennium the subject of “gender” had come to play a relatively subdued role in planning. A certain lack of surprise at empirical findings (where available at all) could not be denied; a perusal of gender research with its construction-theoretical debates tended to engender confusion, and the implementation of practical approaches designed to further equality between the sexes seemed to be stagnating. Things have changed in the meanwhile. Issues of gender democracy in planning are once again higher up on the agenda, probably due mainly to the entrenchment of gender mainstreaming as a policy goal. This has rekindled discussion on the possibilities of permanently integrating the equality perspective in local government practice (cf. especially BMVBS/BBR 2006). But this debate touches not only on organisational, strategic, and fiscal aspects but also on substantive criteria for gender-appropriate planning. I discuss what gender sensitivity could mean in relation to open space planning. After general remarks on the relationship between open space and gender (1), I discuss current findings on gender-specific behaviour in open spaces (2) and examples of projects from the gender point of view (3). In the concluding section I examine the consequences for gender-sensitive open space planning (4).


1. Open Space and Gender

All human activity has a spatial dimension. But “space” is not simply a given physico-material environment. It is continuously generated, confirmed, and changed by cultural, social, and individual action and design. In the construction and appropriation of space, individual corporeality, subjective, situation-related interests, a person’s social life situation, as well as power and dominance relations in society play a significant role. The factors determining spatial appropriation differ in importance for women and men because our society is strongly shaped by the two-gender system, the gender-specific division of labour, and the associated differences in the positions of the two sexes in society. With respect to the use, appropriation, and assessment of space, this means that women and men often have different demands, appropriation opportunities, and options for action.

Open spaces are particular in nature. They are not only largely “free” of building development but also much freer from behavioural rules and regulations. They enable the experience of nature, exercise and movement, encounters with the unknown, and hence – especially for children – they offer an “element of residual adventure” (Zinnecker 1997). These opportunities for learning and experience make public open spaces, in particular, an important arena for gender democracy. While societal gender relations manifest themselves in the open space, influencing its use and assessment, as well as certain needs and requirements, the conditions prevailing in open spaces differentiate the scope for action and the possibilities for satisfying needs in terms of gender. The nature and design of open spaces can therefore both restrict and open up opportunities for appropriation.

In the first place, gender-sensitive open-space planning requires knowledge about what gender specificities exist regarding the use and appropriation of open spaces. Most of the repeatedly cited research findings date from the 1970s and especially the 1980s, and concern West Germany. In short, the studies conclude that “in keeping with the gender hierarchy … the appropriation of public urban open space, the availability of time and space for the female population tends to be limited” (Spitthöver 2000, 220). Since that period, however, gender relationships have developed, considerably changing the life situations of girls and women, in particular. In West Germany (the ‘old’ states) the main reasons have been the considerable increase in female employment, especially among mothers, the pluralisation of household forms, growing childlessness, and changes in the norms and content of gender-specific child-raising. Women’s and girls’ development potential and options for action have substantially increased and their life patterns have diversified. Women and girls have successively advanced into spheres of life formerly dominated by men. In contrast, changes in male life patterns and biographical orientations have been less marked. More in mental attitude than in actual fact have boys and men entered female domains of private reproductive work, and are experiencing increasing uncertainty about their role patterns. In East Germany, too, gender relations have changed profoundly since the change in regime. Women found themselves in a particular “transformation dilemma (cf. Harth 2006, 94 ff), since they were expelled from gainful employment in greater numbers than men while facing the fact that the private reproductive domain was becoming functionally more important – especially through the shift in responsibilities for child care. In all, the life situations and orientations of East German women have considerably diversified between individualization and traditionalisation since the demise of the GDR.

However, the consequences of these changes in gender relations for space appropriation and space construction have yet to the investigated in any depth.


2. Current Findings on Gender-Specific Open-Space Behaviour

This account of scattered findings on current trends in gender-specific behaviour in open spaces presupposes that changes in gender relations, especially changes in the female gender role, are also reflected in outdoor behaviour. It is my assumption that, in the use and appropriation of open space, similar changes can be observed in gender relations as in society as a whole. Girls and women are increasingly conquering “male” open spaces and forms of behaviour and are thus broadening their scope for action, whereas the appropriation of open space by boys and men remains largely true to role. In keeping with this thesis, I have concentrated on changes and deviations from the stereotype gender model.


2.1 Outdoor Children’s Play

With regard to outdoor children’s play, studies note a considerable change in recent years (cf. in particular Nissen 1998). Although children and adolescents are the population groups that use open spaces most intensively, there is a clear trend towards domestication among children of both sexes. Media activities are the prime factor that can make the home more attractive to children and adolescents than outdoor pastimes. Girls spend even less time outdoors than boys (cf. Fuhs 2002, 645 ff.) and general exhibit greater locality ties. The reasons are well-known: parents keep a closer eye on girls and occupy them more with housework – whether on grounds of fear or conviction. They tend to be raised to show social consideration, while the exploratory urge is encouraged in boys.

However, differentiated studies show that withdrawal from the outdoor sphere primarily concerns specific groups of girls under certain spatial conditions (cf. Schön 1999). While at primary school age girls’ presence outdoors is still almost balanced, from the age of ten/eleven (when assuming a woman’s role in puberty is particularly precarious) girls withdraw from the outdoors, at precisely an age when boys’ outdoor presence and spheres of action expand considerably. From this age onwards, girls from Turkish homes, in particular, hardly appear outdoors to play at all, at best to go shopping or mind younger siblings. This development is especially apparent in built-up urban residential areas with few outdoor amenities. Girls in such surroundings are very much underrepresented. But where public open spaces are adequately available, of high quality, and perceived as safe, girls, too, win more space to roam, especially in same-sex peer groups, acquiring spatial competence and self-confidence. It thus depends strongly on local amenities whether and to what extent girls, too, play out of doors (cf. also Fölling-Albers/Hopf 1995).

A look at outdoor play also shows that girls are participating more and more in activities formerly typical only of boys. Although there are still considerable differences between the sexes, with boys tending to prefer competitive games and girls movement games in small groups or pairs, new outdoor movement games in recent years are also strikingly gender-specific. Whereas skateboarding and BMX cycling are predominantly activities for boys, unicycling attracts almost only girls. Nonetheless, non-gender-specific activities (especially cycling and visits to the swimming pool) are increasing, and girls are increasingly taking part in activities formerly the sole domain of boys, e.g., soccer, construction games, and all sports (cf. Hellemann 1993; Fölling-Albers/Hopf 1995; Fries 2002; Hottenträger 2000, 5). The reverse cannot be said of boys. They find neither skipping, Chinese jump rope or certain role games (e.g., with dolls) attractive. In addition, gender-typical territorial behaviour is tending to erode. Although girls continue on average to be more defensive, tending to keep within permitted and assigned bounds, while boys on the whole are more willing to take risks and extend their radius of action even where prohibited, a small but increasing number of girls are manifesting violent behaviour in public places and participating in groups seeking to make a massive public display of themselves (cf. Bruhns/Wittmann 2002).


2.2 Outdoor Sport

A similar development is apparent in the use of outdoor sports facilities (cf. Spitthöver 2000). Overall, outdoor sports have considerably diversified and individualised in recent years. There is a general trend towards individual types of sport not organised by clubs (cf. ikps 2006). The majority practicing outdoor sport are still male, with soccer being the most important activity. Extreme outdoor sports (free climbing, mountain biking), a growing trend, also tend to attract male enthusiasts (cf. Zinnecker et al. 2002, 170). In general, men use sports grounds, public skating rinks, and stadiums for competitive sports while women use gymnasiums, fitness studios, and school sports facilities for health reasons (cf. Genderkompetenzzentrum 2007). At puberty, many young women enter a phase in which they change their type of sport or abandon sport altogether (cf. Cornelißen et al 2002, 175 f.). Women and girls from an immigrant, especially Muslim background are strongly underrepresented in outdoor sports (cf. Kleindienst-Cachey 2006, S. 13 ff.).

But more women are entering classical male domains in competitive and club sport. Women are conquering the outdoors particularly in light athletics and in soccer. This can also be said for Muslim women, often considered to be at a particular disadvantage: “Almost unnoticed by the public, a growing number of Turkish girls and women of the second and third immigrant generation have begun to practice competitive sport with great success, even at the top level, primarily in martial arts like Tae Kwon Do or karate, and in boxing and team sports, especially soccer” (Kleindienst-Cachey 2006, 23). Apparently it is clothing rules (which the martial arts do not breach) that keep many Muslim girls and women away from sport, and not a lack of interest in or prohibition of exercise. The recent extension of women’s hours has attracted a growing number of Muslim women to public swimming pools. The lack of temporal constraints in outdoor sports practiced by the individual, like jogging and walking, clearly suits the needs of many women. They frequent green spaces and parks more often than men for active sporting purposes (cf. KGSt 2004, 86). Participation by men in the classical women’s sport of gymnastics has, in contrast, declined still further in the course of time.


2.3 Using and Appropriating Public Squares, Green Spaces, and Parks

A range of studies has shown that women generally spend more time than men in neighbourhood squares and parks (cf., e.g., Tessin 2005, 18; Smaniotto Costa et al. 2006, 14) and also consider them to be more important (KGSt 2004, 80 f.). This is attributed to their child-minding role, but also to their greater desire for social contacts and their more pronounced interest in nature and greater health consciousness (cf. Klaphake et al. 2005, 17; KGSt 2004, 86). Women are still more frequently accompanied by children; children’s play areas are therefore particular centres of attraction for them, and easy access to green spaces is more important for them (cf. Klaphake et al. 2005, 11). Women set greater store by safety, and some women, especially of the older generation, regard green spaces as unsafe, which keeps them from frequenting them. Although there are no fundamental differences between the sexes in design preferences – both men and women particularly appreciate a fine stand of trees, lawns, and blossoming shrubs, as well as well-tendedness and cleanliness in parks (cf. KGSt 2004, 88 f.), women and girls do appreciate places with a high level of sensuous and atmospheric quality, including a great variety of vegetation, a choice of sunny and shady areas, and attractive park furniture (cf. Paravicini et al. 2002, 186). These sweeping comparisons between groups thus reveal little that is new. More recent studies also confirm the findings of older research on the subject of appropriation behaviour. Men continue to move more extensively in public spaces, green areas, and parks, tending to linger in central areas exposed to view. Women, in contrast, prefer less extensive activities and quieter, more protected positions from which they can keep events under observation (cf., e.g., with regard to young women and men: Herlyn et al. 2003, 232 ff.).

Have changes in societal gender relations accordingly not affected the use and appropriation of public green spaces? This is highly improbable. Differentiated findings are clearly lacking (e.g., on differing ways of life) as are more complex research designs (e.g., comparative studies over time). There are growing reservations in gender studies about searching for general behavioural differences between all men and all women, for gender alone is far from being the most important factor in disadvantagement. Differentiated life situations and lifestyles need to be taken into account within gender groups. Unfortunately, there is a lack of systematic and representative studies on the preferences, wishes, deficiencies, and spatial appropriation patterns among men and women with different ways of life. Another problem posed by such comparisons is that patterns of behaviour that result from spatial planning and design (e.g., avoidance of areas with hidden corners) are regarded as characteristic of female behaviour in open spaces. This produces stereotype attributes, which contribute to the construction of gender as a social category and to gendered spaces.

Recent studies clearly show (cf. Paravicini et al. 2002) that gender-specific presence in and appropriation of green spaces and parks vary strongly, owing not least of all to spatial design and especially to rules of use. For instance, the presence of women in green areas, parks, and squares increases markedly if their appropriation wishes are taken into account, if, for example, pleasant refuges are available, if the design itself and rules of use impose quieter appropriation patterns, if a sense of security prevails, and if the aesthetic and atmospheric standards apparently more precious to women than men are met. Then women will not only be present in greater numbers but there will be considerably fewer gender-specific differences in behaviour. Women are far less present or concentrate in peripheral areas where open spaces are designed more for movement-intensive activities or self-presentation before others.


2.4 Interim Land Use and Gender

One aspect so far almost completely ignored from a gender point of view is the temporary use of vacant sites whose final destiny is uncertain owing to urban shrinkage (cf. the article by Astrid Heck and Heike Will in this issue). Initially viewed with a certain scepticism, the interim use of land has now found considerable favour in many places. It serves not only to compensate municipal deficits through civic engagement, to improve open spaces, and to create jobs for excluded population groups; it is also an expression and motive force for a new planning culture, and even a catalyst for a new urban life (e.g., Overmeyer 2005). While the planning debate on interim use has meanwhile intensified, empirical research on the subject is still in its infancy. Interim users have so far attracted only marginal academic interest, and gender-related studies are completely lacking.

Nevertheless, gender equity issues are growing in importance with the increase in interim use projects (cf. Harth/Schild 2006). Can it be that primarily male-dominated structures are becoming established in circumvention of existing arrangements for equality of opportunity in formalised planning processes? Precisely in such areas with their low level of regulation and convention, gender-role-typical project contents and strategies can come to predominate because more powerful interests impose themselves. Not everything that purports to be innovative and open-minded is also modern from the point of view of gender equity. Or could quite the reverse be true? That precisely the fluid nature of interim use projects, closely associated with social competencies and minimally prestructured boundary conditions, offers exceptional scope for changing gender relations, and, especially as far as women are concerned, for self-fulfilment beyond traditional role patterns and ways of life? As yet, unfortunately, no scientifically well-founded answers to these questions have been forthcoming. However, given the high expectations attached to the promotion of interim land use as a tool in forward-looking urban development, it would be important to cast a more differentiated, and, from a gender standpoint, perhaps more critical eye on the goals, substance, motivational structures, and beneficiaries of temporary land use projects.

Overall, findings show that gender-specific outdoor behaviour is tending to converge, owing much more strongly to the expansion of female areas of action and less to a greater male role repertoire. What is more, there is a lack of differentiated data bases and research findings on the effects of changing societal gender relations on outdoor behaviour. Finally – of great importance for open space planning – the design, atmosphere, and rules of use in public open spaces clearly exert a not inconsiderable influence on the opportunities for women and men to use and appropriate such spaces. Two projects illustrate this.


3. Two Projects and Their Results

The two projects, St.-Johann-Park (now Bruno-Kreisky-Park) in Vienna and the Jardin Juan Miró in Paris, are among the few projects to have been comprehensively examined from a gender point of view.

The Viennese St.-Johann-Park was fundamentally transformed on the basis of a competition for “gender-sensitive park design.” A balanced ratio between the sexes was to be achieved, and girls in particular were to be encouraged to appropriate public open spaces by expanding their radius of action and increasing their presence. The background to the competition was the realisation that the lack of public open spaces in large sections of the Vienna inner city and of playgrounds designed with youth interests in mind had led to girls being largely displaced by more assertive groups. Girls over the age of ten were almost absent from the parks. The St.-Johann-Park, one of the two green spaces in the competition (the other was Einsiedlerplatz) was redesigned in 2001 by the landscape planning firm Koselicka. It is a large city park in one of the busiest areas of Vienna with an old stand of trees and large meadows.

Variously structured spaces of varying size were created. A diagonal stretching from a residential area to an underground railway station divides the park into two parts: the “Small Freedom” and “Great Freedom.” The “Small Freedom” is structured on a small scale and fitted out more intensively. It is situated close to the adjacent housing, so that is quick to reach and socially well monitored. It contains a play area for children and one for adolescents. It is subdivided by hedges that can be integrated into play. The “Great Freedom” consists of wide, open meadowland with minimal structuring. The football cage was dismantled and special areas for activities favoured by girls were provided, like volleyball, badminton, and quieter activities in protected areas. There are hollows in the meadowland that can be used for ball games, as arenas, for gymnastics, for sitting together, and for sunning. There are red platform beds, a visible invitation to walk on the grass, which can be used for all sorts of purposes. The sense of security was improved by ensuring a clear all-round view and good lighting on the main paths. There are also park keepers who ensure that the rules are kept to.


Figure 1: St.-Johann-Park Vienna

Source:; Picture: Gisela Erlacher.

A study was conducted on use of the park before and after redesign (cf. Gruber 2002). A number of striking changes were noted. The number of female users in all age groups increased, most markedly among adolescents. The latter development was attributed chiefly to male youth staying away after demolition of the football cage (they now kept to the adjoining belt of grounds for ball games frequented almost exclusively by men). The areas used by children and adolescents had almost reached a par, owing especially to expansion of the girls’ areas. Even if girls did engage in gender-specific activities, they had become markedly more active and extensive. This same holds for adults, with older women, in particular, more frequently taking a walk – and asserting that they felt safer and more at ease. Although the approximation of gender-specific presence and appropriation patterns achieved through redesign depends on certain conditions (e.g., relatively low use pressure, the spaciousness of the area, and the alternative amenities for soccer players) and cannot therefore be generalised without further ado – for example the redesign of the overused Einsiedlerplatz has hardly modified the strong gender separation at all (cf. Gruber 2002, 25 ff.), it is clear that, under favourable conditions, gender-specific forms of appropriation have converged owing mainly to expansion of the radius of action and range of activities for women and girls.

The Paris Jardin Juan Miró, in contrast, was not designed explicitly with gender issues in mind but is nonetheless extremely interesting precisely from this point of view. It is a small, neighbourhood urban garden in a mixed-use working-class area laid out in 1993 according to a plan by the landscape architects Liliane Grünig-Tribel and François Tribel. There is no functional allocation of spaces or distinctive system of paths. The park is structured by waves and a complex path and canal system, traversed by a striking footbridge. It is a wooden bridge on an impressive steel substructure. Areas of refuge, observation, and action are equally distributed. There are lawns, a copse, an infant playground, sitting walls, lookout benches, and hidden sitting areas. The park is fenced in and there are strict regulations watched over by park keepers (e.g., ball games are not allowed on the grass area).

Use and satisfaction studies (cf. Paravicini et al. 2002) now show that there is a great variety and mixture of users, female and male, in the Jardin Juan Miró. Men and women of all ages use the park on an equal footing in similar forms of appropriation. The unusual design and the focus of quieter forms of use clear foster forms of appropriation that are not role specific. This is generally felt to be agreeable; the park is appreciated equally by both sexes.


This and similar projects (cf. the model projects in BMVBS/BBR 2006 as well as the collection of “good examples” under operate with clearly defined amenities to meet different demands, with easily surveillable structures and social control to enhance the sense of security, and to some extent with behaviour regulation. Communication points have been created, as well as neutral areas and multifunctional amenities. Under favourable conditions, such measures can clearly help even out gender-specific forms of use and appropriation.


4. Conclusion and Consequences for Gender-Sensitive Open-Space Planning

Overall, there are clear indications that outdoor behaviour has differentiated over the past 20 years, with girls and women increasingly adopting open spaces and modes of behaviour that are not specific to their sex, whereas boys and men continue to exhibit quite role-specific behaviour out of doors. But there are still marked differences between the sexes. The question, however, is whether these gender differences are to the disadvantage of girls and women everywhere and in all cases, and also whether they are felt to be so. For one thing, differentiating women’s and men’s life situations and orientations superimposes other social categories on gender membership such as ethnicity, age, socio-economic status, or even residential environment. For another, it is questionable whether (“male”) spatially expansive behaviour raised to the status of a norm does indeed always lead to greater spatial competence (cf. Löw 2001, 249 ff.; Kaspar/Bühler 2006, 93). Other (“female”) forms of space appropriation via communication and interaction are in this regard perhaps not less successful – and sometimes even more successful, when one considers the downside of male risk behaviour like willingness to use force, vandalism, and self-endangerment (cf. Sobiech 2002, 3). And, finally, the declining rigorousness of socially imposed gender arrangements gives greater subjective scope for action, which is (or can be) obstinately and waywardly exploited.

Gender-related planning is thus caught between strengthening the dual gender model and possibly reproducing stereotype gender role ascriptions and helping to dissolve socially prescribed patterns of gender-specific spaces and provide new opportunities for hitherto disadvantaged people to appropriate spaces. It must react to more complex and more differentiated needs, especially of women. Catalogues of generally applicable criteria for gender-equitable planning are more and more difficult to compile. New elements accrue without old aspects ceasing to play a role. For example, protected zones and support for certain girls and women are still required if they are to appropriate outdoor spaces at all. Particularly affected are girls from immigrant families, girls around the age of 10, and older women. Furthermore, boys and men apparently need more encouragement if they are to adopt ways of appropriating open spaces that do not conform with typical male roles. Current findings on the gender-specific use of outdoor spaces, as well as the projects cited suggest a number of rather general recommendations for gender-sensitive open space planning to help both sexes to appropriate open spaces (cf. also BMVBS/BBR 2006, Harth 2005, 47):

  • Sufficient open space amenable to appropriation should be available within reachable distance to minimise displacements and competition for use.
  • A wide variety of use and appropriation forms should be promoted.
  • Multi-functional utilisation, for example of sports facility, should be ensured.
  • Security is a necessary condition. This can be achieved through open structures, visual connections with the surroundings, and through supervision.
  • Amenities should be available for different population groups. They should be clearly defined.
  • Atmospheric quality is of key interest, especially for women.
  • Small-scale structures are needed, since a dominant, arena-type area favours gender-specific forms of appropriation.
  • Moreover, certain protected areas or times are needed so that girls, especially in early puberty, can realise their potential without being disturbed, for example, play sports without being exposed to male eyes.
  • The effective participation of the public should be self-evident, but gender-sensitive participation procedures need to be ensured.
  • More flexibly planned interim use projects also need to be organised with greater consideration for gender-sensitive aspects.
  • Finally, more intensive research is needed into the consequences of changes in gender relations for outdoor behaviour.

Overall, open space planning should take care that design and rules of use do not themselves favour appropriation in conformity with gender role expectations, thus inadvertently helping consolidate obsolete role clichés.



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