Ingeborg van Teeseling

In Cities Designed by Men, Public Spaces Are Anything But

(Photo by Zach Rowlandson on Unsplash, color variant)

As it stands, the streets belong to men. This can be taken figuratively, as well as literally. We’re long overdue for gender-equal cities. 


When I was in my late teens, it was the height of the second feminist revolution. One of the things that we railed against was fear. Fear, in particular, of being out in the streets. A simple human right that was nevertheless much more difficult to obtain for women than for men. To make people aware of this problem, and to give ourselves more courage to step out, we would gather every Thursday night at 8:00. In demonstrations that got bigger over time, we carried flaming torches and chanted that the witches were back and taking over the streets. Although the situation for women in the public space hasn’t really improved in the intervening decades, it is only now that I am sorely tempted to pick up my broom again and dust off my spells.

COVID-19 has escalated the mostly invisible battle that men and women fight every day, and I am sick and tired of it. For two months now I have been pushed onto the highway, into bushes, into the path of unsuspecting dogs, just to give way to the male of the species. This story is going to be my last attempt at rationality. After that, I will turn myself back into the angry avenger I was at eighteen.

Yesterday, on my daily morning walk, I came across a couple with a dog. She stepped aside, pulling the dog with her. He, on the other hand, remained in the middle of the footpath. So, I stopped, waiting for him to notice me and give me some room to pass. But he didn’t. He looked up, acknowledged me, but stayed where he was. When I asked him if he would be so kind, he said I had enough space already and that he wasn’t going anywhere. Again, I tried reason, reminding him of the 6-feet COVID distance. That made him very angry.

In an expletive-laden tirade, he told me that he had never made way for a woman before and that he wasn’t going to start now. I am not a fearful person in general, but his rage scared me. I turned around and, while the f*s were still flying, I chose another route. But even when I was doing that, forty years of feminist training screamed at me to go back and confront him. “This is everybody’s footpath, not just his,” my 18-year old self told me, sternly admonishing me for backing out and giving this arsehole a victory. The problem was that he wasn’t the first one behaving like this during the pandemic. Nor would he probably be the last. And this had turned my normally joyous walk into a source of annoyance and irritation. Not the way you’d want to start the day.

When I spoke about this experience with other women, all of them had comparable stories of their own. Most of us were angry, but we were also embarrassed. We were strong and capable, but when men pushed us aside, we looked down, trying to ignore them and what they were doing to us. Although we wanted to confront them, we hardly ever did. Not just out of fear, we realized while we were talking about it, but because this kind of behavior (theirs and ours) was so inbuilt that it was almost instinctual: men take the space, we give it to them. And while we do, we avert our eyes, like a small dog conceding power to the alpha of the pack. Public space, we realized, is not public at all. It is male. And most men, even the nice ones, behave like they own it and we don’t. Often they don’t even realize they walk around like they are Moses and we are the sea.

By the way, it is not just walking-behavior. The last couple of weeks I have been watching a lot of episodes of SBS’s Mastermind. After a few of them, I started noticing that when you watch the four candidates in a row, all men, without exception, sit with their legs open wide, their hands between them. Women, also without exception, have their legs together and their hands in their laps. Look around you, now you can travel by public transport again: men are mansplaying everywhere they go. Whether they realize it or not, they take up far more room than women. And in this time of pandemic, when we have to share the space or run the risk of getting sick and dying, that is a problem.


Of course, men have always owned the streets. A 2014 study by Cornell University showed that 93.4% of women had experienced verbal or nonverbal street harassment. Not during their lives, but in the last year.


Of course, men have always owned the streets. A 2014 study by Cornell University showed that 93.4% of women had experienced verbal or nonverbal street harassment. Not during their lives, but in the last year. And more than 50% of them had been groped. URBACT, the European Union organization that is trying to foster sustainable cities, recently concluded that cities, in particular, are “neither safe nor inclusive for women.” “Public space is often dominated and designed by men,” its researchers stated, ringing in a new initiative to try and stimulate “gender-equal cities,” where there would be “spacial justice.” You can even see the imbalance in the symbols on the side of the road.

People on signs are invariably male, which led Israeli artist Maya Barkai to set up a public art project called “Walking Men Worldwide.” In fifteen years, she collected 180 road safety symbols from across the world. Only ten of them were female and those were stereotypically so: high-heels, ponytails, skirts. So, the world around us is designed by and for men. They call it gender-neutral, but that really means male. Like white is race-neutral. And that has consequences: if you take up space, you force me out of the way. Even if you don’t realize, because you don’t pay attention to what is happening around you. Women do. We have to. Because you are not. You are not just ignoring me as an individual, you are ignoring me as a gender. And that, my friends, is starting to piss me off.

A few weeks ago, The Guardian concluded that women will be hit disproportionally by the economic consequences of the pandemic. They called it the “pink collar recession”: more women are now and will be unemployed or working far fewer hours than men. They have been doing the bulk of the homeschooling and because their jobs are often casual and in sectors that have been hardest hit, it will be likely that their misery will be permanent. This, men, will mean that the streets will be awash with angry females. They’ve got nothing else to do and are furious about the hand that they have been dealt.

My advice would be to get out of their way. Start now: learn to share. Show us that public space can be truly public. Or else the witches will be back.


Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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