Gender and Remaking Public Spaces

Posted on March 12, 2009 by

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When I think of public space advocacy, I usually think of the USC study that found public space lacking in brown and black neighborhoods. I think of public space mostly in terms of getting it into South Los Angeles, or getting it to Downtown. With history usually supporting the richer areas, getting populations access to open space is most important. I don’t think as much about the remaking of the public space we already do have, such as that found in the middle of downtown Los Angeles: Pershing Square.

I first went to Pershing Square way back when to investigate what Mike Davis wrote in the City of Quartz, a classic piece of deconstruction of the Los Angeles urban built environment. Besides the area of Skid Row, Pershing Square was ground zero for everything underhanded, hyper-capitalistic, and deceiving. I wanted to see hyper-privatization and militarization at work. I wanted to see the commandments rules they posted. I wanted to see the “bumproof” benches.

Pershing Square Bumproof

A Pershing Square Day

If the goal of the park is to get people to go there, then yes, Pershing Square been a failure.

According to an LA old timer from the 1930s, the space has been a failure for generations. His mother would never want to walk down there despite having spent considerable time in and around the area.

A landscape architect made the point that Pershing Square wasn’t bad necessarily because homeless people were there, but it was bad mainly because homeless people is all that Pershing Square has. There was and is nothing else there for any other demographic to want to spend time there.

So how to make it succeed?

Programs up the wazoo were mentioned from cinema nights to book nights to their winter-time ice-skating rink. Selling stuff via restaurant or general vending, but I swear that there’s probably a no vending sign somewhere there.

Same old basic, but solid and hopefully sustainable suggestions. I’ve heard all that stuff before, in my long, storied urban anthropological career.

But then, that same landscape architect brought up an interesting way to measure the success of a public space.

For him, it’s about appealing to and connecting to a demographic. Generally, the more women in a given area, the safer the area is.

If close to half the population in a park is women, then you’ve reached success as an urban designer of a public space. The logic goes: women are better at recognizing and avoiding threats. If there are no threats, they will walk around the place without consciously and cautiously monitoring their every move. When they don’t consciously and cautiously monitor their every move, they are more likely to return to the spot with the same feeling, and perhaps even bring children.

Incidentally, however, if the panel of “experts” yesterday was any indication, I very much doubt that the big decisions on qualitatively remaking the park will be made by women; landscapes, control of the funding, control of the fund distributions — that’s old boys club talk.

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