The Strong Towns message has important implications for many communities (in addition to its widespread value for all of us). Sara Joy wrote about Strong Towns' intersections with faith communities on Tuesday. Today, I want to talk about what Strong Towns means for women and specifically, what Strong Towns has meant for me as a woman.
1. Strong Towns are Safer for Women
The first thing that comes to mind is safety. It’s no secret that the streets are less safe for women than men, especially after dark, which comes earlier and earlier this time of year. The model of growth that we advocate for here: one with mixed use developments, walkable places and neighborhood schools create a safer environment for people outside. As Jane Jacobs’ famous words explain, mixed use neighborhoods with retail, restaurants, residences and offices mean more “eyes on the street.” In a neighborhood with activity going on all day and evening, women are safer.
My own neighborhood is near downtown Milwaukee. Coming home from the bus stop or bar late in the evening, I am surrounded by people walking their dogs, chatting outside, stopping at restaurants or running an evening errand to the drugstore. As a young woman, I almost always feel safe. This is in contrast to other neighborhoods that I’ve lived in, in which the streets felt downright creepy after dark, with not a soul outside.
2. Strong Towns Include Women as Leaders
The second reason Strong Towns has particular value for women is because women are highly underrepresented in local governments. (Women are also very underrepresented in national governments, but we’ll focus on local for today.) There are more than twice as many men serving in full-time city government jobs than women. When it comes to government transportation jobs, men outnumber women three to one. Take a look at your local legislature, your city council, your mayor’s office. I’m guessing there aren’t a whole lot of women sitting in those seats.
At Strong Towns, we believe that “Local government is a platform for strong citizens to collaboratively build a prosperous place.” A government that is not representative of its citizens cannot be called collaborative.
One of my favorite quotes that we shared during our member drive last week was from Maurice Carter who said, “We can't solve the problems we created yesterday with the thinking we used to create them.” I would expand that to say, We can’t solve the problems we created yesterday with the same models and the same sorts of people who created them yesterday. We need more diverse voices leading our towns and cities. At Strong Towns, we advocate for better models of government that more fully include everyone in the decision-making process. This will undoubtedly incorporate the 50% of the population that is currently not adequately represented in government.
3. Strong Towns are Better for Mothers
Parenting is an activity that both men and women participate in, and is a responsibility that is gradually becoming more equally shared by both men and women.
But given that the average American woman still spends twice as much time caring for children than the average American man, and almost three times as much of her day on housework and food preparation, I think it’s especially important to mention in this column why Strong Towns are better for mothers. (I hope one day we get to a place where men care just as much about parenting concerns and where this article would be just as widely read by men, but we’re not there yet. Male readers: If you made it this far, thank you.)
Since women are often the primary caretakers of their children (whether they work or stay home), the suburban development pattern has a particularly adverse effect on them.
Every activity requires a car—whether it’s taking the kids to sports practice, buying groceries or even going to the park. Strong, walkable, productive places, on the other hand, allow greater independence for children and less reliance on cars, saving mothers money and time. In a Strong Town, a mother can walk to the grocery store safely with her children. She can even send them to the park to play on their own. A Strong Town, where neighbors know one another and share resources, is also less isolating, especially for stay-at-home parents.
It should go without saying, but I will say it here: When our cities get better for women, they get better for everyone. For one thing, everyone has a mother, and probably sisters, daughters, spouses, friends, and mentors who are women and whom we care about. For another, just as we will never be able to call our cities truly successful or thriving until racial injustices and segregation issues are dealt with, so too will we never be able to call our towns strong unless the half of our population that is currently living less safe, less represented and less family-friendly lives is adequately served.
(Top photo by the author)