/ 31 March 2004

The female sex and the city

Urban planning expert Vanessa Watson feels strongly that African cities have failed the average woman.

“Too much of our planning has tended to import models from the United States or Europe, and apply them here without questioning whether or not they are appropriate,” she notes.

Transport routes link residential and work areas, which doesn’t help much if life forces you into the role of a multitasker — having to hold down a job while still needing to get your child to school or a parent to a clinic, not to mention shopping during your lunch break.

Watson calls for city management that recognises difference and human diversity rather than regarding all households as uniform Barbie-and-Ken-like couples with nuclear families and enough cars to get them around.

Cities dangle seductive opportunities — jobs, hospitals, schools, — and yet often put them physically out of reach for a wheelchair-bound, car-accident survivor; a jobless woman in the last trimester of pregnancy; a tired grandmother with six kids to mind.

“The least mobile person in a city is probably a pregnant woman on foot, dragging a toddler,” Watson says. “And yet, about half the population is female.”

Many facilities are so remote that would-be users relying on public transport have to accept the risk of leaving before sunrise, trudging from taxi to train to bus — with all the costs and delays that this entails — and eventually having to return along the same torturous route by dusk. Anyone with a car, on the other hand, can drive directly to his or her destination.

Watson’s research shows that “the poorest people in South African cities were paying the highest proportion of their income [towards] transport, and that people were travelling as far to work as they were in rich and car-dependent cities like Los Angeles.”

Part of her research nowadays looks at how cities accommodate the Aids pandemic. Watson found that municipalities still think of Aids as simply a health issue, not a planning issue.

“Do we need new kinds of housing that cater for Aids-orphan families, or orphaned children looked after by a grandmother?” she asks. “[Or] housing clusters that perhaps have communal catering facilities and are linked to a basic health facility?”

There’s also the not-inconsiderable matter of housing the dead as well as the ill. A Motherwell cemetery designed to last for 120 years is full after 20.

Her definition of environmentally sustainable cities looks not just to cost-effective use of resources, but also to curbing what she calls “negative externalities” — the unexpected and unfortunate outcomes.

“It is often the most marginalised groups who suffer most when living areas are flooded, when there are mud-slides and wash-aways, when solid waste is not removed properly, when sewerage runs into the streets, when pollutants affect air, water and soil.”

Watson remembers growing up in Durban at the time of the Cato Manor forced removals, the only child of a widowed secretary who was determined that her daughter would go to university.

Now Cato Manor, along with the Warwick Avenue Triangle revamp, is on her list of people-friendly, women-friendly developments.

But the past remains a motivating factor in her work: “I remember how domestic workers had to leave their families and live in tiny rooms behind big suburban households, and how they were lonely and afraid, and missed their children.

“And I remember how park benches, bus stops and post offices all suddenly doubled, one for whites and one for blacks. And I began to think that one way I could make a difference was to study to become a city planner, so that I could plan cities that did not do these kinds of things to people.”

Vanessa Watson is a University of Cape Town urban planner and was winner in the Distinguished Woman Scientist category in last year’s Women in Science Awards, sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology