Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Woman's touch?

Elana Sztokman's recent Sisterhood blog post, "Breaking the Drywall Ceiling," inspired me to reflect on the degree to which the planning and architectural issues that preoccupy me have a gender component.

Dr. Sztokman's post celebrates the election of a woman, Ofira Golomev (גולומב) as chair of the Rishon LeZion branch of the Association of Contractors and Builders in Israel. Given the gender disparities in the construction sector to which Dr. Sztokman calls attention, one would have to agree that this is, indeed, a positive development, from a women's-status point of view.

What I'm wondering is whether Ms. Golomev's election has any meaning from an urban-planning and architectural point of view.

Are women, once in positions of influence, better equipped than men to push for well-designed neighborhoods and residential projects?

On the face of it, the answer would appear to be, yes. Women, particularly mothers, spend more time in the neighborhood and in the home and, it stands to reason, are more likely to be deeply affected by poor planning and construction. They also tend to be more aware of their children's needs and whether these needs are or aren't being served. If the nearest library is not within walking distance, if the street environment is unsafe due a lack of visibility from building windows and entrances, if the local playgrounds are shadeless and unusable from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, the moms will know -- after the fact.

The question is, do they notice these details beforehand?

It is tempting to connect the kind of wall-and-garage-dominated streetscape exemplified by the photo at left with a male design perspective. If we are to be guided by stereotypes, then we will affirm that men like their cars and want them to be well-housed. Men aren't around all day and might not realize that the lack of a semi-public space between the building and the street leaves residents, and particularly children, with no place to be except in the house, the school, or the formal after-school activity.

But is the converse true? Do Israeli women, when they are in the process of buying a home, place a premium on street-friendly features? Do they care if the building has no entrance except through a garage? Do they notice if local playgrounds have been built with no trees anywhere in the vicinity of the play equipment?

Based on my own observation -- and, I must say, on my own past experience as a homebuyer completely ignorant of planning issues -- the answer is no.

Without trying to blame either men or women, I think it's fair to say that the Israeli home-buying public has almost no awareness of what makes a place pleasant to live in -- no awareness of neighborhood design. As Gerard Heumann pointed out last year after the Holyland scandal broke, "[t]hose who paid good money for apartments in Holyland, blind to its destructive impacts, could not imagine the present scenario."

Regarding the election of a woman to chair the Association of Contractors and Builders' Rishon branch: Sztokman points out that Golomev "has been influential in advancing many building projects." I would love to know what these projects are, what they look like, to what degree they embody urbanist values. Do they reflect a "woman's touch," or was Golomev's gender irrelevant to their design?

Sztokman quotes Golomev on the Association's "[...]social and communal agenda. For years the organization has produced the annual ceremony for granting scholarships to students with lesser abilities from Reshon Lezion. This is a continuing, respected tradition that the organization is very proud of.” This all sounds very nice, but what does it have to do with planning and architecture? Do these scholarships reflect a desire on the Association's part to create safe, healthy, walkable, livable communities, or are they a fig leaf for construction that is unfriendly to the community?

I would be very grateful for some feedback from readers in the Rishon LeZion area regarding the actual nature of Ms. Golomev's activity.

Photo credit:

Young Construction Worker :

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