Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Snout houses, mothers and others

A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference at the Jerusalem Municipality on sexual harassment in the public realm, within the framework of the Municipality's Committee on the Status of Women.The conference touched on broader issues of gender and urban planning, though in a brief, compressed way. Most of the conference attendees appeared to be young, single university students for whom sexual harassment might well be a burning issue. One woman -- who stood out from the crowd by being obviously married and a mother -- got up toward the end of the conference with her young infant strapped to her in a sling and complained about playground safety. Her comments were well-received in terms of applause, but the actual discussion was very rushed. 

I wonder what kind of turnout a more general conference on women and planning would get in Jerusalem? It's certainly a topic that has received a fair amount of attention elsewhere in the world. Sexual harassment is, by nature, a "sexy" topic and it may be relatively easy to generate interest and activism around it. By contrast, topics such as "trip-chaining" and mixed-use development as a factor in "gender mainstreaming" might not be capable of mobilizing the female masses -- especially when those masses are too exhausted after putting their kids to bed to go to a conference. (The aforementioned gathering at the Municipality took place after my usual bedtime.) I've heard mothers in my neighborhood say they have too many children to ever consider giving up their cars, no matter what kind of bus service might be available to them. I know there are women who find everyday life in a car-oriented neighborhood very frustrating, but it never reaches the point of talking openly about the specific architectural features and planning policies that make their lives difficult.

Subsequent to the conference, I threw together a primitive (really primitive) slideshow on my pet peeve -- the front-loading garage or "snout house" that creates a conspicuously hostile environment for women (and children) in their home neighborhoods (as opposed to the center-city environments that were the sexual harassment conference's focus). The text is in Hebrew but the images speak for themselves. To briefly summarize: streets lined with front-loading garages are streets where women who come home after dark by bus feel threatened as they walk from the bus stop to their apartment, due to the prevailing sense of isolation and lack of "eyes on the street; where children are forced to stop every few meters as they walk down the street to make sure no cars are barreling out of the building garages; where you can't see the sidewalk in front of your house from any of your windows because the garage is blocking it, and so can't keep an eye out for your kids, for the school bus, etc.; where the sense of what the public realm should be has become so degraded that empty, sterile walls start cropping up everywhere, even surrounding children's playgrounds and shopping strips. 

Snout house ordinances have been passed in all sorts of cities and towns abroad -- most famously in Portland, Oregon. Recently the Canadian capital of Ottawa also decided to "take the emphasis off the garage and put it on the house." Let's hope that the capital of Israel one day follows suit.

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