Stroll through Reumannplatz, one of the best-known squares in Austria’s capital, Vienna, and you’ll likely spot an outdoor platform, prominently Mädchenbühne (girls scene). The large podium, which can be used by anyone, was requested as a performance space by the girls from the nearby school when asked what they would like about the urban area.
The girls scene joins workout stations, a playground, and over 50 new trees as new additions to the square, which reopened last year following a gender-sensitive overhaul. But in Vienna, it’s not just the urban spaces that are developed with gender in mind. All aspects of public life, including transport and language, are affected by the capital’s goal of being an inclusive and non-sexist destination.
The strategy used by Vienna to achieve this goal is called “gender mainstreaming”. The head of the Department for Gender Mainstreaming, Ursula Bauer, describes it as a tool to achieve gender equality in society based on structures, frameworks and equal conditions for women and men.
She says it differs from women’s policy in that it ensures that regulations and procedures take into account the structural difference between women and men, mainly related to traditional gender roles. “Women’s policy is remedial work, while gender mainstreaming is prevention,” Bauer said.
She explained that the department reviews gender-disaggregated data and provides guidelines and training to ensure government services are gender sensitive and accessible. Over the years, a network of gender experts in key areas has also been established. Bauer likens the department’s cross-cutting role to that of a watchdog ensuring that all sectors of city government take gender inequalities into account. “No one can escape,” she said jokingly. “We are like a spider’s web.”
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In practice, gender mainstreaming takes many forms, such as ensuring that government bodies use gender-sensitive language to communicate, or that public transport includes illustrations of men with children to signal seats reserved for parents. A visitor to the capital may also notice the wide sidewalks for mothers who navigate the city with prams or children, or the fact that a large part of the city, including the entire public transport network, is wheelchair accessible.
Another key area is urban planning. Gender planning expert Eva Kail has played a pivotal role in making Vienna one of the first cities to look to gender in shaping its public spaces. Inspired by feminist planning literature, Kail began exploring the subject 30 years ago and has received the budget and political support to make it a priority. “It was time to look at the whole city from a women’s perspective,” she said.
Kail began collecting data on how and by whom Vienna’s public spaces were used and found that the female perspective had often been absent. She explained that predominantly male urban planners based their views on male interests and their day-to-day experiences, which meant they tended to overlook the perspectives of other population groups.
Kail noticed that the perspective of teenage girls in particular was missing from city parks and, along with her team, worked with them to figure out how to make these urban spaces more appealing. The result was that larger areas dedicated to football were divided into smaller spaces so that several groups could play; and creating additional seating, such as hammocks, for retreating. “It may not seem like a big deal, but having public toilets in parks is also important for many park users,” she said.
The new park designs, which were tested in six pilot projects in 1999 and 2000, also addressed the safety concerns of many women. “We made sure the main path was well lit, as straight as possible, and that the bushes weren’t too close,” she said.
Observations showed that the pilots were successful. “They worked really well,” Kail said. “More and more girls were using the parks and they were occupying more space.” Now visitors to the city will see that every new or renovated park in Vienna follows the same principles.
The planning pioneer says she is often asked how to spot gender-integrated urban design in the city. “When it’s done well, it’s invisible,” she said. “A well-functioning public space, where no group misses or struggles to use it, does not stand out.”
But sometimes Vienna’s public spaces are used on purpose to make women more visible. For example, in the city’s urban development project, Seestadt Aspern, the majority of streets, squares and parks were named after women, like Janis Joplin, as a small counterbalance to the historically predominant male denomination. . And there is the symbolic identification of the podium at Reumannplatz as a stage for the girls.
While Vienna’s gender mainstreaming approach helps it rank high in quality of life rankings, Birgit Sauer, professor of political science at the University of Vienna, says the rest of the Austria has not yet implemented it to the same extent. “We have a divide between Vienna and the more rural and smaller areas of the country,” she said.
Sometimes Vienna’s public spaces are used on purpose to make women more visible
Sauer says that while there is a tradition of gender equality in Austria, including social housing projects dating back to the 1920s, women in Vienna have more access to support, such as free childcare, which tends to be expensive and has limited hours of operation elsewhere in the country. “This means mothers can work if they want to,” she said, but adds that gender pay gaps are still common.
Many travelers will think of Vienna, known for its formal balls, as a very traditional society, but the professor says multiple factors have caused the capital to be ahead of the gender equality curve in Central and Western Europe. Sauer explains that already in the 1970s, the city was home to many groups of working women and that Vienna has a history of social democratic governments that have invested in creating social equality.
And it doesn’t just stop at genre. According to Sauer, there has also been a lot of activism and political support for the LGBTQ community.
Berni Ledinski, who is the Vienna coordinator for QueerCityPass, a tourist ticket for lesbian, gay and trans visitors highlighting gay institutions, agrees. Ledinski, who also plays drag queen Candy Licious, says “Vienna as a city is a really safe place for queer people.” He says it not only offers a good range of gay-friendly cafes, bars, shops and museums, but it also has a division within the city administration focused on tackling LGBTQ discrimination. .
For Ledinski, a central moment for the queer community of the capital was when Thomas Neuwirth won the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest, playing drag like Conchita Wurst. “It really had a really big impact and the marketing campaigns started to include same sex couples,” he said.
The event also inspired the city of Vienna to make the queer community more visible in public spaces, for example by including illustrations of same-sex couples in traffic lights. But while a lot of progress has been made for the queer community, Ledinski says there is potential for more to be done. “There is always room for improvement, especially when it comes to recognizing inter and trans people,” he said.
And it appears that important steps in this direction are underway. Vienna recently unveiled its first transgender crossing, located near Vienna General Hospital, which is home to the country’s only transgender health center. “Due to Covid-19, there have been a lot of issues with trans healthcare, and we thought it would be a great sign of solidarity,” said Dominique Mras who came up with the idea.
Mras, who is the deputy for Vienna’s 9th district responsible for diversity, says it’s important to note that the pink, blue and white cross has received support from all political parties, including the Conservative Party. And although this is the only pedestrian crossing planned at the moment, Mras believes it is an important symbol to help open the conversation about gender diversity and make trans people more visible in Vienna.
“It’s a first step,” she says.
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