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Participatory Design and Management in Housing: by Women for Women

As the final exam for the Women in Cities class in the MSSM program, students were asked to submit a 1,500-word blog post, sharing their “own observations about women’s lives in urban contexts and [their] thoughts about what might be done, if anything, from a design, engineering, public policy and/or management point of view, to enable them to be full participants in the life of the city.”

Students were encouraged to think critically, boldly, and to focus on one or more cities, firms or specific issues facing urban women and girls, using concrete examples, and incorporating ideas and solutions from the term’s readings, lectures and guest presentations. The three strongest essays will be shared here, to spur further conversation on this question:

How will full inclusion and access for girls and women help make urban spaces more habitable, navigable, just and sustainable?

Julia Nethero
Julia Nethero

The following post is Julia Nethero’s final project for Professor Susan Blaustein’s course, Women in Cities in the MSSM program. Julia explored the shortcomings of urban low-income housing, which fall particularly on women who are responsible for the household’s well being, and how participatory design and management is key to creating homes that serve the needs of the family and thus women.

Based on UN data from 16 low-income countries, approximately one third of respondents are in households headed by women, and of the women surveyed, 43% reported making the greatest financial contribution to the household. U.S. public housing is also majority female, with three quarters of public housing households headed by women, according to Roberta Feldman in “Participatory Design at the Grassroots (1999).”

For pavement dwellers and those living in informal urban slum settlements, women face challenges with sanitation, hygiene, and physical safety. Women’s unique hygiene and sanitation needs due to menstruation, cultural norms, and gender-based violence make maintaining their fragile “sexual dignity” challenging. Yet women do not have reliable and safe access to clean water, bathing facilities, or toilets.

Another challenge facing some women living in low-income communities is the dearth of social structure and support. This problem is particularly acute for migrant women and women in forcibly displaced communities. Migrant women, particularly younger women, are vulnerable without support and protection from their community. Mindy Fullilove’s extensive research and writing on forced displacement shows that communities that are forcibly broken apart and relocated experience higher rates of psychological trauma and illness. The social structures that provide support, especially for low-income people, are dismantled. And the economic opportunities for community members are also disrupted in the move, according to “Root Shock: The Consequences of African American Dispossession” by Fullilove (2001). These three impacts are especially problematic for women. Women are often responsible for the well being of the family, including their health. Women depend on support from each other and their communities for childcare. And with one third of households headed by women in these communities, the loss or disruption in economic opportunity largely impacts women.

Given these gendered challenges of urban housing, how can we better design and build our cities to serve the needs of women and families? Specific answers to this question will not be universal, as they will depend on local culture and context. However one principal should be applied in all cases, to ensure that housing meets the needs of its residents: participatory design and management. I will provide three examples that demonstrate the effectiveness of this principle in a variety of contexts.

Dharavi. Mumbai, India. Photo by: Mehta.
Dharavi. Mumbai, India. Photo: Mehta.

Geeta Mehta tells the story of an NGO in India that is empowering the community to create their own best city. Residents in Dharavi, an informal settlement in Mumbai, India, have constructed their own user-generated city over the years, however many NGOs and the government have tried to intervene to provide new services to the community or to kick residents out entirely. URBZ, an NGO working in the Dharavi community, created an online platform for Dharavi residents to share and discuss the design of services in their community, which creates data on the current state and the needs of the community. This has contributed to self-led improvement projects rather than clumsy top-down government or NGO interventions. URBZ also runs participatory planning and design workshops that empower residents to take on redesigning their community. This is a great example of an expert organization, URBZ, acting as a facilitator to empower residents to construct their own community that works best for them.

Beatrice Harris, resident leader at Wentworth Gardens. Photo by Cottrell, Megan. “Chicago Now.” One Story Up. Blog.
Beatrice Harris, resident leader at Wentworth Gardens. Photo: Megan Cottrell, One Story Up/Chicago Now

Wentworth Gardens, the public housing community in Chicago studied by Feldman (1999), provides another great example of community-driven housing design and management. The Chicago Housing Authority began to cut services, such as a community center and important infrastructure maintenance, in the 1960s. Wentworth Gardens community members, mostly women, organized to provide their own services in place of the government. They designed a shopping center with a youth program, a Laundromat, a convenience store, a restaurant, and more. While they faced significant challenges in funding the center and gaining city approval, community ownership over the project was strong and thus the project continued despite opposition. Today the Resident Management Corporation, run by Wentworth community activists, manages the housing, and parts of the shopping center have been built, with others are still in progress. Wentworth Gardens is a great example of how community members can fight government forced displacement policy to maintain and improve their own neighborhood.

My final example of participatory design is the story of Cheryl Davis, a disability rights activist and scholar. Davis faced many challenges navigating the urban environment and living independently in a wheelchair. The challenges began when she internalized the idea that she could not live alone, an idea engrained in her mind by her family and society. When she finally decided to try it, Davis struggled to find an apartment that was both affordable and accessible. She was limited by neighborhood, as she had to be able to push herself to work. Cabs and public transportation were nearly impossible to use. Finally once Davis found an apartment, she and her family had to retrofit it to meet her needs.

Davis’s role in designing her own space is what made it possible for her to live there. For example, a ramp needed to be installed so that she could access the apartment from the backyard. Davis also tells the story of a couple, one able bodied and one disabled, looking to move in to public housing, where Davis worked to adapt apartments to be suitable for people with disabilities. Davis insisted on the wife, who was in a wheelchair, participating fully in the process. The wife said she did not need the kitchen to be adapted for her. When Davis questioned her further, the wife said she did not cook because she could not access the kitchen. Thus, the thought of even using the kitchen had never occurred to her. Without Davis as her advocate and the wife participating in the redesign process, the kitchen would never have been adapted to serve the wife’s needs. Davis’s stories in “Disabilities and the Experience of Architecture” (1987) demonstrate truly how unique a person’s needs may be, making participatory design ever more relevant.

As these three examples show, participatory design and management not only empowers individuals, but also ensures that the community and the home serve the needs of the residents. Given women’s prominent role in the community and in meeting the needs of their households, it is vital for women that the community be built and designed by women, for women.

Julia Nethero graduated in May 2016 from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs with a Master in Public Administration, focusing on economic and political development and gender. Prior to SIPA, Julia researched Chinese women’s rights on a Fulbright Fellowship and worked on Chinese Human Rights in New York.

The flexibility of the Master of Science in Sustainability Management allows students like Julia to cross-register from other schools and take MSSM courses, and MSSM students have the opportunity to take courses from other schools through Columbia.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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