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The Inaccessibility of Motherhood in New York City

MS in Sustainability Management alum Whitney Beaman
As the final exam for the Women in Cities class in the MS in Sustainability Management 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 following post is Whitney Beaman’s final project for Professor Susan Blaustein’s course, Women in Cities in the SUMA program. Whitney studied accessibility for women with children in New York City, and measures that can be taken to improve the economic and social implications of motherhood, particularly with regard to transportation and employment.

By Whitney Beaman

Despite population density and overall diversity, New York City can be a strangely isolating place. Depending on location, it is still somehow possible to separate oneself from segments of the population. I unintentionally set myself apart from families with small children when I moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn, in 2013. I selected this neighborhood because it was youthful, vibrant, affordable, a short train ride from Manhattan, and walkable to bars and restaurants. Until recently, it never occurred to me that I was limiting my social interactions, based on my choice of neighborhood. Furthermore, my self-imposed disconnect was limiting my understanding of the city around me, especially the aspects of urban life that have to do with motherhood and raising children. As I have come to realize, New York is not a welcoming place for women with infants.

As recently at the 1990s, Bushwick was a considered a high-crime district, plagued by drug dealing, prostitution and gang violence. However, in recent decades, Bushwick has experienced an influx of gentrifying “hipsters” who appreciate the neighborhood for its lofted apartment spaces, nightlife, and artistic flair. This has driven the median rent up dramatically and pushed out many longtime residents who may have otherwise raised families there. Aside from the art scene, Bushwick lacks a lot of positive attributes that would normally be sought after in a neighborhood. Few trees line the streets, and park space is minimal. Much of the neighborhood is industrial and lacking in greenery. The one park that serves Bushwick, Maria Hernandez Park, is sparsely turfed and underserved, with limited upkeep. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the wave of gentrification that has shaped Bushwick in recent decades is largely comprised of single, twenty-something, millennials without children.

As an unmarried woman who has never had children of her own or any close friends with children, I was jarred by the realization that New York City is so inaccessible to women with newborns. Strollers are incredibly cumbersome on the New York City subway system, as most require passage up and down multiple flights of stairs. Although elevators and escalators do exist in some subway stations, they are typically unreliable, due to maintenance issues or unsanitary conditions. Public bathrooms are also few and far between, requiring women to seek restrooms in private businesses that may require a purchase in exchange for access. This can be a limiting factor in itself for low-income women. Once in the bathroom, women may discover that there is no changing table for their infant. This makes it both costly and complicated for women to breastfeed, change diapers and tend to their children’s hygienic needs while navigating the City. One wonders why mothers with small children leave home at all when faced with this spiral of lacking services and inconvenience in New York City?

In her essay, Analyzing gender in cities of the South: Introducing the gender-urban-slum-interface, author Sylvia H. Chant discusses the various forms of exclusion women face from urban public space in developing countries due to physical, cultural and economic barriers to entry. These barriers contribute to economic disparity between men and women by limiting access, safety and employment opportunities across the urban landscape. She points out that although gender planning in urban areas is constrained in its ability to completely transform the inequalities between women and men, it is necessary to close the gender gap. Chant goes on to discuss the major significance of fertility and reproductive rights to gender in urbanized areas, as there is considerable evidence that urban women have lower birth rates. Not only do women in cities have greater access to birth control and higher rates of education, which may offer them more choices with regard to the number of children they have, but the cost of raising children in an urban environment is undoubtedly more expensive. How interesting that gender, pregnancy, and childrearing create the same obstacles for women in developing countries as they do in the thriving metropolis of New York. Although this goes beyond the scope of Chant’s essay, it would be worthwhile to investigate the correlation between accessibility for women with children and women’s workplace and community participation rates across New York City.

A view of New York through the lens of the gender-urban-slum-interface raises the question of whether the accessibility challenges faced by women with small children therein are partially the result of a lack of visibility. As previously pointed out, one can live a life in New York City without exposure to the struggles other people experience in their everyday lives. This visibility depends on several factors, such as the neighborhood one lives in, the type of transportation one takes, the strata of society one is surrounded by and the amount of attention one pays to her or his surroundings. The first step toward leveling the scale of equality for mothers is to elevate their struggle, as maternal needs are either unknown, underrepresented, or ignored in much of New York City’s planning.

From a policy perspective, it is vital to consider all stakeholders when implementing an all-encompassing public transit system. An inclusive approach must begin with a conversation in the public forum so that New Yorkers and City planners are exposed to the voices of other genders, ages, physical limitations, and lifestyles whose needs may be otherwise unknown.

A significant step toward making the City more accessible for mothers is informing the community that it is not so, to begin with. As Chant points out, over the past 40 years the emphasis of urban planning has evolved to encourage the participation of multiple voices. The natural result of this is that urban planning has become more gender-aware, drawing attention to women-headed households. I appreciate the subway campaign that asks passengers to give up their seat for pregnant women, and I have personally observed many people doing so since the campaign began. Perhaps this same sense of obligation could be called upon to engage strangers to help women struggling with strollers on the stairs or to report elevators and escalators that require maintenance as soon as they go down. A certain amount of crowdsourcing can help improve accessibility, both through helping hands and by increasing public sensitivity to those in need. Engaging people to help is also the most cost-effective strategy for reducing urban barriers to motherhood. I think subway poster campaigns and loudspeaker announcements comprise an effective strategy for engaging the public on women’s issues, and I would like to see an amplification of that.

Photo by Steven Pisano (Flick) New York City Street Scenes – Two Women Lifting Stroller Up Subway Stairs. Shared under CC BY 2.0
From a design perspective, I think it is of the utmost importance that public transit is upgraded to be more accessible for women with strollers through the addition and maintenance of elevators and escalators throughout the subway system. For example, I know none of the entrances in Bushwick are accessible (perhaps another reason families live elsewhere). Not only would an upgrade benefit mothers, but also the elderly and handicapped. Knowing that renovations like this cannot be completed overnight and funding is limited, there needs to be a more robust system for signaling to trip planners when public transit is actively inaccessible in the interim before it can be improved. For example, the MTA website indicates which subway stations are accessible, and Google Maps can be filtered by accessible routes, but neither of these tools can tell if the elevators or escalators in place are actually functional. From a management perspective, there needs to be a monitoring system for all of these devices that can communicate with trip planning services to indicate when accessible entrances are closed so that alternative routes can be recommended.

Besides mobility enhancements, New York’s public spaces are desperately in need of a sanitary, safe, and accessible network of public restrooms. The cost of making a purchase in exchange for use of a private business’s bathroom should not be an obstacle for women who need to feed or care for their children on the go. Public restrooms could be built into underground subway stations or erected above ground in public spaces. For those that currently exist, there needs to be a map function in place for commuters to find them, such as a search option for Google Maps, or an MTA app that locates the nearest facility. Again, this would require capital investment, software development, and ongoing maintenance, but all mothers and children stand to benefit.

Lastly, access to is another way to remove urban participation barriers for mothers with small children. It is not unheard of for employers to offer onsite childcare, but independent babysitting services can be impossibly expensive in New York City, costing as much as 50% or more of a woman’s take-home pay. This steep financial obstacle, in combination with urban mobility limitations, can make returning to the workforce after giving birth a difficult economic decision for many mothers.

Making New York City a more accessible place for mothers enhances the economic and social status of women, especially single mothers and female heads of households. This not only reduces the economic burden of childcare but also improves the job prospects of motherhood. Increasing the mobility of mothers through public transportation improvements and social awareness campaigns strengthens community throughout the City by encouraging female participation and making the urban environment more inclusive to women. Bushwick is just one neighborhood, among many, that would benefit greatly from mother-friendly planning. New York is a few MTA upgrades away from elevating mothers to a level of urban inclusion.

Whitney Beaman holds an M.S. in Sustainability Management from Columbia University and a B.S. with Distinction in Research in Viticulture & Enology and Food Science from Cornell University. Her career in food and beverage lead her to become the Regional Sales Manager of a sustainably farmed Long Island winery called Bedell Cellars. In addition to her role at the winery, where she keeps one foot in the vineyard at all times, she is also the Program Manager of a non-profit organization called Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing, providing grower education, stakeholder engagement and sustainable certification for Long Island vineyards.

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. Visit the website to learn more.

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