Women and Planning in Britain-25 Years On: A Reflection

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Women and Planning in Britain -- 25 Years On: A Reflection

Clara Greed

"Fighting the good fight" for better cities for everyone has occupied me since the 1970s, so it is not surprising that this review of the development of the "women and planning" (or women and built environment) movement in Britain is heavily coloured by my personal experience. At one level I have seen huge changes, not least in the acceptance of more women in the built environment professions and a national increase in women in higher education (one can now even teach "women and planning" as an official subject without being laughed at or attacked). Much remains the same, however, and in many respects cities have become worse, not better -- especially in matters of transport and the quality of life. "Women and planning," rather than changing the mainstream, now lives in a separate, parallel universe; there are two sets of conference circuits, publications and networks -- and it seems that "never the twain shall meet."


In the late 1960s I enrolled at Cardiff University in Wales to study for a town planning degree. I was one of few: there were scant numbers of women teaching at university then, and hardly any women students; relatively few young people went to university compared with today. I came from an inner city area of South London where all women worked, and where we were constantly fighting the planners over threats of demolition and road widening. The 1960s in Britain was a period of massive clearance and development to make way for new urban motorways, high-rise buildings and town-centre redevelopment. American planning ideas and architecture were popular and seen as "modern" but were to prove quite unsuitable for the British situation.

At that time I did not see myself as a feminist; while in reality I probably was, I had no idea what feminism meant. But I was knocked over by the rubbish that was taught in our university planning course. One (male) lecturer told us "In the future `everyone' will only work three hours a week and play football the rest of the time." I naively chirped up: "But what about women, a woman's work is never done." "Don't be stupid, we're not talking about that!" came the angry reply. To save my sanity, I tried to put these questions out of my mind. Yet every time I went home I was overwhelmed by the contrast between the two realities, home and university, in our experience of town planning issues. By the mid-1970s the thoughts began to resurface and I realized I was not stupid or alone in thinking the unthinkable -- men planners were wrong.

Late Developer, New Beginnings

In 1976 a wonderful woman called Madge Dresser from California (who settled in Bristol where I was then teaching surveying students) gave me a photocopy of the first issue of Women and Environments, and in 1978 a copy of the first special issue on women -- "Women and the City" -- of the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. I was thrilled by what I read, as it vindicated what I had always thought but never dared express publicly. At last I discovered feminism, read "everything" and started applying it all to town planning and surveying. It was still heavy going though, and one was likely to be ridiculed for daring to mention in university or planning offices what nowadays we would call "women and planning" issues.

Yet new hope was emerging, as in London some women were addressing town planning issues within the context of the Greater London Council. This governmental body had previously been male-dominated. However, with the influx of "new left" and feminist councillors and, eventually, "women's committees" it began to alter. Its work culminated in the production of the Greater London Development Plan in 1986, which included women's issues (the following year the GLC was abolished by the Thatcher government).

Meanwhile, London women planners founded a Women and Environments Bulletin (WEB Quarterly) in 1984. …