What if Women Designed the City?
: Mapping the ‘presency’ of women in Scottish city neighbourhoods

  • May East

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Urban planning suffers from a historic gender gap in theory, policy and practice. While there has been some research on how urban planning fails to respond to women’s experiences, needs and perspectives, the concept of an ‘urban planning gender gap’ can be seen as under-theorised and unrepresented in the realm of practical applications. The discussion of how cities would look if designed by women, thus lies at the heart of this thesis, which explores the symbiotic relations between women and cities towards the attainment of regenerative neighbourhoods.
Since the predominant debates addressing the gender gap are framed through a dualist paradigm categorised as ‘subordination’ (cities constraining, disadvantaging and oppressing women) and ‘emancipation’ (cities liberating women by widening opportunities), this study adopts a novel position by proposing a co-evolving mutualism perspective as a process whereby women and cities can be engaged in an interdependent and reciprocally beneficial relationship, towards an enriching expression of gender- sensitive cities of today and tomorrow. By introducing the concept of ‘presency’ (a neologism merging presence and agency), this study acknowledges that profound changes in the urban environment, such as those aspired for by contemporary women, seldom emerge from unrepresentative policy-making, nor from technical interventions in urban infrastructure aimed solely along ‘functional’ lines, which are not by chance the most masculinised.
In seeking to clarify how to bridge the gender gap in urban planning, this research proposes four lines of investigation as variables in the field of urban planning, classified as: the theoretical debate, the policy debate, the form of city debate, and the planning process debate. The theoretical debate adopts a regenerative perspective, reinforcing the role of women in ameliorating the bio-cultural-spatial inequalities of place and viewing cities as organised urban complexities, endeavouring to reflect the bio-physical realities of the living world. The policy debate examines the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) interdependent framework, as a potential catalyst for women to assume equal and meaningful interventions into urban inequalities – originating from the intersection between SDG5 Gender Equality and SDG11 Sustainable Cities and Communities. Four overarching themes rooted in public space reclamation, the use of green spaces, the level of safety, and how women travel around their areas, emerge at the edge of the SDGs knowledge gap and as concepts that have currency in urban planning spheres.
Embedded in fieldwork, the form of city debate employs walking interviews complemented by spatial technology to capture previously unrecorded narratives of the city by women, seen as experts of their neighbourhoods. Walking as a method fosters opportunities for participants to think aloud, expose their mental models to the open air and engage in critical application of theory to practice. The empirical findings resulting from mapping women’s everyday experiences in five Scottish city neighbourhoods, substantiate the planning process line of investigation. Through a systems thinking approach, the study then identifies 38 leverage points that, according to participants, could be applied similarly in existing or new cities, contributing to gender-inclusive neighbourhoods and describing cities that work for women and girls, as well as for wider segments of society.
This thesis concludes that if women were to assume a stronger representation in the decision-making and design processes of urban planning, significant benefits in terms of liveability and proximity between spaces where social bonds thrive, and multi-serviced facilities prosper, could result. The built environment could better co-evolve with green and blue spaces connected through biodiversity corridors offering a biophilic experience of flourishing environments. Streets could be designed for people, and active travel seen as a norm not an exception. Finally, safety could be prioritised with emphasis on natural surveillance and lifelong learning, uprooting gender misconceptions and enforcing zero tolerance policies that nurture safe environments for all.
Since fostering gender equality is a fundamental trend of the 21st century and an essential aspect of good urbanism, this research makes three original contributions to knowledge: it proposes a co-evolving mutualism paradigm between women and cities, reinforcing system thinking for systems change; it prototypes the applicability of mapping the ‘presency’ of women through walking interviews to reveal inclusive and unrecorded scenarios of everyday life; and finally it identifies leverage points on how urban planners, policy-makers, practitioners, and communities could intervene in urban planning systems so that cities of the present and future can be greener, more inclusive, liveable, and poetic.
Date of Award2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorAnne Cumming (Supervisor) & Husam AlWaer (Supervisor)


  • Gender-sensitive urban planning
  • Urban planning gender gap
  • Regenerative design
  • Bio-cultural-spatial uniqueness of place
  • SDG 5
  • SDG 11
  • Co-evolving mutualism

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