Urban Media Lab & Not Just Jane Jacobs: A Collaboration to Uncover Influential Women in Urbanism

Photograph by Elliott Erwitt / Magnum and John J. Burns Library, Boston College

“I’m not white, wearing black, funky glasses, tall or male. I’m none of the preconceptions of what an architect might be, and that means that every time I introduce myself as an architect, I have to push through the initial assumptions.” Yen Ha, founding principal of the New York architecture firm Front Studio explained in a recent interview with the NYTimes. Representation matters, and in an industry with so few visible women at the top, Marian Wright Edelman’s assertion that “you cannot be what you cannot see” could easily be the rallying cry for women in architecture and urbanism.

Despite a general global trend toward educational equity of the sexes in university architecture programs – a prevailing disparity is revealed when observing women in the workforce. Even though graduating classes are close to gender parity, in Canada only about 29% of practicing architects are female – and the numbers only get lower elsewhere. The share of practicing female architects is about 26% in the United Kingdom, 24% in the United States, 21% in South Africa, and less than 20% in Australia. Similar polling is taking place for the first time in the Middle East, where Suad Amiry, founder of the Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation, explains, “I taught architecture in Jordan and at Birzeit University in Palestine and I would say 60 to 70 percent were women, but when we go into the real world and begin to work, all of a sudden, we disappear…”

UK firm Foster + Partners has 10 executive partners, all of whom are men

Unfortunately, the proportion of women visible in the architecture industry only gets more dismal when delving deeper into the management hierarchies of the world’s largest architectural firms. Dezeen’s 2017 study of the 100 biggest architecture firms in the world, found only three headed by women (Scandinavia’s Henning Larsen, Tengbom, and White Arkitektur), and only two that had management teams that were comprised of over 50% women (Tengbom and White Arkitektur). While just 1 in 10 of the top-level roles at the 100 biggest international firms are female, architect Dorte Mandrup, who runs her own studio in Denmark, responded to the findings: “It’s interesting too that there seem to be practically no woman holding creative director or lead designer positions…The women that are at top positions have administrative or CEO roles backing up a male star.” Thus, of the already small proportion of women practicing architecture professionally, only a handful of these women make it to the top, comprising only 18% of the top three tiers of management at the world’s 100 largest firms. 

Though the numbers are harder to track – urbanism and urban planning too appear to have a gender parity crisis. Planetizen’s “Top 20 Urban Planning Books (Of All Time)” contains only three female authors out of the total twenty (Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction co-authored by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein). Additionally, the 2016 edition of the Routledge City Reader includes articles by 66 contributors, only 4 of which are women (6%). Meanwhile, Routledge’s 2016 Planning Sustainable Cities and Regions, contained 11 female contributors out of the total 52 authors (21%), better but still nowhere near equal representation.

Urban governance obviously plays an undeniable role in how cities are structured and serve their residents. While globally women are increasingly able to secure positions of authority, their representation in mayoral offices is still nowhere near equal to that of men. A survey of the fifty most populous cities in the world (according to data provided by the United Nations) shows that only ten of these cities are run by women, while forty men hold the mayoral (or similar) titles. 

These numbers are particularly frustrating in that, when women have contributed to architecture and urbanism, their achievements have historically been miscredited or discarded. From about 3500 years ago when Egyptian ruler, Hatshepsut, had her name and buildings struck out of history by her successor – to 1991, when Robert Venturi alone was awarded the Pritzker Prize for his and Denise Scott Brown’s joint work– women’s achievements have been concealed or solely attributed to the men in their lives.
The small proportion of women in the field and the erasure of their achievements paint revisionist histories of our cities, leading us to believe that women have only been active creators and influencers since the late 20th century. Women in the industry who have been able to overcome such obstacles are few and far between, creating a tokenism that makes finding role models difficult, and fosters the belief that in order to succeed one must be the exception. The disappointing absence of women in architecture studios, boardrooms, global summits, scholarly readers, syllabi, and classrooms led to the creation of Not Just Jane Jacobs – an ever-growing catalog of brief but scholarly biographies of the women who shape our cities. With a dual mission Not Just Jane Jacobs hopes to acknowledge women whose work was historically erased while also illuminating the numerous and diverse women who are currently contributing to the urban fabric.

In collaboration with the Urban Media Lab, Not Just Jane Jacobs seeks to act as a resource for women who may be looking for role models who look a bit more like them. Throughout this collaborative series we will be showcasing influential women who have had a profound impact on their urban surroundings through biographies, histories, and hopefully even an interview or two; seeking answers to the questions: What does it mean to have a male-dominated city in urbanism, architecture, and design? How can we design more inclusive cities? And who might already be doing it? 

If you know of someone that you believe should be showcased, feel free to reach out directly, here.