Sweden’s Gendered Public Space

“The world has been designed around one very specific man,” said British journalist Caroline Criado Perez in her 2019 book Invisible Women. This ‘Reference Male’, as Criado coins him, is 40-years-old, of average weight and Caucasian. Our built world is one that recognises and accommodates him as the default human.

Regarded as consensus in urban planning theory and littered across architectural firm ethos is the idea that ‘good’ public space facilitates urban life and social cohesion. Yet the use of the ‘Reference Male’ as the stand-in public space user spatially and temporally challenges the accessibility of urban space on the basis of gender, race, age, class and religion. In Sweden, community-focused collectives started by designers and architects are re-thinking the politics of public space.

The Dansbana Project, started by three Swedish architects, is focused on building open public dance spaces across the country. “Dansbana was very much a reaction to research that showed that public places for outdoor activities were being used almost exclusively by boys. The municipalities have known this since the 1970s but didn’t know how to fix it,” says Dansbana co-founder Anna Pang. Young men have skate parks, basketball courts and football fields but girls lack similar arenas for activity and collectivising. “Many people like to dance, but particularly young women,” says Pang. The project was originally commissioned by Stockholm’s ArkDes Museum for their Public Luxury exhibition and has since become a permanent installation at the gallery’s entrance.

In Malmö, the DIS/ORDER Collective are co-creating public sites with the children and young people whose voices are set aside in the urban development process and whose presence in public spaces is stigmatised. The collective was founded by landscape architects Johanna Bratel and Karin Andersson with the intention of enhancing community ownership of public spaces. Two permanent sites in the Malmö’s Rosengård neighbourhood were the result of DIS/ORDER’s close collaboration with a group of 15 – 18-year-olds from the municipality who were paid for their time. The resulting designs were playful and colourful open sites with circle motifs, many tables and snaking benches.

Sweden’s reformation of public space has also been woven into policy. In 2016, a new snow-clearing strategy was implemented that gave pavements and bike lanes snow ploughing priority over car lanes. When two to four centimetres of snow falls, pedestrian lanes and cycle lanes are cleared. At six to eight centimetres, streets begin being cleared. This so-called ‘gender equal snow ploughing’ was a response to a study that found that pedestrians were three times more likely to be injured during icy weather than drivers and, crucially, that women were statistically more likely to cycle and walk than men, oftentimes with children in tow.

Urban spatial programming has been prioritising and marginalising in alignment with our socio-political hegemonies. However, gender-blindness to our constructed world is no long digestible in our privilege-attuned times. With public space as the new urban design frontier – Sweden is questioning for whom these spaces exist.