Changing Male-Dominated Street Signs, One at a Time

I was lucky to spend a year in Stockholm. There were the obvious perks: beautiful landscapes, unique society, and the experience of living in a city that is considered by many as one of the most livable in the world. But one of the things that I take with me is the inclusive manner in which Swedes plan their cities.

When studying Urban and Regional Planning at Stockholm University, no matter which topic the course was about, we always had at least one class about gender. Planning and gender, economics and gender, history and gender. The perspective wasn’t new to me, but the extent to which the university emphasized this topic was impressive. I definitely came out with stronger feminist believes after studying in Stockholm.

Urban planners shape the way people experience their cities. Design wide roads, and more cars will come. Plant more trees, and people will enjoy more green in their daily life. And when it comes to gender, many decisions that planners take affect the way different people interact with the city.

Have you ever thought why street elements feature mostly men? Pedestrian traffic lights show green and red men; traffic signs often display guys; streets are rarely named after women. Females, judging by prevalent street design, just don’t live in the city. As Christine Neher, an activist at the Bureau for Women’s Issues in Germany, has put it: “Many elements of public life are very influenced by [a] male-orientated point of view."

Street elements feature mostly men. Picture by Mario Mancuso, licensed under Creative Commons.

Change is coming to our cities, either as protest or by lawmaking. Last year, a group of feminists in Paris have covered up existing street names with blue plaques of inspirational women's names. In 2013, Berlin’s Kreuzberg district passed a regulation requiring all new streets to be called after women, until it reaches equality between men and females.

Luckily, I’m in the position of doing more than criticizing the phenomenon. As an urban planner, decisions I take can influence the daily life of many. Therefore, I try to rethink actions that seem like a no-brainer. They might be based on false views and assumptions. Choosing a street sign is one of these decisions.

Last summer I planned a running route in Groningen, the Netherlands. The idea was to add running symbols on a low-traffic road, inviting people to sport and signaling drivers to slow down. I Designed several signs along the route, each features different person: women, men, children, elderly. Unfortunately, the tight budget didn’t allow us to create different signs, and we had to choose one.

Running-woman Sign in Groningen, by Lior Steinberg.

Image by: Lior Steinberg

When I got the call asking me which to choose, the auto-pilot could have kicked in. If it’s always a man, why not choosing again for a male-sign? But in this case, the decision was clear to me. If we can use only one figure, we go for a running woman. There are plenty of painted men looking at us from all around - so we might just start featuring some women in our streets.

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* To be fair, changing street names and signs alone is just a drop in the ocean. To fix our male-dominated public spaces, it takes a big change in our education system, culture, and laws. Sweden, as I mentioned before, is ahead of many countries, and we should learn from them. Moreover, I hope to see more women in executive planning roles, just like Janette Sadik-Khan and Jennifer Keesmaat. Lastly, take a look at Modacity’s Women in Urbanism series. 

Thumbnail image by Bruce Glassford, licensed under Creative Commons.


Written by Lior Steinberg. Follow him on Twitter.