Sex and the City: why women and families matter
A recent study at Cambridge University says that urban development projects tend to cater to men. Poor transit systems and lack of schools and daycare near workplaces, it found, restrict women's ability to balance work and family. How do cities in the United States cater to men and women? In particular, does the physical, social, and economic structure of the DC metropolitan area disadvantage women?
According the 2007 American Community Survey, there are approximately 1.9 million households in the DC metro area. Family households (defined as households with a children under the age of 18) account for 32 percent. Single mother households make up 7 percent. Sixty-eight percent of married couple households with children under 18 have two working parents, and face similar challenges to single mother households.
With the increase in the number of working women over the past four decades, important services women once performed in the privacy of the home have moved into the public arena. Many more families now purchase services such as preparation of meals, laundry, and housecleaning. Child care was once primarily a private responsibility, but is now a critical service for working mothers. The majority of working mothers in the 1960s depended on relatives or neighborhood care. By 2005, a little over a third of working mothers with children ages five and under used organized child care facilities, such child care centers, nursery homes, or Head Start programs.
Many mothers face severe day-to-day space-time constraints as they try to balance new and changing roles in a static urban form. Residents in the DC metro area have some of the longest commute times in the nation. The average one-way commute time between work and home for the DC metro area is 33 minutes, compared to a national average of 25 minutes. Recent data from the American Community Survey reveals that for men, the average one-way commute to work is 35 minutes. Women had a slightly shorter commute at 32 minutes. Two thirds of men and women reported commuting to work by car. Approximately equal percentages of men and women report commuting to work by public transportation (13 percent and 15 percent, respectively).
However, this information tells us little about men's and women's activities during the commute. Working mothers are more likely to drop off and pickup children from child care, increasing a mothers' total commute between work and home by 28 percent. The journey to child care can be more difficult for mothers who rely on public transportation, increasing their commute time and the need to navigate a maze of transportation routes and schedules.
As women continue to join the labor force, urban planners should consider the role of gender in urban planning practices and the outcomes for families. Questions and issues include:
- Do women have tighter time budgets then men and would they be more willing to change residential or work locations to save time?
Recent findings from the American Housing Survey indicate that the distance between home and work for women is increasing faster than their commute durations, compared to men. In the current economic downturn, men are losing their jobs at a faster rate than women, meaning that women may surpass men in the labor force. Men may in turn take more duties in the household, freeing up time for women and may again influence choices about where to live and work.
- Should child care be provided cooperatively in small neighborhood complexes, regional shopping centers, or at work locations (i.e. the office)?
Several federal agencies in the DC metro area offer on site child care, making the commute to work more convenient for mothers and fathers. Child care facilities are good for economic development as well. Availability of child care helps parents work, but they also provide employment opportunities and can make a community more desirable if there are additional services for children that parents need and want.
- What services could be provided to aid families to bridge the gap between work and families needs?
One suggestion would be to produce a map that shows the location of child care providers as well as public transportation routes.
- Will Americans change the currently-dominant desire to live in a single-family house? How can alternative forms of housing (such as communal living) aid working families?
The conventional home serves women and families badly when there access to transportation and services are limited. Also, the bigger the home, the more time it takes to clean it, which further isolates women. Feminist urban developers have long argued that women and families would benefit more from housing developed around community spaces and services that are within walking distance. That would free up more time for families to create social networks.
Locally, Greenbelt, Maryland was developed as a public cooperative community during the 1930s, built with New Deal money. Greenbelt arranged homes in clusters, with a system of interior walkways to connect residents to courtyards, shops, schools, and community buildings. Will the new economic stimulus package encourage us to once again build more creative and beneficial living spaces?
Our urban planning policies need to account for the daily needs of working mothers and their families. Policies don't need to be gender specific, but they do need to recognize that the changing social and demographic characteristics of urban areas calls for creative living options and the need to devote more attention to the quality of living conditions.
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