Designing Downtown Spaces — With Women in Mind
By Miriam Sitz
“Are we designing downtown spaces and experiences with women in mind?” asked Dave Feehan, an expert in the revitalization of downtowns and president/CEO of Civitas Consulting. “Are women involved in and directing that effort?”
“Two old guys talking about what you do for women,” said Irby Hightower, founding principal of Alamo Architects. “What could go wrong!”
Today’s Urban Renaissance luncheon, “Designing Downtown for Women,” brought together several perspectives, both male and female, on how downtowns can improved by considering the needs, preferences, and priorities of the driving subset of the downtown population: women.
Keynote talks from Feehan and Hightower were followed up by a panel of women fielding questions from moderator Molly Cox, SA2020′s chief of engagement.
Feehan, who served for many years as president of the International Downtown Association, began by describing what he calls the “she-conomy.” Data from his forthcoming book, “Design Downtown for Women – Men Will Follow,” served as the backbone of his talk.
According to his research, women dominate household purchasing, making 83% of retail and 80% of residential decisions. Further, women control 60% of private wealth in the U.S. and comprise nearly 60% of college graduates. However, only 27% of working urban planners, 24% of architects, and a scant 10% of civil engineers are women. In short, women have disproportionately low input into the design of the cities and spaces where they live and work.
“When I talk about designing downtown,” said Feehan, “I’m talking in a very broad sense about designing experiences.” When it comes to making a downtown appealing to women, he said, the “experience economy” outweighs the “commodities economy”.
By allowing the priorities and preferences of women to inform architectural and design decisions, downtowns have the potential to become more functional, welcoming, and vibrant.
Feehan cited dirty public bathrooms, dangerous tree grates, a lack of shade, and dark, dingy, and unsafe-feeling parking garages as some of the primary items of dissatisfaction among women he’s surveyed. Grungy parking meters rounded out the list, as Feehan quoted a friend who observed, “Finding a parking spot is like finding a good man. They’re either headed in the wrong direction or they’re taken.”
Having identified women as a subset of particular importance when it comes to designing successful downtowns, where do we go from here? Awareness, communication, research, and action. “Encouraging more diversity in the professions that design our downtowns and business districts, Feehan explained.
“It’s an area that we would say has… lots of opportunities,” said Hightower, garnering a chuckle from the crowd. The area that some describe as San Antonio’s “parking lot district” has been the subject of many studies since the 1990s, and its development continues to be hotly debated.
The ability to live, work, and play in the quadrant, and specifically the presence of businesses, retail, and services, emerged from public meetings as top priorities for development. Stakeholders identified perceived safety as a top obstacle.
Hightower pointed to Neiman Marcus and the Shops at La Cantera as retailers that successfully designed their infrastructure to appeal to both the desires and concerns of their target audience: women. Joking, he added: “In the retail world, men are not people.”
An example of this strategic development is The Shops at La Cantera. The outdoor mall allows visitors to select their own temperature preference by providing walkways in both shade and sun, and spends big bucks – “a $2.5 to $3 million line item,” said Hightower – on restroom maintenance. Measures like these to create a comfortable environment can make or break the success of a retail area or a downtown.
The architect highlighted several other important ways that an environment can be made more comfortable. “Disguised security” – meaning visible concierges and doormen rather than armed guards – provides informal, casual security.
Evenly distributed and hierarchically arranged lighting (illuminated signs, store windows, walkways, and finally landscaping) creates ambiance and increases real and perceived safety. And finally, the “kid-friendly” factor of an area counts – “If it’s kid friendly, you’ve solved all the other problems,” Hightower said.
Molly Cox of SA2020 moderated the post-presentation panel, which included Kelly Beevers of Hixon Properties, Teri Grubb of South Texas Money Management, Cynthia Phelps of HEALTH eDesigns, and Marilu Reyna of Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
Grubb, whose company is relocating to Downtown in February of 2014, indicated that the beauty of Downtown’s historic architecture and the river were major draws, although questions of safety and parking did arise when first contemplating the move.
Beevers has lived and worked in the city center for just over two years and three years respectively. “The lifestyle that’s offered downtown, even now in its infancy, is so different than anywhere else in the city,” she said, calling the “wealth of activity and possibility that’s there” an irresistibly attractive quality of downtown living.
An active member of Geekdom, Phelps likened the need to create a welcoming environment for women Downtown to the same need in the high tech world. “Where is the culture for people who are young adults and young families?” She pointed out the need for downtown childcare, while Reyna listed other everyday conveniences necessary for a thriving city center, such as gyms, grocery stores, and healthcare providers.
In the long battle to revitalize downtown and transform it into “everyone’s neighborhood,” considering the perspective of San Antonio’s women – and increasing the firsthand female input – is a must. “This is a starting point,” said Feehan. “We’re raising issues, raising questions, and trying to point ourselves in the right direction.”
Miriam Sitz is a freelance writer in San Antonio. A graduate of Trinity University, she blogs on Miriam210.com and sells handmade goods on TinderboxGoods.com. Follow her on Twitter at @miriamsitz. Click here for more stories from Miriam Sitz on the Rivard Report.