Women in Urban Leadership: 6 Trailblazers You Should Get To Know

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“Successful, vibrant, happy cities arise out of the visions of many, not the powerful few.” – Jane Jacobs.

While we’ve seen progress in female representation over the last century, women’s perspectives and voices are still significantly marginalized. This year, the UN reported that women serve as Heads of State or Government in only 22 countries and that 119 countries have never had a female leader, despite the strong case that their leadership makes for more inclusive decision-making and more representative governance. Moreover, women occupy just 10 percent of the highest-ranking jobs at the world’s leading architecture firms.

According to the World Bank’s 2020 publication, Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design, urban areas do not consider the daily lives or needs of women, sexual and gender minorities, and people with disabilities. Horacio Terrazza, one of the Handbook’s authors points to its far-reaching effects, highlighting the key role that urban space plays in how we organize our lives, communities, and, in turn, our society. Ultimately, our built environment reflects and reproduces the gender stereotypes with which we grow up and co-exist.

“Urban planning and design shape the environment around us – and that environment, in turn, shapes how we live, work, play, move, and rest,” – Maitreyi Das, Manager of the World Bank’s Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience, and Land Global Practice.

The impact that the lack of diversity in decision-making has on urban inequality is apparent in a myriad of ways. From parks and streets without lighting and a lack of public restrooms to unsafe public transport networks, these failures in policy, governance, and design all affect how women and minorities experience ‘man-made’ environments, both physically and psychologically. By including diversity in the conversation, we can recognize and remove the barriers to a safe, accessible use of the city and directly improve our inherently heterogeneous, intersectional, and ever-evolving urban environments. Whether it applies to education, architecture, urban policy, design, or technology, leaders need to represent the people they serve to best understand their wants and needs.

It’s time for women to claim their space in leadership and decision-making in the movement for cities. To celebrate those that already have and call on others to follow suit, we’ve handpicked six exceptional women from a range of disciplines to showcase how, in their very own ways, their projects have profoundly impacted the wellbeing of their communities.

Kalpana Viswanath – CEO of Safetipin
Courtesy of Safetipin. 2021.
Courtesy of Safetipin. 2021.

Dr. Kalpana Viswanath is the co-founder and CEO of Safetipin, a social enterprise that uses data and technology to help cities become smarter, safer, and more inclusive for women. Founded in 2013, Safetipin collects data through multiple sources including MySafetipin, a free crowdsourcing app that helps users make safer decisions about their mobility based on criteria such as lighting, visibility, people density, gender diversity, security and transportation. The data is also used by local governments to improve planning and maintenance. At its core, the tool features the Safety Audit, which analyzes a given area based on physical and social infrastructure parameters. Beyond Safetipin, Dr. Viswanath has also headed a number of large global projects, including Jagori, a leading women’s rights NGO, and has been a consultant for global agencies including Women in Cities International, UN Women, and UN-Habitat.

Khensani de Klerk and Solange Mbanefo – Co-Directors of Matri-Archi(tecture)©
Courtesy of Charlie Hui, Viswerk. 2020.
Courtesy of Charlie Hui, Viswerk. 2020.

Architectural designers Khensani de Klerk and Solange Mbanefo are the co-founders of Matri-Archi(tecture)©, an intersectional collective that brings POC African women together for the empowerment and development of African cities within the realm of spatial education. Based between South Africa and Switzerland, Matri-Archi focuses on the recognition and empowerment of marginalized identity groups in the architecture industry – a space that has often barred them from representation – to write and design, so as to reach identity equity in Architecture discourse. Through design practice, writing, podcasts, and other initiatives, the collective works to empower its network with established practice and education partners to reframe the various sectors related to design and the city.

Femke Halsema – Mayor of Amsterdam
Courtesy of City of Amsterdam. 2021.
Courtesy of City of Amsterdam. 2021.

Mayor Halsema is part of a growing group of politicians who have become the first women to lead their cities. A former leader of the Netherlands’ Green Party, her program focuses on the digitization of citizen services, smart mobility and the circular economy. In addition, a central target of her reforms is Amsterdam’s red-light district, and she has echoed her decision to ban guided visits to the area in order to promote respect for sex workers, as well as end the inconvenience that this type of mass tourism causes to the local community. As she has stated, “…when I was a member of parliament (MP) ages ago, I was partly responsible for acknowledging prostitution as a legal profession in the Netherlands…we need to have the guts to interfere in the economic structures of the city. I think we are in time.” This forward-thinking mayor has also been promoting a Coalition of Cities for Digital Rights, which aims to harness technological opportunities that improve the lives of constituents, and to provide trustworthy and secure digital services and infrastructures that support local communities.

Carina Guedes – Founder of Arquitetura na Periferia

© Juju Berzô

© Juju Berzô

Carina Guedes is a Brazilian architect and founder of Arquitetura na Periferia. Born out of her master’s thesis, the project has been operating since 2014 and offers technical training in construction for women who live in areas with housing and infrastructure deficits. Led by six women, including architects and civil engineers, the team works to provide women with maximum autonomy in the decision-making process during the improvement and/or construction of their houses. Organized in the form of workshops lasting from 4-6 months, the projects begin with drawing and sketching classes. Women then learn financial basics to manage the microloans received from the project and successfully budget for the purchase of construction materials. Ultimately, the project aims to expand its participants’ capacity for analysis, discussion, prospecting, planning and cooperation, which ultimately leads to an increase in their self-esteem and confidence.

Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr – Mayor of Freetown
© Riccardo Savi
© Riccardo Savi

Elected in 2018, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr is the first female mayor to lead the Sierra Leonean capital in decades. From her efforts to clean up Freetown’s streets, repair its drainage systems, plant a million trees or implement property tax reform, she aims to transform the city using an inclusive approach, underpinned by innovation, community ownership and data-driven performance management. In January 2019, she launched the Transform Freetown initiative, a three-year plan for the city’s development, which targets 11 sectors, including tackling environmental degradation and climate change and helping create jobs to reduce youth unemployment. Aki-Sawyerr was also named in BBC 100 Women 2020 and is one of the founding members of CHANGE (City Hub and Network for Gender Equity), a network of cities around the world that share best practices, policies and innovative new approaches for tackling sexism, misogyny and gender-based injustice.


This article was first published in Arch Daily and is republished with permission.


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