Imagining the ideal city, planning the gender-equal city in Umeå, Sweden

Linda Sandberg & Malin Rönnblom

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Sandberg, L. & Rönnblom, M. (1). Imagining the ideal city, planning the gender-equal city in Umeå, Sweden. Gender, Place & Culture, 23(12), 1750–1762.

gender , gender-equal city , gendered power relations , planning projects , Urban imaginary

Focusing on imaginaries of the ideal city is an important method to illustrate the power of ideas, imagination, representations, and even visions, and how these dimensions influence the way in which cities are organized and lived. In this article, we argue that one current and important city imaginary in a Swedish context is the gender-equal city. In this imaginary, the gender-equal city becomes a symbol for the open, tolerant, bustling, safe city, a city aiming to attract the middle and creative classes. However, at the same time, the imaginary of the ideal, gender-equal city is highly ambiguous. The ambiguity will be discussed throughout the article. Based on present planning projects in the city of Umea in Sweden, we will discuss how the imaginary of the gender-equal city is presented, filled with meaning and used in place marketing, with the overall ambition of discussing the possibilities and pitfalls of what we call the gender-equality planning strategy. The aim of the article is to study how the city of Umeå is acting to create a gender-equal city and what kind of imaginaries these practices build on. The material consists primarily of a case study focusing on projects that aim to create an equal city, and also includes analyses of policy documents and media reports. This study illustrates how imaginaries are produced through local projects and different imaginaries provide different spaces for politicizing gendered power relations.

Main finding
The gender-equal and progressive image of the city of Umeå is achieved through projects that enact three different imaginaries of the city: a safe, progressive, and prominent and reflexive gender equal city. The first imaginary, the safe and gender-equal city, involves the integration of women’s fears of public spaces into planning practices, is used as a branding tool, and is represented by Lev, a pedestrian and bicycle tunnel in Umeå. The second, the progressive and gender-equal city, uses symbolic statements about gender equality, is also a branding strategy, and is exemplified in the Women’s History Museum. The third, the prominent and reflexive gender-equal city, entails a discussion about the city’s spaces that embody either gender equality or gender inequality, and is showcased in “The gendered landscape of Umeå,” a guided bus tour. Thus, planning practices all carry within them neoliberal practices of branding while simultaneously serving to encourage participation and articulation of power in favor of gender equality. The imaginaries are also tools for politicizing gender equality and thus enacting change on varying levels. The authors argue that the prominent and reflexive imaginary has the greatest potential for politicizing gender equality and addressing power relations within the city’s spaces due to its inherent questioning of inequality and power.

Description of method used in the article
Researchers used a wide range of data sources collected in Umeå, Sweden, such as formal and informal interviews and meetings, attending planning meetings, participating in reference groups and workshops hosted by the municipality, and collecting reports published by the municipality. These include surveys, descriptions, and evaluations of projects. Empirical data from newspapers, policy documents, reports, web pages and information leaflets were also utilized. Finally, researchers conducted a case study on three projects aimed at promoting gender equality: A pedestrian and bicycle tunnel called Lev, the Women’s History Museum, and “The gendered landscape of Umeå," a guided bus tour.

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