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What would a Non-Sexist Planning Be Like?1

Speculations on the women who considered Scope, Design, and Methodology in Planning

As with many fields, the long neglected and diminished work of women is finally beginning to be reinserted into the narratives of planning history and theory. The absence of women from planning pedagogy has often been attributed to the lack of avenues historically available to them through which to formally engage with the profession. Despite these barriers, women have made vital and indelible contributions to the development of contemporary planning methodology, particularly with regard to the scope of its praxis. Female actors, ranging from the civic workers of the progressive movement to modern planning academics, have informed the methodology behind rational planning processes and worked to redefine the idea of planning’s scope. This idea is critical to modern iterations of Comprehensive Planning, reflected not only in the physical scale of the plan and its application, but also to the theoretical considerations encompassed by the breadth of municipal responsibility. The women who contributed to this work developed and practiced planning of what was, for the time, a nontraditional scope, subverting conventions in everything from their delineation of space to their inclusion of interdisciplinary methods to planning approaches. The result is the elucidation and institutionalization of more holistic and contextual approaches to American Municipal Planning, which hold many lessons for the future of planning.


As Emily Clark contends “The buildings and spaces may be envisioned by political, intellectual and aesthetic elites, but they are made by the animating genius of the people who live in them.”[1] This was certainly the case in 19th century American cities, where women emerged as key municipal actors despite their lack of formal access to the planning field. The progressive era is remembered for its sweeping urban reforms, effected through large-scale, top-down interventions. However, many of these arose from very local and bottom-up organizing efforts of voluntary organizations operated by women. Volunteerism not only provided an early avenue for women to participate in civic service but for many other disenfranchised groups to engage in informal methods of city building.  Daphne Spain details how “[w]omen’s voluntary associations created actual space in which problems associated with race relations, immigration and women’s status were worked out.”[2] These organizations, from Women’s City Clubs to the Young Women’s Christian Association, Salvation Army, College Settlement’s Association, and National Association of Colored Women were considered redemptive spaces because of their capacity to integrate more marginalized members of society. More broadly, however, these associations took on the task of organizing the social aspects of society in a coordinated manner across urban spheres.[3] 

While volunteerism allowed female actors to instill more care into the work of planning, the trend of ‘municipal housekeeping’ allowed them to imbue the city with beauty. In her chapter, “City Beautiful or Beautiful Mess?” Alison Isenberg describes this field of work as a domain in which “[women] attacked and struggled to reform the shabby conditions of America’s business streets.”[4] Hardly a superficial task, this work demanded an aesthetic consideration of the conditions of the city. As such, it represented a progression of female engagement in urban planning from what was, at the time, informal civic work of assimilation and coordination, to more traditional, design-oriented planning functions. The ‘beautification‘ activities, as they were called, of women’s City Clubs and Civic Improvement Leagues helped establish a link between their general civic activities and more formalized planning directives.[5] Couched in terms such as ‘municipal housekeeping,’ this more professional engagement was made potable to the elite, male-led institutions that had thus far shaped planning practice. 

Although women’s work was often belittled and derided for focusing on minor issues, Isenberg cites a reporter of the time who noted that “[w]omen applied themselves to civic challenges ‘that men have been quite blind to in their zeal for political prestige or what they considered the ‘big’ things.’”[6] Institutions like the Civic League worked to broaden the concerns of planning, both practically as well as in their emphasis on specific methodology to address urban concerns. The League’s insistence on the execution of a Comprehensive Plan, for example, rested in the belief that a plan could weld “’the various interests of the community as a whole’” as well as “provide a framework for improving the physical city”.[7] By blurring the boundaries between the social and physical environment, women were able to address needs which traditional urban planning had failed to and to contribute to a formalizing of their concerns within municipal plans.[8]


The 20th century saw women’s formal entry into professional planning, and many 20th century women planners used this more official position to continue to broaden the scope of the planning field. Jaqueline Tyrwhitt is a planner best known for her synthesis of Geddessian bioregionalism, a theory which demands the consideration of urban planning within its regional context.[9] As Ellen Shoshkes explains, Tyrwhitt’s contributions helped reorient leading planning institutions of her time “towards a ‘new humanism’ and post-modernist globalism”[10]. During her tenure as professor and then interim director of the School of Planning and Research for Regional Development, Tyrwhitt emphasized not only regional scale but interdisciplinary, holistic approaches to planning, as well as the idea that social and economic factors act as key determinants of the built environment.[11] 

Through her well-publicized synthesis of Geddes, Tyrwhitt developed a formal framework which further institutionalized the social dimensions of planning, emphasizing, among other things, that the link between the global and local urban space is inherently social and intertwined with ‘social consciousness and civic responsibility’.[12] Echoing her planning foremothers, Tyrwhitt expressed in her article, “Training the Planner,” the need for a holistic framework to be reflected in the methodology of the plan, which should, in turn, serve as a guiding document for the planning process.[13]

Catherine Bauer, Tyrwhitt’s contemporary and a member of the Regional Planning Association of America, similarly turned away from purely design-based and physically affected planning in her work in housing. Bauer was revisionist in her approach, stipulating that “[t]he premises underlying the most successful and forward-pointing developments are not the premises of capitalism, of inviolate private property, of entrenched nationalism, of class distinction, of governments bent on preserving old interests rather than creating new values.”[14] Her seminal book Modern Housing advocated for housing complexes that were part of comprehensively planned neighborhoods, with parks, schools and other community facilities nearby. The neighborhood should be “conceived of and constructed as a whole,” with housing existing not in isolation from the many other dimensions of life but integrated within them.[15] 

Bauer made a case against political pressure and economic or ‘big’ interests that had dominated planning heretofore, much as her progressive predecessors had. This perspective was legitimized within formal avenues of planning when Bauer became the Executive Secretary of the Labor Housing Conference; it saw national application when this organization affiliated with the Public Work’s Administration (PWA) and was implicated in the construction of many housing projects built during the New Deal era (which the PWA oversaw).[16] Bauer was concerned not only with the quality of housing, but also with the quality of life of inhabitants as it could be shaped by planning processes.


This overlap of household and community within planning has been taken on as a field of critical study by Material Feminist planners. Speaking to the way in which the modern, suburban household isolates women from their larger community, feminist planner Dolores Hayden argues that the “only remedy for this situation is to develop a new paradigm for the home, the neighborhood, and the city; to begin to describe the physical, social and economic design of human settlement that would support, rather than restrict, the activities of employed women and their families.”[17] In taking on the marginalization of women within domestic space, Hayden effectively speaks to the need for inclusivity across planning more broadly. Implicit in Hayden’s proposal for communal living models is an acknowledgement of the position of the marginalized urbanite. This acknowledgement resonates with post-modern notions of inclusivity in planning which were popular at the time of Hayden’s writing, but it also echoes a long tradition of female planners who have worked, both formally and informally, to broaden planning.

In the text for which this essay is named, “What would a Non-Sexist City Be like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design and Human Work?” Hayden makes the case for planning to consider a singular environment in which housing, services, and jobs are united. Contemporary planning methodology seems to be following her advice, increasingly espousing the virtues of mixed-use spaces, 15-minute cities, and turning away from strict Euclidean zoning. The Comprehensive Plan has evolved into a document which provides holistic visions for communities, including physical, social, and demographic factors in its designs and strategies for urban development. In the last decades, ‘inclusivity’ has emerged as a buzzword in planning, a key term found in the pages of local and national plans alike. 


Women have made tremendous strides over the course of the last two centuries, both in establishing themselves within the field of planning and in promoting viewpoints traditionally considered to be antagonistic to conventional planning. From 19th century volunteers to modern day professionals, women have worked to broaden the meaning of planning, to push for a comprehensive scope of planning, and to enable the very conventions of traditional urban design work to be questioned. Anthropologist Shannon Mattern might be added to this list of revisionist female urbanists; in her essay “Maintenance and Care,” Mattern writes of the importance of challenging the dominant paradigm of innovation (in sectors encompassing but not limited to urban planning and design) with that of maintenance and repair. In centering care, and one could argue the ‘small’ ideas over the ‘big’ ones, Mattern’s work echoes the progressivist push, the framing for municipal housekeeping, and the formal inclusion in planning of the long-feminized work of care. She cautions us against romanticizing this work, of being wary of the ways in which “sometimes, it seems, repair entails complicity with capitalism and colonialism.”[18] Amidst calls for the revision of cities in a post-pandemic paradigm, we would do well to remember the lessons that female planners have taught us: to center the ‘small’ things in our work, the everyday work of care and maintenance, and to push for a holistic, inclusive scope for the planning field.

Ada Voss Rustow is in her last year of the Master of City Planning at Penn where she is specializing in Environmental Planning. Prior to beginning her MCP, she worked in international development in New York City and with an urban planning and development organization in Palestine. She is interested in issues of coastal resilience, regional water management and sustainable urban development in the Arabic-speaking world.

By Ada Voss Rustow

1 This title takes for inspiration Planner Dolores Hayden’s seminal work “What Would a Non-Sexist City Be like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design and Human Work?”

A YWCA Poster

Source: Library of Congress

YMCA Kitchen.jpg

The YWCA along with other women’s volunteer organizations served the most disadvantaged members of society, aiding the progress of assimilation of migrants and feeding the urban poor. They came to be known as ‘redemptive’ spaces as a result.

Source: Library of Congress

14 Ibid, 268.
15 Gail Radford. “Catherine Bauer and the Plan for ‘Modern Housing,’” in Modern Housing for America: Policy Struggles in the New Deal Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 79.
16 Ibid, 76.
17 Dolores Hayden. “What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work,” Signs 5:3 (1980), 171.18 Shannon Mattern. “Maintenance and Care,” Places Journal, November 2018. 


The PWA created several housing projects in the New Deal Era. Though they have since been heavily critiqued, they were notable for the inclusion of community features and a holistic perspective on the features that would contribute to residents’ quality of life, a reflection of Bauer’s influence on the scope of housing as considered by the PWA. 

Source: Library of Congress

2 Emily Clark. “Elite Designs and Popular Uprisings: Building and Rebuilding New Orleans, 1721, 1788, 2005,” Historical Reflections. 33:2 (2007): 163.
3 Daphne Spain.  “Voluntary Vernacular,” in How Women Saved the City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), xi-xiii and 5. 
3 Ibid, 13.
4 Alison Isenberg. “City Beautiful or Beautiful Mess?” in Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 16.
5 Ibid, 20.

6 Ibid, 21.
7 Ibid, 30.
8 Ibid, 20.
9 Spain, 27.
10 Charlies Starkes. Regional Planning. September 23, 2019.
11 Ellen Shoshkes. “Jaqueline Tyrwhitt and transnational discourse on modern urban planning and
design, 1941–1951” Urban History, 36, 2. Cambridge University Press. (2009)
12 Ibid, 265.
13 Ibid, 266.


Feminist Planners like Dolores Hayden criticize this type of suburban enclave for its isolating effect on women in society. They have pushed for a new paradigm and consideration of the place of the home in society and the neighborhood.

Source: Library of Congress

Women's Clubs.jpg

Women’s Club Delegates arrive at the 13th Biennial Convention of Women’s Clubs, New York City. Clubs provided an early avenue for organizing and volunteering for women in the late 19th and early 20th century, creating opportunities for women to engage with questions that would later become central to urban planning practice. 

Source: Library of Congress

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