Cities are not welcoming to those who travel with a stroller – or a wheelchair, or walker, or crutches – and since the care work is almost entirely on the shoulders of women, it is gender discrimination.
Women and children first only if the Titanic sinks
Women and children first is a phrase that was often heard, perhaps someone still says it. Is that a sexist statement? Yes a lot. Without even too many frills, she says that women are the only ones responsible for the role of caring for children, linking them to the domestic environment and to the duty – moral if nothing else – to take care of the future (ie the INPS coffers). But apart from the intrinsic sexism of the phrase, that of women and children before is a concept that refers to an emergency and not to everyday life: when we hear it we think of the sinking Titanic, not of the standard services of a city, despite the propaganda to fight against falling birth rate. In short, the need to privilege women and children does not exist outside emergency spaces. And just look around when you walk down the street to notice it. As a society we still tell ourselves that children come first but we know that’s not the case and even if in particular they remain the prerogative of a certain political faction, speeches about children and the family remain this: speeches. Anyone with a child of stroller age knows it: cities are not family-friendly, nor for strollers (or wheelchairs, but we talked about it here). Parents push prams and pushchairs on the roadway because the sidewalks are impassable, public transport (metro, tram, bus) is not designed for those who have to carry a wheeled gadget with them, neither from a logistical point of view nor from a planning view. Public spaces are not family-friendly and not just because of accessibility compromised by pebbles, gravel, sand, weeds, potholes and puddles. They are not suitable for strollers because small children are not expected to frequent spaces not directly built for them: playgrounds and nursery schools. It would be comforting to immediately write that it is the same in the rest of the world but it would not be true. It is in Italy that in addition to the absence of any consideration for those who move with a stroller, there is a lack of public spaces that welcome small children and all the entertainment and activities for them are on the shoulders of private individuals who open playrooms and bookshops.
Institutional sexism that doesn’t think about parents
Parents but also uncles, babysitters and grandparents push the strollers directly onto the roadway and it is a symptom of the prevailing institutional sexism that thinks of women and children only when it speaks of a falling birth rate. Politically correct aside, we know that it is still women – mothers – who care for children. The data says it: in 2020 alone there were over 30,000 mothers who left their jobs for family reasons. So we’re going to be talking about mothers pushing strollers, not parents. The how and why women move in public spaces is different from the how and why of men and the difference increases if there is a boy or a girl of pushchair age involved. Which of the two has full access to the sidewalks? Seconds. This is why we talk about institutional and institutionalized sexism: when we talk about traveling with a stroller we are talking about the movements of women. Building public spaces that make these movements unsafe for some categories of people (always women), but not for others, is discrimination. A silent, institutional and structural discrimination which, without being “spoken” tells and explains to mothers that they have no space. Because when the lane you should be walking on – pushing the stroller – is impossible to reach and navigate or is suddenly interrupted by holes, trees, light poles and steps, it means that you have to move between moving cars or not move at all. And yes, even if we repeat again and again that people in wheelchairs and those who carry strollers are not just “females”, since the care work falls almost entirely on the shoulders of women, that of accessible sidewalks is a question feminine and feminist.
Francesca Bubba: from trip-chaining to industrial zones
Among the discourses on motherhood applied to welfare, the gender pay gap, nursery schools and parental leave, the activist Francesca Bubba raises the issue of public space by speaking of the different types of barriers that mothers (and fathers) encounter. The first barrier is precisely the difficulty in moving. “The travel needs of those who also carry out unpaid care work within the family nucleus are different from those who do not have this burden. Those involved in care work carry out what is called trip-chaining on a daily basis, a term that refers to a method of travel made up of several linked and strategic stages”. There is no lack of emphasis on public transport, which “in most cases are not designed for this type of travel, which often requires intermediate stops in poorly connected areas of the city with low bus frequency. Behind this approach there is certainly a problem of resources, but above all of priorities” and explains that the urban planner Inés Sánchez de Madariaga has conducted a study on mobility connected to care work, which provides a framework for recognizing, measuring, making visible and properly account for all travel associated with unpaid care work, demonstrating that journeys made for this job are not accounted for in transportation datasets from around the world. delegating the care work to professionals, facilitating the operation at least from a practical point of view, would be a good start”. There is obviously the inadequacy of the spaces: “traveling with a boy or girl is a physically and psychologically exhausting undertaking. The airlines implement variable safety policies: some require that boys and girls travel in the arms of an adult only during take-off and landing, and others, however, impose that boys and girls travel in the arms of an adult for the entire duration of the flight, paying in any case the airport taxes in full. Trenitalia same exact policy. Special mention for the changing tables in the bathrooms, their surface is painful for boys and girls and very uncomfortable for parents. Lastly, cultural and social environments are totally repulsive towards families with young children”. The third barrier is of a cultural nature: “the environments are not welcoming for parents because, after all, one does not expect to see them around. They are expected not to leave the house with children except to go to playgrounds. When you see them in non-family friendly places you think they are brave or selfish. In any case, efficiency, dedication, functionality and patience are expected from them”. A separate point is urban planning in its entirety. The distance between the industrial and residential areas is proof of the fact that the structures of the cities are the fruit of the vision of those who think that the home is another dimension, dedicated to rest and leisure. “It’s not like that for those who do care work”, says Bubba, “the house is an intermediate stage during the day, a place of work too. It is the umpteenth institutional lack, and if cities are not made for parents and families it is clear that parents and families will occupy less and less space. It would be necessary to rethink all the urban planning to really facilitate the care work and the parenting that they say they want to facilitate”.
In the end it all boils down to what we say we value as a society and how we choose to encourage or allow it. And the distance between facts and words. Urban planners and why not, architects who design public spaces (offices, museums, car parks) could stop copying & pasting ramps designed in the last century in terms of size, slope and even quantity and start taking into account the needs of pushchairs. On top of everything else, that would be a start. Then families, whose value is so much invoked, would have full access to public spaces. And also the elderly, those with mobility difficulties and those who use wheelchairs.