Welcome To Umeå, The Swedish City Designed By And For Women
Umeå in northern Sweden is a veritable feminist city. And the initiatives go much deeper than just policies and promises — they shape how the city is built.
UMEÅ — For years, this university town in northern Sweden has been working towards building a city truly made for women as much as men. The task is a lot more difficult than you might first imagine. In addition to ensuring safety in public spaces, the municipality also aims to correct the biases inherited from the past.
In the Umeå town hall square, the movement is symbolized by a striking sculpture. With its muscles flexed, a sharp feline glares angrily at passers-by from a pedestal set on metal rods that signify the bars of the cage from which it has just escaped. Blazing red, the sculpture by artist Camilla Akraka, which Umeå residents have dubbed "the puma" since its unveiling in 2019, was commissioned by the municipality as an allegory for the#MeToo movement.
Its title, "Listen," means that even in a country known to be very progressive and ahead of the curve on gender equality issues, there is still work to be done.
"In Umeå, we do not have an equestrian statue of a king or a general, but an angry feline who has reason to be," says smiling Linda Gustafsson, in front of the "puma", while readjusting her hat as the first flakes of the season flutter in early November.
The gender studies graduate bears a rather unique title: she is one of the two "gender equality officers" at the town hall. The position has existed since 1989 in Umeå, the country's 13th largest city with a population of just over 131,000, almost a quarter of whom are students.
So when conservatives called for the removal of the "puma" during the municipal election campaign, which was held at the same time as the parliamentary elections in September 2022, the Social Democrats made it clear that the animal would remain in its place if they were re-elected.
They were re-elected, while the Sweden Democrats, the far-right party that won 20.5% of the vote nationally, remained in opposition in Umeå. While the new right-wing government in Stockholm has announced an end to the "feminist" policies of former foreign minister Margot Wallström, Umeå's elected officials intend to go further.
Keeping women safe
Evidence of this can be found at the Women's History Museum, the first of its kind in Sweden when it was established in 2014. It opened last October an exhibition to commemorate the 5 years of #MeToo.
The museum was not unanimously approved initially, but today it is part of the cultural landscape. It is the most institutional expression of all the initiatives undertaken to adapt the city to the needs of women.One of the most striking initiatives is the tunnel opened in 2012 near the central station. It is a real shift from the dark and dirty passages that women were too often forced to use elsewhere.
It is both dedicated to and inspired by the writer Sara Lidman (1923-2004). Its glass walls are decorated with flowers found in the writer's native region. One of her favorite interjections, "Lev!" ("Live!") gave the 170-meter tunnel its name. Soft melodies can be heard in the tunnel, and at the touch of a button you can even hear the author's voice.
The wide sidewalks make it easy for strollers and wheelchairs to get around. All corners have been rounded to prevent injury. There are no pillars to ensure optimal visibility. Side exits in the middle of the corridor prevent bad encounters.
They assumed that he was a... lunatic, but he was a normal-looking family man.
Safety was a major concern for the designers, especially since the tunnel connects the downtown area to the Haga neighborhood, where sexual assaults occurred at the turn of the century for several years. It took police a very long time to identify the predator. "They assumed that he was a... lunatic, but he was a normal-looking family man," says Linda Gustafsson.
The criminal's actions made a significant mark on public consciousness. "On campus, there were more security guards and more lights at night, and everyone was talking about it," recalls Linda Sandberg, a professor at the university, who consequently chose the topic of "Fear and Violence in Public Space" for her thesis.
Umeå has been careful to maintain a high degree of social diversity throughout the city, which means that it has no "difficult" neighborhoods, whereas crime has increased significantly elsewhere in Sweden in recent years.
Umepride, Oct. 1 in Umeå
Nobody puts baby in the corner
From the tunnel, you walk to the bus stop through streets lined with birch trees, planted en masse after the great fire of 1888. On a brick wall there is another work of art — a neon sign "Nobody puts Baby in a corner", a cult line from the movie Dirty Dancing.
The artist duo Sisters of Jam appropriated it to encourage women to reclaim a public space where they can feel unsafe at night.
Further on, along the mighty Umealven River bank, a kiosk designed by and for teenage girls has been built. Called "Free from Injunction", this playful gazebo has easily accessible swings, where young women can meet, chat, and connect their smartphone music to the speakers in complete peace.
Just as significantly, the city council is seeking to feminize the names of streets and public buildings. "We've just done it with a school, and we're going to name a new road under construction after Anna Gronfeldt, the first woman to be elected to the city council in 1910," says Mikael Berglund, head of the city's building committee.
"Another measure we have taken is that when it snows, we give priority to clearing the bicycle paths, because we know that women ride bicycles more than men," adds Berglund.
Camilla Akraka's artwork "Listen" against sexual harassment
Exporting good design practices
According to Linda Gustafsson, "just as in the case of equality issues, in the case of transport we must question social norms and identity clichés in order to encourage new behaviors."
A study is underway, with the help of apps, to get a snapshot of citizens' habits. The municipal team is pleased to have very solid gender statistics on just about everything. It is thanks to these statistics that it was discovered that the majority of solar panel buyers were older men, which led to the creation of a rental program that is more accessible to younger women with less means.
Small actions can make a big difference.
The problem with statistics, according to Emma Vigren, "is that the more you dig, the more you analyze them, the more biases and imbalances you find."
Luckily, Vigren is not one to sit back and admit defeat. She is pleased to see Umeå's initiatives spreading, thanks in part to the thousands of foreign exchange students. German Carl Lang, for example, says he is "very impressed" with everything he has discovered here. Currently pursuing a master's degree in urban planning at the University of Giessen in Germany, he says he is convinced that "small actions can make a big difference. My stay of a few months has opened my eyes to things I had never thought about before."
For example, Umeå thought it strange that the men's soccer team always had the best training time slots at the stadium. The rule was changed and now the team with the best results gets the most convenient slots.
"For my university work and as a citizen, I intend to further explore all these reflections on the urban landscape," says Lang, who will bring back a piece of Sweden to Germany at the end of his Erasmus study program.
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