Design Downtown for Women - Men Will Follow

Guest Blog: David Feehan, President, Civitas Consultants LLC

Years ago, when I was the downtown director in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a retail consultant we had engaged named Robert Sprague made a startling statement. “In 1950, 95 percent of the retail sales in the US occurred in downtowns. Today, less than 5 percent of retail sales are made in downtowns.” Sprague made that statement in the early 1990s and it is still true today, even in cities where there has been successful downtown revitalization. Only a few major cities still have downtown department stores and strong retail components - Seattle, San Francisco and Washington DC. 

Many theories have been advanced as to why retail stores virtually abandoned US downtowns in a few decades. After all, office buildings were still being built in downtowns during the latter half of the past century. Major attractions – convention centers, ballparks, arenas and museums – became symbols of hoped-for reinvestment in and around downtowns. Other fads came and went – festival markets, aquariums, enclosed shopping malls; and still, downtowns continued to lose the one feature so many saw as they key to success – retail stores.

Some blamed the massive shift in residential development. Others pointed to the building of high-speed expressways that could whisk people to suburban communities quickly and without so much as a stoplight. Still others saw the increase in crime and the urban unrest of the 1960s as the culprit. Many thought that “white flight” – a desire of whites to get away from expanding black urban populations – was killing downtowns and central city commercial districts.

No doubt all of these factors and more contributed to the decline of downtowns since 1950. But one of the most obvious factors has until very recently been almost ignored. Downtowns have, by and large, ignored their most important customer – women – while shopping mall developers designed their facilities specifically for women.

Shortly after I left the presidency of the International Downtown Association in 2009, I started asking questions and doing research in concert with Dr. Carol Becker, who had just completed a survey of business improvement districts, or BIDs as they are more commonly known (BIAs in Canada) on behalf of IDA. Among the questions we asked ourselves were:

  • Are there significant gender differences in the way public spaces are perceived?
  • How important are women in terms of retail decisions, residential decisions and business location decisions?
  • Who really designs the downtown experience?
  • What obstacles are there to women who want to participate in and direct the design of downtowns?

Let me be clear: we were not just thinking about physical design – things like buildings and parks. We were interested in designing the whole experience – things like mobility and access, safety and security, friendliness, aesthetics, activities, opportunities to dine and be entertained as well as shop.

Research Says

Here is briefly what our research revealed:

  • Women control or influence roughly 80 to 85 percent of retail purchases.
  • Women control or influence approximately 80 percent of residential and health care decisions.
  • Women constitute nearly 60 percent of college graduates.
  • Women control more than half of the private wealth in the US.

And yet, women are grossly underrepresented in the professions that design the downtown experience. Architects, landscape architects, urban planners and designers, engineers, real estate developers and brokers, even construction professionals and lenders are predominantly male. Only 16 percent of registered architects are women. Only 3 percent of engineers are women.

We could not find a “Top 50” firm in any of the above categories in the US that is headed or owned by a woman. But perhaps in government agencies that impact downtown we might find women more represented? Not hardly. In the US federal government, at the cabinet level, there have been 14 Secretaries of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but only two have been women. At the Department of Transportation, 2 Secretaries out of 16 have been women; and at the Department of Commerce, only 3 out of 43 Secretaries have been women.

At the professional association level, we had hoped to find women better represented, but this was not the case. Virtually all of the professional and trade associations having to do with the downtown experience (International Downtown Association, National Main Street Center, Urban Land Institute, American Planning Association, American Institute of Architects, National League of Cities, US Conference of Mayors, International City and County Managers Association, American Public Transportation Association, International Parking Institute and others) were headed by men at the time we began our research. Today, a couple of women have been named to top posts. 

In short, what we have is a terrible mismatch. One only has to look at the things women hate like dirty, dark parking garages, filthy or nonexistent public restrooms, street furniture designed for a person taller than 5’ 9” tall, multi-space parking meters with screens that are too high and hard to read, lack of signage and wayfinding, and a hundred other things that men tend not to notice. 

Last Word

Women are not as involved in downtown design as they should be.

Dr. Becker and I, along with a number of noted co-authors and contributors are set to publish a new book this summer, called “Design Downtown for Women – Men Will Follow.” In the book, we suggest some ways that those of us who care about downtowns and urban commercial districts can begin to change they way the downtown experience is designed and delivered.

The book also challenges decision-makers to not just ask women what they want, but to bring women into leadership positions in the decision-making process.  

Dave Feehan can be reached at: civitas.dave@me.com

Comments:

DEW writes: 

Reading David Feehan's blog brought to mind Harry Gordon Selfridge (1858-1947), the founder of Britain’s hugely successful department store, Selfridges. This American mastermind recognized the female consumer and he understood the public culture of his era. He revolutionized the shopping experience for the public, particularly for women, and in the process of doing so became a multi-millionaire. Many of his ideas continue to be practiced in department stores today (e.g., place cosmetics and perfume at the front entrance,  have merchandise out in the open and not hidden behind glass, carry ready-to-wear clothes, offer novelty etc.).  Mr. Selfridge not only pushed "pink", he also, perceptively realized the social mores of Britain were changing and capitalized on it. He welcomed all British citizens to mingle in his attractive store for commercial enjoyment. This inclusive policy proved effective in two ways: it contributed to the erosion of Britain's class system and it simultaneously increased the department's store customer base. 

Selfridge’s department store provided the upper/middle class women with a socially-acceptable excuse to venture out independently. Women could legitimately go out “shopping” without raising (society’s) eyebrows. And to make the ladies’ shopping excursion pleasant, Mr. Selfridge added an elegant dining area to his department store … men soon followed. Gentlemen frequented the restaurant to either socialize with their companion(s) or to while away the time as their significant others shopped.

Selfridge‘s idea to concentrate on the needs/desires of the female consumer and market to them accordingly worked. He employed various business strategies --- novel and conventional, to reach his target group. Selfridge constructed a grand building with enticing interiors; cultivated outside greenery (his store had a roof-top garden); created an elegant eatery; published tastefully done, but slightly seductive “come hither” advertisements; designed “state of the art” displays against a backdrop of theatrical touches and antics; installed all the latest technological innovations of his time; and organized unique publicity stunts --- all these strategies worked for him. And this winning female concept continues to work, judging by the doubled dividends paid out in November 2013 by Selfridges to its current Canadian owner, Galen Weston, (despite the slight dip in the department stores profits*). 

So it stands to reason, that Mr. Selfridge’s chief business strategy of zeroing in on female needs could be refashioned to suit current downtown urban design plans--- just as David Feehan suggests in his article. If the charismatic Harry Gordon Selfridge were alive today, and was an urban planner, one can be absolutely certain, he would already be in his bomber-jet blitzing the downtown core with his multi-coloured female-friendly confetti --- because it works!

(*Financial Times- November 2013- Duncan Robinson- http://www.ft.com/

Many downtowns like Calgary are creating comprehensive wayfinding maps to help pedestrians find what they are looking for.  Note distances are in minutes not distances; this is very helpful to women who often relate more to time than distance. 

Wayfinding systems like Calgary's encourage downtown visitors to explore other areas in the vicinity. 

Unfortunately dark and dingy underpasses that often link one downtown district to another are not attractive to anyone. 

Convoluted sidewalks, pillars blocking views and dark spaces along downtown streets don't make for a pleasant shopping experience. 

Yes it is nice to have trees downtown, but not in the middle of sidewalks. 

Sidewalk clutter and blind corners don't make for an enjoyable shopping experience. 

Too many downtown public washrooms are not cleaned as often as needed.  In fact, too often it is hard to even find the public washroom as it is hidden away down a hall with no signage.  Most downtown building owners discourage the use of public washrooms. 

  Downtown seating is often too high for people to sit comfortably with their feet on the ground. 

Downtown seating is often too high for people to sit comfortably with their feet on the ground. 

Even on a bright day, office and condo towers cast shadows on the street that make it look dark and unattractive.  Railway tracks and barriers make it difficult to walk across the street.

Empty lots with fences like this one are a huge turn-off for women.

Tree grates like this on are common on downtown sidewalks. They are not problem for men in shoes but for women they can be an accident waiting to happen. 

Entrance to this parking ramp is intimidating to everyone, but especially women.  To be fair, significant improvements have been made to parkade design over the past 20 years. 

Unkept parks and plazas are a turn off for anyone wanting to come downtown for shopping, dining or entertainment. 

Sticky sidewalks and plazas are no fun to walk on.

Broken curbs and sidewalks don't make of a pleasant walking experience. 

Designing safe and attractive connections between downtown and neighbouring communities is critical to attracting women to shop downtown. 

Everyday Tourist Note:

While this research is for American cities, I expect same is true for Canadian cities. London, Hamilton and Windsor no longer have any department stores and struggling indoor retail centres.  Winnipeg, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon struggle to make their downtowns viable shopping districts.

We have to rethink how we plan our downtowns from the design of parkades, street furniture and sidewalk, to street signage to wayfinding systems. We talk about making our urban places more pedestrian friendly, when perhaps we should be more specific and make them female friendly. We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results – that’s insanity!

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