Walk down the streets of the world’s largest cities and the influence of women in designing, constructing and driving progress in the urban environment – and urban living – is all around.
Their work is rarely commemorated in statues but rather in the structures and the infrastructure at the heart of modern cities, from developing new models of social housing to creating some of the most iconic landmarks of modern skylines and implementing campaigns to make global cities greener and more accessible to all.
“Through their hard work, innovation, ambition and vision, a generation of extraordinary female professionals, from urban planners and engineers to architects and policy makers, have made an invaluable contribution to modern urban science transforming the cities we live in,” says Rosemary Feenan, Head of Global Research Programmes at JLL. “With a growing number of female mayors in cities such as Paris, Tokyo, Prague, Barcelona and Rome, women are taking the lead in shaping the global cities of tomorrow.”
Here are eight women who, in their own ways, have changed the face – and even the function – of many of today’s big cities.
Improved quality of life in Victorian London
Appalled by the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of the 19th century slums that housed much of London’s working class, Octavia Hill came up with a new and improved model in which housing was about more than bricks and mortar. In her role as a landlord, she took the time to get to know tenants and personally collected rent. After paying investors their promised 5 percent return, the rest of the money was spent on maintaining and improving the properties. The model proved successful for all involved and by 1874 she had 15 housing schemes providing homes to around 3,000 tenants.
Hill also believed strongly in the importance of open spaces including parks, gardens and playgrounds for London’s growing population. She campaigned against development on suburban woodlands in the expanding city, and joined the fight to save London's Hampstead Heath and Parliament Hill Fields from being built on. Both remain as open spaces for Londoners today.
Introduced better leisure amenities for women in California
The first woman to be granted an architect’s licence in California, Julia Morgan used her skills to redesign the concept of living and leisure spaces for women within the Western coast of the US. After graduating from the architecture section of Paris’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts – the first woman to do so - in 1902, she returned home to work on more than 700 buildings during her 40year career. These included numerous projects for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the construction of Hearst Castle – a country house for the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst - and hundreds of homes, churches and office buildings across the Bay area following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
Leisure facilities such as gyms and swimming pools featured strongly in her overall designs, giving women who were just beginning to enjoy growing social freedom more opportunities in their free time. Morgan is also credited with creating “the most sumptuous swimming pool on earth” at Hearst Castle – a lavish marble pool surrounded by an ancient Roman temple façade.
Overhauled urban planning in America’s cities
A pioneer of urban planning, Jane Jacobs has left her mark on cities across America. Despite having no formal architecture training, her work as a journalist allowed her to observe the street life and workings of New York City in the late 1930s and 40s before she joined the staff on Architectural Forum, where she increasingly saw the flaws in conventional planning practices. Her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities details her criticisms on how policies were sending many city neighborhoods into decline. Instead she advocated, building cities around people and how they live their daily lives with the importance of parks, pavements, mixed-use developments and bottom-up community planning.
Jacobs wasn’t just interested in theorizing; she was also a passionate activist against what she considered to be harmful urban developments such as the Lower Manhattan Expressway in the 1960s (which was never constructed) and later, infrastructure plans in Toronto.
Strengthened London’s position as an international business destination
A renowned figure in developing modern real estate research, former JLL partner Honor Chapman also left her mark on the urban environment. She acted as an advisor for the redevelopment of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz shortly after the Berlin Wall came down as well as playing a key role in the regeneration of Cardiff Bay.
Yet it was London where her influence was strongest. After a 1992 report showing big areas for improvement in the capital’s ability to attract international businesses, Chapman founded Think London (initially called London First Centre), which has since helped hundreds of companies to successfully set up operations in the city. She went on to become a founding member and later chair of the London Development Agency and was also involved in improving infrastructure in the capital serving on the board of Transport for London.
Leading urban projects at the heart of modern Singapore
Many of Singapore’s landmark attractions and its publically-owned residential developments have felt the influence of Cheong Koon Hean. An architect by training, Cheong’s long career in urban planning has seen her become the first woman to lead Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, where she took charge of a number of key urban transformation projects including the Jurong Lake District, the remaking of Orchard Road and the successful Marina Bay area, a magnet for tourists and locals alike.
Since 2010, Cheong has headed up Singapore’s Housing and Development Board, which is responsible for housing more than 80 percent of the city state’s population. Her vision for the future of the housing landscape in the city-state centers round sustainable, affordable and well-designed homes as outlined in the HBD’s Roadmap for Better Living. In 2016, she was awarded the Urban Land Institute’s J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development.
Revamped the streets of New York City
As the Transportation Commissioner for one of America’s biggest cities, Sadik-Kahn transformed New York’s roads to make them a safer and friendlier place for pedestrians and cyclists. During her six-year stint, she oversaw the construction of almost 400 miles of bike lanes, launched Citi Bike, America’s largest bike share network and created more than 60 pedestrian plazas. Public transport was also high on Sadik-Khan’s priority list with seven new rapid bus routes helping to shuttle people across the city.
After leaving the Department of Transportation in 2013, Sadik-Khan now works at philanthropic consultancy Bloomberg Associates advising mayors in global cities on ways to boost quality of life for local residents.
Transforming commercial property markets in Beijing and Shanghai
One of China’s top property billionaires, Zhang Xin has spent the last two decades developing some of Beijing’s prime office addresses. Her company, SOHO China, run in partnership with her husband Pan Shiyi, has collaborated with star architects such as Zaha Hadid to create some of the city’s landmark buildings including Galaxy SOHO, a series of four curved structures, linked by bridges and platforms and Wangjing SOHO, a three-tower complex designed to look like mountains.
Known as the “woman who built Beijing”, Zhang started life in a concrete tenement in the Chinese capital before spells studying economics in England and working on IPOs at Goldman Sachs. Spotting the burgeoning opportunities in China during the mid-1990s, Zhang and Pan laid the foundations for their property empire, which today includes coworking spaces and mixed use developments across both Beijing and Shanghai.
Making Mexico City a cleaner, greener place to live
Cleaning up the streets of Mexico City falls to Tanya Müller, a politician with big ambitions to make the most populous metropolitan area in the Western Hemisphere a much greener place. She has been spearheading Plan Verde which includes a variety of environmental objectives including encouraging the construction of green roofs and increasing the number of people using public transport by expanding the city’s bus system and boosting investment in its bike sharing system.
While Müller efforts may be largely focused on cutting pollution and congestion in Mexico City, she’s also staying tuned to the developments in other parts of the world as the founding director of World Urban Parks and founder and Vice President of the World Green Infrastructure Network, which promotes green infrastructure in different countries.