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Monash Uni’s XYX Lab is Exposing Sexism In Urban Design

Is city architecture innately sexist? This Australian research project is going to find out, and propose some ways to design the issue out.

  • Founding Director of Monash University's XYZ Lab, Dr. Nicole Kalms

Led by Dr Nicole Kalms, XYX Lab is investigating space, design, and gender within Australian cities. Launched officially in March of this year, the Monash University Art, Design and Architecture (MADA) research program will focus on the way space and design can impact equity for women.

XYX Lab has begun by examining public transport spaces in order to propose policies and toolkits for women generally, and also for project partners and policy makers. Indesign met with Dr Kalms to understand more about her broader research; about a gendered experience of public space and the new momentum of such a conversation, and XYX Lab’s design-centric, solutions-focused approach.

INDESIGN WRITER, SAMMY PRESTON: Could you give me a brief overview of the XYX Lab project, and some of the thinking behind it?

FOUNDING DIRECTOR OF XYX LAB, DR NICOLE KALMS: The MADA XYX Lab is concerned with untangling the complex interaction between urban space and gender. The Lab is focused on Australian cities, and wants to understand how sex, gender, and sexuality impact the culture of cities. The XYX Lab works with practitioners and scholars in design, architecture and urbanism, but also with those working in government, policy and social services. 

PRESTON: Interesting. So what does XYX Lab hope to achieve?

KALMS: The XYX Lab wants to produce projects which challenge the causes and consequences gender inequity in Australia. We have been working with LGBTI communities and partnering on projects around women and girls’ safety in cities, and also in public transport spaces.

PRESTON: I’d love to also know a little about your own research, perhaps an overview of your thinking and research in your book Hypersexual City?

KALMS: My book asks several questions. What are the architectural and urban manifestations of hypersexualization in neoliberal cities? Do the infrastructure and media of hypersexualized expression impact on the occupation of urban space? And what are the potential consequences of the proliferation of hypersexuality in urban space? I look at the tactics of hypersexualized advertising images, their context and their regulation; I analyse strip club precincts and the commercial use of women’s bodies in cities. I also look at hypersexualized buildings produced by architects. I’m interested in how all these public hypersexualised spaces and event shape gender stereotypes and (following this) shape gendered behaviour and lead to heteronormative (and sexist) cities.

PRESTON: As a woman, I’d say I probably have felt a level of discomfort or powerlessness in public arenas and on public transport, though I’ll admit it’s sometimes hard to identify the source. I’m intrigued to think design may play a part. How do you pinpoint certain design principles that might heighten that sense of powerlessness for women? Are there some examples of spaces or certain types of design perhaps?

KALMS: In Australian cities, the emphasis on improving public transport safety is focused on generalized (and ungendered) safety recommendations for all users. There is an absence of clear communication about the incidence of sexual harassment in public transport spaces. The provision of CCTV cameras, ‘safety zones’, and alarm buttons are generalized safety measures for all users, and for women experiencing sexual harassment, these only become useful once the sexual harassment (or assault) has occurred.

Users are reminded to regulate their own behavior in order to feel safe by ‘not travelling alone’, ‘boarding the first carriage closest to the driver’s cabin’, ‘sitting in carriages with other customers, rather than by yourself’, ‘planning journeys to minimise wait time’, ‘stand in a well-lit area or in designated “safety zones” with proximity to emergency buttons’ (Metro Trains 2016). At present, public transport service providers have yet to account for women’s gendered experience of public transport spaces, and imply that users regulate their own behavior and that safety in public transport spaces is their own responsibility.

I have devised a design approach which combines activist-driven design research with a solution-focused framework. I use this particular technique because it contributes to women and girls power to identify, document, and communicate their experience of sexual harassment. My methods conjoin urban and spatial practice with gender-sensitive participation. The aim is to interactively engage women and girls with surveys, reflection, workshops and communication strategies, which foreground design thinking and action. In this research project women and girls are co-designers. Outcome will be design ‘probes’ but also communication strategies and toolkits for women and stakeholders.

PRESTON: The project launched at the end of March this year, what has been the response so far?

KALMS: The Lab was formally launched in March but the core researchers have been working for about a year before that, developing key projects such as a new consultation (now ongoing) with the Victorian Pride Centre; an event called ‘Queering Architecture?’ with Parlour at the National Gallery of Victoria for Melbourne Design Week; ‘Free to Be: Design Thinking’, with Plan International Australia; ‘Pride Thinking / Design Thinking; and more.

The response is coming from all directions. Students from all over Australia are emailing me, and I’ve now got a meeting set with them to work out how they can be involved in XYX. Researchers are keen to join the Lab, funded research projects have emerged from practice, PhD students are applying to do embedded research within the Lab; we have projects in the pipeline with state government, public transport stakeholders and the Victorian Police. I’ve done a lot of radio since the launch—people want to know more which is great.

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