Taylor Burrell Barnett

Unstitching prejudice: unconscious bias in the urban fabric


Monique Thompson
Senior Consultant

21 Nov 2023

...by endeavouring to consciously consider the needs of a "non-default person" in the urban design process, we can help to deliver spaces that serve the needs of everyone...

Following on from her previous article which explores the concept of gender-sensitive urban design, Monique reflects on urban fabrics and how they are shrouded in unconscious bias and prejudice against; not just women, but other marginalised groups too.

In September, I travelled with my husband to Italy. First stop: Milan. One morning, we travelled into the heart of the city to tour the Duomo di Milano. About 23-weeks pregnant, I quickly found myself in need of a bathroom - a destination that was fast becoming a regular 'must see' on our daily itinerary!

We had no trouble finding a public bathroom; there was one conveniently located near the entrance of the Duomo. But to our dismay, it was locked and would not open until 10am. This was despite the fact that the Duomo was already open to the public, and that the piazza was humming with activity.

At only 9:15am, waiting until 10am was less than ideal. While waiting, we became acquainted with a young woman visiting from England who also needed the bathroom. She seemed rather annoyed, and just as perplexed as we were. The clock struck 10am, and we were let inside. From the next cubicle, I heard a distinct noise, a noise that every woman has come to recognise since she reached puberty, of a sanitary pad being hurriedly torn open by my English acquaintance. It was then that the inequity of this situation came crashing down on me. Suddenly, it was no longer a minor inconvenience that a public bathroom was closed. Now, it was a product of unconscious bias which had denied two young women the ability to complete a simple task: to go to the bathroom.

A light bulb moment, I realised that we were not the only ones who would have been impacted by this decision to restrict the opening hours of a public bathroom. I quickly found myself listing the "non-default" groups that this decision would have affected: the elderly, parents with babies and toddlers, people with disabilities, the list goes on.

If these kinds of issues can exist in a large, cosmopolitan city like Milan, one of the richest in Europe, where else could these inequalities be hiding in plain sight?

There comes a time when it becomes appropriate, and necessary, to challenge the expression: "we've always done it this way."

Historically, our cities have been designed by men, (unconsciously) for men. I recognise that we, as a collective, have a tendency to become complicit in the face of unconscious bias. But, there comes a time when it becomes necessary to have, and to inspire, courage for change.

By recognising that urban design practices perform a critical role in shaping social structures and behaviours that define our communities, and by endeavouring to consciously consider the needs of a "non-default person" in the urban design process, we can help to deliver spaces that serve the needs of everyone.

Earlier this year, following a lengthy consultation process, the Canberra government released the Gender Sensitive Urban Design Framework and Implementation Toolkit. The GSUD Framework is an evidence-based report which sets out expectations and guides the delivery of best-practice urban design outcomes for the public realm and provides recommendations for progressive and effective strategies tailored to the Canberra context.

From recommending the tangible delivery of access to safe, clean public toilets to the more intangible creation of places that help make people feel comfortable, the GSUD Toolkit seeks to:

  • provide insight into how public realm inequalities can impact peoples lives;
  • recommend possible urban design solutions addressing urban inequalities; and
  • demonstrate how these strategies can help improve the standards of the public realm so that men, women and children can benefit equally.

The GSUD Framework and Toolkit represents a first-step towards unstitching prejudices that exist in the Canberra context and towards establishing a new standard for public places that are equitable, inclusive, accessible, and safe for all individuals.

To begin unstitching prejudices sewn into our own urban spaces, I challenge myself (and encourage you) to start weaving a new pattern: a pattern that exists to help us see beyond the "non-default person" and to serve the needs of everyone.

Resources and further reading:



Monique Thompson
Senior Consultant