Alumni Spotlight with Giulia Maci: "Women are the key to the future of our cities"

In the week of International Women's Day, IHS brings the focus on women's role in the urban field and on showcasing the work of IHS staff and alumni involved in gender-related projects. Meet Giulia Maci, IHS alumna and urban planner, specialised in gender-sensitive city development, youth engagement and community-based action planning with work experience in more than 20 countries across the globe. Currently, she works as urban specialist at Cities Alliance – UNOPS in Brussels, coordinating the Cities for Women Global Programme that focuses on increasing girls’ and women’s engagement in urban development and governance through participatory planning and design processes.

"Women experience and use the urban environment in different ways from men; they have different priorities in terms of services and infrastructure, for example regarding transport, housing, and public spaces. Such priorities rarely feature in urban policy or investments - leading to exclusion and lost opportunity for both women and society in general. There needs to be a holistic understanding of how social inequalities are built into cities through an exploration that combines cultural norms, social behaviours, political structures, and the physical space. Therefore, it is very important to incorporate the perceptions, stories, and ideas of women and community members in the city planning."

This is how Giulia Maci's guest lecture at IHS starts. As an alumna, she feels happy to come to IHS after many years as a lecturer. She shares that studying at IHS was a window to the world, not only because of exposure to the urban development field but especially due to studying with people from so many different countries and backgrounds.

Gender and climate change issues at the centre

Being an urban planner with an architecture background gave Giulia a deeper understanding of how people, politics and social exchange influence space. She finds it highly motivating to work on various projects in different parts of the world. In recent years, her focus on gender issues has increased, and she is now coordinating the "Cities for Women Global Programme" at Cities Alliance.

"I think women are the key to the future of our cities. Involving women, putting women at the centre, together with the climate change aspect is really the key to our future if we get it right. I’m happy to work on this and see how space and planning can be a tool for women empowerment."

Bringing gender issues to the table in policymaking

When it comes to vulnerable groups, getting their needs across to policymakers remains a challenge. In order to influence policy-making – Giulia states – you need data. "We do not have enough gender-sensitive data because it’s not a priority. Without data, it is very difficult to demonstrate whom the projects you do will benefit". Another way to influence policy makers' priorities towards more gender inclusivity is through piloting – organising a small scale project and assessing its impact. Bring on board gender champions and community figures who can speak up about the key issues, and more importantly, take along policymakers and involve them from the beginning. Going through the pilot with them will help them understand the situation better and it is a way of convincing them to support it. Lastly, these approaches need time and resources. Such changes can only be achieved in the long run, so one must see it as an investment that will pay off eventually.

Supporting vulnerable communities

Regarding her work at Cities Alliance, Giulia explains how exactly the organisation's efforts are channelled towards getting vulnerable people (especially women in slums) in touch with policymakers. Concretely, one way this happens is through support for the so-called settlement forum. This is a way of engagement and institutionalization of the community, by having leaders and spaces to discuss priorities for the neighbourhood or settlement. At the same time, they organise support in the urban forum - a platform where different urban actors discuss and collaborate. This way, there is a dialogue between the city-level representatives and the community leaders, who can voice their needs.

There is also a focus on data, an important tool in influencing policy. In terms of gender, Cities Alliance does mapping of gender issues in informal settlements by involving women and identifying their issues. This data is collected and brought to the table in front of city makers. Furthermore, at a national level, input is integrated into the so-called National Urban Policy, a very important tool that helps identify common objectives for all countries in terms of urbanisation. At this stage, it is also an opportunity to bring up the priorities of the informal settlements, which are, in many cities of the world, a major part of the city.

Equal right to the city - the core issue in cities worldwide

When discussing various contexts and continents, Giulia points out that many cities around the world ask the same questions, which indicates their issues are very similar.

"People in cities everywhere ask for equality, for access to land, a better division of resources, more health for everyone. So in the end of the day, they ask for equal rights to the city. Despite the fact that there are so many people in the world who ask for this, the traditional model of city-making is extremely unequal. There are only a few people who decide, and all the fantastic opportunities, the freedom and the rights that cities offer are, in the end, accessible only to limited groups."

Besides the common global challenges, there are contextual differences and local factors that add other layers to the problem. The extent of the problem might be different in various countries, but the most pressing request remains equal access to the city. Even when it comes to analysing the big development players, the talk revolves around GDP and economic growth and less around really looking at how these resources and how the growth is distributed. A closer look from a different angle would reveal the inequalities.

Your passion CAN become your profession

Asked to share some valuable advice, Giulia ends with a few words of wisdom - as a former IHS alumna and currently successful career woman. To mid-career professionals, she recommends not being afraid of change. "Be open to ideas, explore, it’s never too late to start something new."

To current IHS students and young professionals, she recommends not to hunt for the title they want to have, but focus on what they want to achieve in life and what drives them.

"Do it on your own! Create your own group and cultivate your passion, even as a side job. At the end, if you are really serious, your passion can also become your profession if you really believe in it."


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