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Parenting in the city

- Leanne Rencke

Building cities for women will make them more inclusive for all groups.

Mapping Motherhood © GCRO | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

A local Facebook group that boasts over 390 000 active members, empowers (mostly) women by encouraging them to share the deals that they encounter while shopping, so that everyone can benefit by taking advantage of the bargains and setting up their own shopping stockpile at home. 

Interestingly, a post to the group – which doesn’t feature a savings deal – still hit the mark with a lot of women: an announcement that one of the members had discovered a shopping centre’s ‘Baby Care Lounge’. This is a private space where moms can breast or bottle feed, it provides access to complementary nappies and other care items, as well as bottle warmers, a microwave and kettle.

If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, consider that some commentators on this post indicated that they would be willing to travel far from their communities to access this kind of service while shopping with children – especially during the festive season.

This type of data also resonates with Senior Researcher, Dr Alexandra Parker, of the Gauteng-City Region Observatory

Parker is mapping the spatial footprint of mothers and fathers in Gauteng. It is a fascinating study because it literally tracks how people move across the City, and then interrogates their reasons for doing so.

This study and its predecessor Mothers in the City (2017), were inspired by a research colleague’s experience, a new mother who was already interested in how the activities of motherhood intersect with the urban environment. 

“She was inspired by her own life,” Parker explains, “describing how one day her child was sick at home, so she couldn't work at home, and she couldn't work in the office, so she found herself working in her car. I think she thought, well, if I’m in a relatively privileged position, how are other mothers dealing with the activities of parenthood in the urban environment?” 

The project developed into something all-consuming, with research based on interviews with 25 mothers across Johannesburg, looking at different demographics, locations and personal circumstances, finances and employment.

With this data, the researchers mapped the spatial footprint of mothers, revealing that some women were travelling huge distances across the City to access their needs, while others were keeping a very small footprint. 

“We found that the values that mothers had about what they wanted for their lives and what they wanted for their children’s lives were really the driving force behind the decisions that they were making,” says Parker.

For example, if education is a priority, mothers are prepared to travel further to access it, or make other kinds of arrangements, or compromise where necessary, to fill that desire.

A city’s gender dynamics 

This study has led to a follow-up, which Parker is completing as a series of journal articles, in partnership with Professor Margo Rubin, Senior Researcher at the South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning at Wits. 

“We wanted to really try to understand more about how parents saw themselves and what was important to them. And then, how did that filter through into the decisions that they made and how they juggled the constraints of both the urban environment and the challenges of parenting,” says Parker. “We also wanted to try and understand a little bit more about the differences between mothers and fathers.” 

The team looked at five neighbourhoods across Gauteng, specifically selected to obtain a sense of their spatial dynamics, their location in terms of proximity to amenities, economic opportunities and transport, as well as variances in population groups and economic conditions. 

Ten to 12 parent groups were interviewed to participate in the study in Denver, Mamelodi, Edenvale, Lenasia and Bertrams. The study started with focus groups and conversations about the challenges of parenting and living in Gauteng. From there, eight to 10 people were selected in each area and given a smartphone featuring an app that could track their mobility patterns for two weeks. An informal support group, via WhatsApp, was set up. 

People were encouraged to share their reflections and experiences of parenting and moving around the City through the groups, and participated by sending photos, videos and voice notes. After two weeks, the research was concluded with an in-depth interview.

“We were expecting to find gender dynamics, but we were quite surprised at how deeply entrenched some of the heteronormative gender roles were,” says Parker. “There were definitely both mothers and fathers who were struggling within the confines of the gender constructs that were emerging in these families and households, and it cut both ways.” 

The daily grind cuts both ways 

For instance, because Lenasia is quite far from the Johannesburg CBD and other economic centres, more of the fathers were doing the travelling and mothers were less likely to have access to a car or a driver's licence. Fathers might take the kids to school or do a little bit of the shopping. 

In the Denver informal settlement, some of the fathers were living on their own. The research team found that the expectations around gender roles put them at quite a disadvantage.

“For example, one father had two wives and families in KwaZulu-Natal, and when he lost his job, his wives told him that they weren't interested in him coming home unless he was bringing money. He was deeply hurt by the fact that his only role was the money he brought to the family,” says Parker. 

Internationally, much attention is being placed on making cities more inclusive. Parker believes that the more we target vulnerable groups in our approach to designing and building cities, the more inclusive the City will become.

“It is certainly not about making urban environments that only work for women,” she says. “It is the fact that when we think about designing for women it often means that we are being more inclusive.”

A classic scenario shows that a woman with a pram has the same sort of mobility and access needs when compared to a person in a wheelchair. 

“If we can make cities more inclusive for women, then they will be inclusive for many other groups as well, and they will be better cities.”

  • Find more of Parker’s work on the Gauteng City-Region Observatory website at, including the 2017 study: Spatial footprints of mothers in Johannesburg.
  • Leanne Rencke is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.