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Why Design Downtown for Women? Author Sheila D. Grant Explains

Posted  4 years ago  in  Landmarks  by  Jessica Cabe

Did you know that women make more than 80 percent of retail and residential decisions? They are increasingly well-educated and wealthy. But does the design of downtowns meet their needs? Sheila D. Grant, editor and co-author of Design Downtown for Women (Men Will Follow), will address this question and more as the keynote speaker of Chicago Loop Alliance Foundation’s 2019 Annual Meeting, 7-9:30 a.m. on February 14 at Hilton Chicago.

Get a sneak peek at what Grant has in store for her presentation, and click here to learn more about the Annual Meeting and purchase tickets.

Q: How and when did you first become involved with downtown development?

A: During my years as the executive director of two nonprofits, I could see the connections that allowed our economy as a whole to improve when any one aspect improved, such as a more educated workforce attracting more employers, for example. In 2006, I was offered the position of the first-ever community development specialist with the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council. Because the PCEDC takes a regional approach, I was able to bring many of those connections together, launching new partnerships that continue to this day around recreational tourism and farm-to-table entrepreneurship, to name a few.

Q: What was your role in Design Downtown for Women?

A: I came late to this project. For most of the past eight years, I have been the editor/writer of the Downtown Idea Exchange and the Downtown Promotion Reporter, two downtown development newsletters covering the U.S. and Canada. I heard about Design Downtown for Women during that time. When I stepped away from my role with the Downtown Development Center last spring, I was asked to come on board as editor of the book, and to contribute a chapter if I saw room to do so, which I did.

Sheila D. Grant, editor and co-author of Design Downtown for Women (Men Will Follow)
Shopping on State Street - Chicago Loop

Q: I think it’s interesting that if we design downtowns with men in mind, women will not necessarily follow. But the book argues that if we design downtowns with women in mind, they will still be great, attractive places for men. Can you explain a little

A: One of the reasons that we say “men will follow” is that women make 80 percent of the consumer decisions in this country. If your downtown is where a woman wants to shop, dine, or see a show, her partner or family is likely to come with. Also, any improvements that make downtowns more attractive and accessible for women are going to provide that same level of attractiveness and accessibility for all.

Q: In the book, you write about programming specifically for women, like women in business networking events, dining opportunities, startup incubators, etc. Why is it important for downtowns to perform outreach to women, and what does successful programming for women look like?

A: Women can be hesitant to speak up in mixed company or to ask questions. That’s the theory behind programs such as Becoming an Outdoors Woman, which is put on by game and fish organizations in states nationwide. Likewise, business programs for women only can give women permission to speak their minds and ask questions in a more comfortable setting. Also, women don’t always have time to explore what downtown has to offer in the evening or over the weekend. Events for women only can highlight how safe and enjoyable downtown can be during those times, and provide samples of what area restaurants and retailers have to offer.


Q: The Chicago Tribune recently published an article about women only making up 30 percent of bike commuters—even though Chicago is often ranked a very bike-friendly city. There’s a chapter in Design Downtown for Women that digs into why this might be. What are some of the reasons for lower ridership among women, and what are some things cities and downtown management organizations can do or advocate for to make biking more appealing to women?

A: While there are always exceptions, women tend to be more risk-averse bicyclists. Dedicated bike lanes, and assurance that harassment will not be present are important in getting more women to ride.

Q: Do you know if there are any trends toward designing downtowns for women, or are cities on the whole still falling behind in the ideas this book presents? Are there any cities that are doing a particularly good job of designing with women in mind?

A: I think evaluating the downtown environment from a woman’s point of view will be a new experience for many. That said, there are cities that are doing a good job of integrating the idea of “experience” into their downtowns, and that is crucial to appealing to women.

Q: Do you have any thoughts on what’s being done right here in the Loop, or what could use improvement?

A: I’ve been researching the area and reaching out to female professionals for feedback. There is much that is already working well in the Loop, but there is always more that can be done. One thing I will be recommending is that every business and nonprofit location, as well as the district as a whole, conduct an assessment with honest feedback from female stakeholders as soon as possible.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: I really don’t want to give away too much of my presentation, but I will say this: I hope to inspire attendees, and to get everyone curious about what positive changes could come from acting on some of the recommendations in the book.

Learn more about the Chicago Loop Alliance Foundation’s 2019 Annual Meeting. Learn more about Sheila D. Grant.