25 key contemporary women pioneering the path to design better cities

By  | 2024

Do men and women experience cities in the same way? Do they have equal access to the resources urban areas provide—such as productive opportunities, culture, education, and public services? Increasingly, policymakers and urban planners recognize that they do not—and have never done so. What becomes increasingly clear is that these disparities extend beyond mere economic differences, encompassing limitations in accessing essential elements such as urban design, which either accommodates or neglects their everyday needs and rights.

The decisions made in designing buildings and urban spaces hold significant social implications, shaping the behaviors and experiences of individuals in myriad ways. Once again, women emerge as among the most affected when cities fail to consider their perspectives and needs. This disparity is often attributed to the historical marginalization—and even invisibilization—of women in urban planning and decision-making processes, a phenomenon that unfortunately varies greatly across different regions of the world.To address this reality and foster a future of more inclusive, gender-equitable city-making, we believe it is crucial to acknowledge and highlight the substantial contributions made by countless women in improving the quality of urban life over the last decades.

Thus, we present this curated list of 25 women from diverse geographical locations who, excelling in various fields such as architecture, urbanism, research or global advocacy, have been and continue to be instrumental in shaping a vision for better cities for all. This compilation, presented in alphabetical order, aims to inspire while acknowledging it is not exhaustive.

Ana Falú

A Latin American pioneer defending women’s rights to the city and housing

Throughout her career, Argentine architect and social activist Ana Falú has promoted numerous institutional initiatives and contributed to the establishment of women’s rights to the city, housing, and habitat. In the 2000s, Falú served as Regional Director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (now part of UN Women) for the Andean Region, Brazil, and the Southern Cone. Currently, she serves as a researcher and professor at the National University of Córdoba (UNC), where she is the Director of the Housing and Habitat Research Institute. Falú is a co-founder of the Women and Habitat Network of Latin America, and in 2013, she received the Feminist Career Award along with other Argentine women.

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Belinda Tato

Rethinking urban design through participation, sustainability and creativity

Co-founder of Ecosistema Urbano, an ‘urban social design’ and architecture studio based in Boston and Madrid, Belinda Tato is renowned for her work investigating and developing various tools and participatory techniques to engage citizens in the creative and transformative processes of urban environments. This includes fostering self-organization among citizens, enhancing social interaction within communities, and exploring their relationship with nature. Under this philosophy, she has contributed to implement projects worldwide, such as the redevelopment of West Palm Beach’s waterfront in Florida, USA, an improvement scheme for public spaces and buildings in Dhaka South, Bangladesh, and envisioning the regeneration of EcoPark La Paz in Barranquilla, Colombia.

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Benedetta Tagliabue

A leader in the global dissemination of sustainable and humane city models

An internationally renowned architect and co-founder, along with Enric Miralles, of the international studio EMBT Architects. Her work, including the New Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh, the Santa Caterina Market in Barcelona, and the City Council of Utrecht in The Netherlands, has received more than 100 international awards and citations for design excellence. These accolades include the National Spanish Prize in 2006, the RIBA Jencks Award in 2013, and the Piranesi Prix de Rome 2020. In 2021, at the World Smart City Awards in Barcelona, she was honored with the Leadership Award for her contributions to the global dissemination of sustainable and humane city models.

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Beth Galí

A designer, architect, and landscaper behind the ‘new’ Barcelona 

As a member of the prestigious group of Catalan architects known as the «Generation of the 80s,» Beth Galí played a pivotal role in renewing architecture and public spaces in the wake of the Spanish democratic transition. She spearheaded significant developments in Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics, overseeing large-scale projects across various areas of the city. Her contributions extended to the historic opening of Barcelona to the sea and the restoration and transformation of its historic center into pedestrian zones. Through her visionary approach, she positioned Barcelona as an internationally renowned city linked to arts and design, and earned international recognition for her innovative projects across Europe, with a particular focus on promoting pedestrian-friendly public spaces.

Carme Pigem

Creator of a new link between architecture and landscape, and the first Spanish woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize

Instead of settling in the bustling and stimulating Barcelona, architect Carme Pigem chose to remain in her rural hometown of Olot, two hours away from the big city, to develop a unique architectural language. Through this language, and influenced by the volcanic nature of her homeland, she has designed spaces and buildings that establish a definitive connection with the landscape, environment, and nature that surrounds them, emphasizing tradition, craftsmanship, and function as much as geometry and expressiveness. As part of RCR Arquitectes, the studio she co-founded in 1987, she became the first Spanish woman to be awarded the Pritzker Prize in Architecture in 2017.

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Denise Scott Brown

A proponent of postmodern architecture and one of the most influential architects of the 20th century

Born in current Zambia, Denise Scott Brown is a 92-year-old architect, urban planner, educator, and theoretical writer. In the 1960s, she joined forces with her husband and architect Robert Venturi. Together, they challenged the prevailing modernist ideals with their seminal book «Learning from Las Vegas» (1972), which laid the groundwork for postmodern architectural theory —embracing pop culture and breaking away from the geometric forms, austerity, and rationality of the Modern Movement. The expansion of London’s National Gallery and the Seattle Art Museum are among her notable works. Despite facing discrimination and marginalization in a male-dominated profession, Scott Brown persisted in her pursuit of architectural excellence, leaving an enduring legacy of innovative design, planning, and advocacy for gender equity in the built environment.

Elizabeth Diller

The architect merging the boundaries of art, design, culture, urbanism and nature

Elizabeth Diller has been a founding partner of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) since 1981, leading an interdisciplinary practice that encompasses architecture, urban design, installation art, and digital media. Notably, she has been instrumental in shaping recent groundbreaking cultural projects in New York City, such as The Shed’s Bloomberg Building and the expansion of the MoMA. Diller’s impact extends beyond her architectural achievements; as a part of (DS+R), she has been recognized on TIME’s «100 Most Influential People» list and received the inaugural MacArthur Foundation grant in architecture. The foundation lauded their innovative approach, celebrating them as catalyzers who demonstrate that architecture is not confined to buildings alone — but encompasses the broader social fabric.

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Fatima-Azzahra Bendahmane

A career dedicated to making eco-friendly buildings and cities affordable

Specialized in passive architecture, bioclimatic control tools, and sustainable urbanism, Moroccan architect Fatima-Azzahra Bendahmane has dedicated her career to demonstrating how to make eco-friendly housing affordable and accessible. A graduate of the National School of Architecture in Rabat and from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, where she also serves as a lecturer, Bendahmane has designed eco-districts in cities in her country such as Zenata and Casablanca. For her work, she has received awards such as the Silver Award from Lafarge Holcim for Sustainable Architecture in Africa and the Middle East, and the 1st Green Building Prize by the UNDP. She is a Co-founder of «We Speak Citizen,» an NGO that promotes democratic participation and civic engagement.

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Frida Escobedo

Breaking age barriers in the design of the world’s top cultural spaces

Frida Escobedo established her studio in Mexico City in 2006. Initially, the studio gained recognition through a series of competition-winning projects in her native country. However, since 2018, Escobedo’s reputation has extended globally after receiving the prestigious appointment to design the annual Serpentine Pavilion in London’s Kensington Gardens, which serves as a temporary installation foer cultural exhibits, exploring new possibilities and boundaries of design and architecture. With this appointment, Escobedo became the youngest architect to date to undertake this annual project. More recently, she was selected as the architect to design the new Modern & Contemporary Wing for The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, making her the youngest and first woman to design a building for the institution.

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Helle Søholt

A pioneer in designing more livable cities around the world

Founding Partner and CEO of Gehl, a networked urban design and research consultancy she co-founded with Professor Jan Gehl in 2000, Helle Søholt has significantly contributed to developing a respected knowledge base and international experience in urban design and development. Through the firm, she has earned numerous prizes and recognition for their efforts in enhancing the livability and sustainability of cities. Søholt has advised prominent cities including Copenhagen, Vancouver, Mexico City, New York, and Sao Paulo, and is a staunch advocate for healthy urban living, promoting compact urban forms, human-scale environments, and accessible mobility for all.

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Inés Sánchez de Madariaga

Coiner of the ‘Mobility of Care’

A world-renowned advisor, holder of the prestigious UNESCO Chair on Gender Equality Policies in Science, Technology, and Innovation, and Professor of Urban Planning at Polytechnic University of Madrid, Inés Sánchez de Madariaga has made significant contributions to advance gender equality in cities. One of them is the concept of ‘Mobility of Care’, which she coined in 2008. This concept serves as an analytical framework for understanding the various mobility needs and patterns related to caregiving responsibilities within cities, shedding light on the gendered dynamics of mobility and highlighting the importance of incorporating these considerations into planning and policies to move towards more gender-equal societies.

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Jane Weru

A leader in developing innovative community-based solutions to address the housing and land tenure problems of Kenya

Lawyer by profession and holding a Master’s in NGO Management from the London School of Economics, Jane Weru has a track record of providing technical, legal, and financial support to grassroots movements of the urban poor in Kenya. She currently serves as the Executive Director of Akiba Mashinani Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing innovative community-led solutions to housing and land tenure problems in her country. Since August 2018, she has also been the project leader of the Mukuru Special Planning Area, a Nairobi County Government project aimed at developing an integrated development plan to improve the lives of the 100,000 households that presently occupy over 600 acres of land within the city.

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Janette Sadik-Khan

The woman who pedestrianized New York City’s streets

Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013, Janette Sadik-Khan led one of the most sweeping revitalizations of the city’s streets in a half-century. During her tenure, New York City added nearly 400 miles of bike lanes and the first parking-protected bike paths in North America. The department she led set in motion more than 60 plazas across the city, including the historic plazas that shut Broadway through Times Square, sparking economic recovery throughout the area. ​She currently advises mayors of cities around the world as a principal at Bloomberg Associates, a philanthropic consultancy that helps cities improve the quality of life of their citizens.

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Kazujo Sejima

A visionary in disruptive architecture and the second woman in the world to be awarded the Pritzker Prize

Named the Japan Institute of Architects’ Young Architect of the Year in 1992, Kazuyo Sejima became the second woman, 18 years later, to receive the Pritzker Prize after the late Zaha Hadid, which she was awarded jointly with her associate at the firm SANAA, Ryue Nishizawa. Sejima has designed innovative, disruptive buildings in Japan and around the world, such as the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, Switzerland, or the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, which won the Golden Lion in 2004 for the most significant work in the Ninth International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale. Six years later, she became the first woman in directing this world-renowned biennale.

Maimunah Mohd Sharif

The UN’s most recent leading figure for the promotion of sustainable and inclusive cities

Since 2017 and until 2024, Maimunah Mohd Sharif from Malaysia has served as the director of UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency dedicated to promoting sustainable and inclusive cities and towns worldwide. She was appointed to lead the organization following a distinguished career marked by positions of responsibility in urban management within her country and advocacy for development and planning policies with a clear gender focus. Mohd Sharif served as Mayor of Penang Island from 2017 to 2018. In 2011, she made history as the first woman appointed as President of the Municipal Council of Seberang Perai. Notably, she spearheaded the revitalization plan for George Town, leading to its inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list in July 2008.

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Martha Thorne

An urbanist leading the world’s top architectural competitions

From 2005 until 2021, US-born urbanist Martha Thorne served as the Executive Director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, popularly known as the “Nobel Prize for Architecture». Under her leadership, the competition rewarded the work of some of the most influential individuals shaping the way we have been building cities over the last decades — from Kazuyo Sejima to Jean Nouvel. Thorne is currently serving as Senior Advisor of the Obel Award, an international competition that promotes architecture in the service of both people and the planet. She is recognized for her extensive research and publications on the future of cities and the transformation of architecture and design education to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

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Marwa Al-Sabouni

A scholar and advocate for architecture as a tool for peace in cities

A Ph.D. architect, urban thinker, and writer based in Homs, Syria, Marwa Al-Sabouni authored «The Battle for Home,» recognized by the Guardian, Telegraph, and Architectural Record as one of the best architectural books in 2016. The central message of her book highlights Syria’s built environment’s contributory role in the war due to too many people living in effectively sectarian ghettoes. Al-Sabouni emphasizes that the government must avoid repeating this mistake during the rebuilding process. Additionally, she is the co-founder of Arabic Gate for Architectural News, the world’s first and only website dedicated to architectural news in Arabic.

Pilar Conesa

Curator of the world’s leading event on cities and innovation

One of the pioneers of the Smart City movement and former CIO of the Barcelona City Council, Pilar Conesa is behind the conceptualization of a global-scale event able to catalyze the conversation among all stakeholders that have a voice on how to improve cities through innovation — the Smart City Expo World Congress. Organized annually by Fira de Barcelona since 2011, this ever-expanding event curated by her attracts up to 25,000 visitors per year and has spawned through over 20 international spin-offs. Besides this, Conesa is the founder and president of the consulting firm Anteverti, a regular keynote speaker at global events and a jury member for international urban innovation awards.

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Raquel Rolnik

Over 30 years of defending the ‘right to the city’

Transitioning from government positions to NGOs and subsequently to the international sphere, Brazilian architect, urbanist and professor Raquel Rolnik has spent over 30 years of her career advocating for the ‘right to the city’ and an adequate standard of housing and living, as well as the right to non-discrimination in this context. With an extensive background in the implementation and evaluation of housing and urban policies, serving as Planning Director of the City of São Paulo (1989-1992) and National Secretary of Urban Programs of the Ministry of Cities in Brazil (2003-2007), she also served as the special rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Council for the Right to Adequate Housing for two terms (2008-2011, 2011-2014).

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Saskia Sassen

The urban sociologist who coined the term ‘global city’

Recipient of the Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences in 2013 and currently serving as the esteemed Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, Saskia Sassen is regarded as one of the foremost international sociologists, particularly in urban sociology and the social, economic, and political dimensions of globalization. Within this framework, she contributed significantly to shedding light on the role of cities and metropolises in the globalized economy by coining the term ‘global city’ in 1984, which she further developed in her seminal work of the same name published in 1991.

Sharon Zukin

A contemporary reference in sociology and modern urban life

Professor Sharon Zukin, renowned in universities worldwide and author on the impact of deindustrialization, gentrification, and immigration on today’s cities, holds the title of Professor Emerita of Sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Specializing in modern urban life, she focuses on the intersections between sociological urban trends, global economics, and the ongoing evolution of urban geopolitics. Zukin has been honored with several prizes, including the Jane Jacobs Urban Communication Award for her book ‘Naked City’ (2012), the Robert and Helen Lynd Award from the Community and Urban Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association (2007), and the C. Wright Mills Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems for ‘Landscapes of Power’ (1991).

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Sheela Patel

An advocate for the urban poor whose work has helped shift international understanding of how governments can engage with informal settlements

Shela Patel is one of the founders of the Board of Slum Dwellers International (SDI), an international network of grassroots organizations of the urban poor and professional NGOs that support them in Asia, Africa and Latin America. SDI provides assistance to millions of people in over 500 cities to save money, collect data, build houses and infrastructure, and strengthen relationships with local authorities and national governments. Patel is widely recognised for propelling the issues of urban poverty and inclusion onto the radar of governments, international agencies, foundations and other organizations.

Tatiana Bilbao

Integrating diversity, social values, collaboration and sensitive design to architectural work

Formerly an Advisor in the Ministry of Development and Housing of the Government of the Federal District of Mexico City, Tatiana Bilbao founded her eponymous studio in 2004 with the aim of integrating social values, collaboration, and sensitive design approaches into architectural work. From botanical gardens to schools, towers, and residential projects, the work led by Tatiana Bilbao is rooted in research, allowing for design considerations that address affordability, diverse circumstances, and realities, including reconstruction for crisis scenarios. Bilbao holds a recurring teaching position at Yale University, and was recognized with the Kunstpreis Berlin in 2012. Additionally, she was named an Emerging Voice by the Architecture League of New York in 2010.

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Teresa Caldeira

A leading voice in research focusing on urban processes and social relations in the Global South

Professor of City and Regional Planning and Carmel P. Friesen Chair in Urban Studies at Berkeley, Teresa Caldeira is one of the most relevant voices researching the interrelationship between urbanization and the reconfiguration of spatial segregation and discrimination, particularly in metropolises of the global south. Her book «City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo» (2000) offers a comprehensive analysis of how crime, fear of violence, and violations of citizenship rights intertwine with urban transformations to create new patterns of urban segregation. This work earned her the Senior Book Prize of the American Ethnological Society. Currently, she is researching new formations of urban life and city space, focusing on their intersection with emerging technologies in public spaces, new governance models, and evolving paradigms of urban planning.

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Yasmeen Lari

Globally recognized for her humanitarian approach to architecture and the first female architect of Pakistan

Recognized as the first female architect in Pakistan, Yasmeen Lari has had a significant local and global impact due to her innovative and socially conscious approach to architecture, taking into account local culture, site-specific opportunities, and challenges. She was the co-founder and CEO of the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan and the founding chair of the Pakistan Council of Architects and Town Planners. After retiring from her architectural practice in 2000, Lari shifted her focus to humanitarian efforts, developing a knowledge distribution system in rural communities for self-building and rediscovering indigenous materials and techniques, for which she was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal 2023.

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📝 Across #urbanism, #architecture, urban research, and global advocacy, these 25 influential contemporary #women have been pivotal in making cities better for all. A list curated by #CitiesToBe | @Anteverti 👇🏽 Clic para tuitear

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About the authors

Anteverti Team | + posts

Anteverti is a consultancy specialized in helping cities, governments, and companies harness innovation, sustainability and creativity to unlock new opportunities.

Since 2011, its multidisciplinary team has provided strategic and operational support in over 23 countries across 5 continents, advising organizations to plan for the future, seize global opportunities, and adapt to a dynamic world. Clients include cities like Barcelona, Seoul, and Stockholm, as well as national and regional governments such as Argentina and Catalonia or global actors such as the UN, the European Commission, the World Bank, or FC Barcelona.

Anteverti also curates the Smart City Expo World Congress, which has allowed them to build an extensive global network in urban innovation. To leverage all the knowledge they channel, in 2016, Anteverti launched CitiesToBe, a digital platform reflecting on urban challenges.

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