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December 10, 2020

What makes a city feminist?

We live in places designed by and for men. In her new book, Feminist City: Claiming Space in the Man-made World, geographer Leslie Kern offers alternatives.

By finbarr toesland

From unrivalled job opportunities and comprehensive public transport to the mix of cultures, urbanisation has transformed the lives of many. But these gains have not been shared equally. As Leslie Kern argues in Feminist City: Claiming Space in the Man-made World, women and other marginalised groups are left out of planning decisions that impact their lives, and they must deal with countless hidden obstacles that make navigating the city unnecessarily arduous.

Feminist geographer Leslie Kern
Feminist geographer Leslie Kern argues that it’s time to dismantle our assumptions about the increasingly urbanised world in which we live. (Photo by Mitchel Raphael)

Kern, an associate professor of geography and environment, and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University in Canada, explores in her book how urban spaces exacerbate and often ingrain harmful gendered inequalities. A mixture of personal experiences, history and popular culture inform the feminist geographer’s work as she envisions a truly inclusive space that recognises the needs of marginalised people. She examines how women experience the city from several perspectives, including through motherhood, friendship, protest and fear. From a lack of child-friendly public transport to street harassment to single-family zoning, a broad range of obstacles impacting women living in urban areas are analysed in Feminist City.

But this book isn’t just about white feminists. Kern talks about how white privilege is bound up with the freedom of enjoying being alone, for example, citing Teju Cole’s observation that “the Black flâneur is an impossibility under white supremacy”. And she delves into the experiences of the disabled, who have their own challenges with urban autonomy. Kern goes on to explore the many ways cities are (and aren’t) working to make themselves work better for more people, from improved access to bathrooms to designing safer streets.

City Monitor spoke with Kern about how lockdowns have highlighted several failures of cities, the need for an intersectional approach to urban planning and whether a truly feminist city is close to becoming a reality.

Perhaps the most obvious question first: what makes a city feminist?

A feminist city has to be one where the care labour that disproportionately falls to women is well supported, redistributed and made as collective as possible through the city’s infrastructure and social policy, as well as through the activities it encourages citizens to take on. As I write in the book, “the feminist city is an ongoing experiment in living differently, living better, and living more justly in an urban world”.

In Feminist City, you talk about how “participating in protests brought [your] sense of belonging in the city alive”. In making cities more equal, how do you envision the relationship between governments, urban planners and citizens needing to be reshaped? 

Great question. I think what we’ve seen, especially if we think about the work of Black Lives Matter over this past summer, [in this] global resurgence of that movement is that social movements are really key in shifting the discourse. Prior to this summer, conversations about defunding the police, for example, seemed very radical, very fringe, not a conversation that you could have on the BBC or the New York Times.

But through the power of that protest movement, the conversation shifted so that it was something that city planners, city politicians and police forces themselves had to grapple with. I think the role of protests and social movement is to really try to move the needle in particular directions and get those governments and planners to pay attention to things that might not have been on their radar or might have been seen as kind of politically unpalatable for them to touch prior.

In the design of a city, how can ideas held within feminist geography make a meaningful impact on groups outside of the narrow, traditional nuclear family?

Ideally, my hope would be that as feminism works to try and blow up certain norms, certain ideas about what has been taken for granted, what has been seen as common sense, [are challenged]. So, for example, [beyond] the single-family home, the traditional nuclear family, we try to expand the range of options that are available for people. That might include different modes of housing, different kinds of ideas and ideologies attached to the home. It could include different ways of imagining what a family and a household looks like.

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I think something we’ve seen during the pandemic is that single-person households and the elderly really struggle. Groups that are not typically embedded in that traditional nuclear family have really been left out in the cold. So if we were imagining different forms of kinship, different households, and not completely focused on, you know, an intimate romantic partnership and the raising of children, then hopefully that would allow a lot more people to thrive and be cared for.

Covid-19 has highlighted a number of the issues you raise in Feminist City, namely around the unequal burden of care work.

The pandemic has shown one of the things I tried to point out in the book: that there still is this disproportionate burden on women, and most of the time, we’re not really questioning it. One of the things that’s highlighted is the way our cities are set up in terms of a divide between public and private. The nature of the single-family home itself is great at hiding a whole lot of invisible and quite exploitative labour that is taken for granted. In lockdown, this issue has been magnified by millions of households, and there’s this baseless assumption that somehow it’s going to be OK – it’s not.

In “normal times”, you can see this operating whenever there’s a child who needs to come home from school for some reason. There’s an assumption that an adult will be at home for that child and [that] somehow people can work from home, look after their family and participate in community care initiatives, as well.

An industry survey found only three of the world’s 100 biggest architecture firms are led by women. How much of the sexism manifested in the city is linked to the male-dominated nature of the profession?

No matter what our profession, we all bring a set of values and experiences of the world with us in terms of what we think is right. If the majority of architects are men in a white-dominated profession which tends to draw from the middle and upper class, they perhaps have a limited set of life experiences that don’t allow people who have traditionally been in that profession to notice certain issues.

Someone recently was telling me about this beautiful new library at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, but all of the floors were metal grates that you could see through. If you’re a woman who regularly wears skirts, for example, this is a worrying environment to be moving through. This may be an innovative and exciting way to design a space. But for others who have a different sort of embodied experience of moving through environments, it’s not going to work for us.

You interrogate the role of cities through a decidedly intersectional lens. How can actions towards making a city more feminist have a beneficial effect on marginalised communities that are so often excluded from city planning?

We tend to think of physical accessibility as directed at a niche population of disabled people. But accessibility interventions have ripple effects outwards that make life easier for anyone pushing a stroller, elderly people and even anyone pulling their buggy of groceries home. We have to be careful not to replace the typical, standard, white male middle-class figure with just a white female middle-class figure in the city. Those kinds of norms don’t necessarily take into account the ways racism, poverty and homophobia impact the lives of different groups of women.

To what extent do you see the same failings of cities being mirrored in the construction of others across the developing world?

That’s a great question. I think what you’re touching on is a form of ongoing colonialism. Experiences of Global North cities are often viewed as the pinnacle of development that all other places should naturally be following. In many cases, we haven’t stopped to question whether this is natural, desirable or even if it makes sense in different contexts.

We could definitely point to our good friend capitalism for the overwhelming importance of private property in most Global North cities. In other places, there are different traditions around communal property, and the distinction between public and private space looks different. It’s not to say that one is inherently better than the other but that to impose a Global North, capitalist private-property view of what urban space might be can erase a lot of cultural uniqueness, complexity and maybe even some interesting ways of living that us here in the Global North might want to consider as potential changes.

There are several examples of cities currently being reimagined with women in mind. Vienna’s gender-mainstreaming policies, where women and men are accounted for equally in policy, legislation and resource allocation, are picking up steam. Barcelona’s female mayor, Ada Colau, is proposing radical new initiatives like expanding the city’s “superblocks”, where traffic is allowed only around the perimeter and priority is given to pedestrian and green spaces. Is the vision of a feminist city becoming closer to reality?

When feeling optimistic, I do think there is some progress being made, even in plans that are not explicitly feminist but have a kind of sneaky feminist outcome. Like the 15-minute city, which relates to feminist claims for why the city can be a good environment for women in terms of the proximity of various services, schools, workplaces and much better public transit than in suburban and rural areas.

So there’s a lot of promise in visions that try to allow people to live their lives in ways that are less burdened by navigating space and distance. I hope there is a moment for recognising the importance of care labour and real thinking about how we can improve certain aspects of our cities to make sure that labour is well supported, well paid and respected – all those things that have been lacking.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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