Room of our own: creating women-friendly cities

2nd November 2020

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Caroline Wilkinson

Author Leslie Kern speaks to Kathryn Manning about creating women-friendly cities

Can a city be sexist in its very structure? Is the equality of urban space something we can create to align with a fairer, more diverse society? Urban streets can often feel threatening rather than inclusive. In her book Feminist City: Claiming space in a man-made world, Leslie Kern exposes the social inequalities built into our cities, homes and neighbourhoods. I spoke to her to ask how she thinks we can transform our public spaces into more socially and environmentally sustainable places.

How would you describe your role?

I'm a professor of geography and environment, and I direct the women's and gender studies programme at a small liberal arts university.

How did you discover feminist geography?

In a post-graduate class called 'Race, space and citizenship'. I had never thought about how spaces have raced, classed and gendered identities. I had never seen spaces as having an active role in shaping social relations. Once I had that perspective, I was hooked.

When did you become aware of the barriers to women in the way cities are designed?

My first awareness was around safety issues – for example, the ways that women have to take extra precautions and monitor their movements. This was certainly part of my own experience of city life as a young woman. When I participated in events such as the Take Back the Night marches, I learned that women had to persistently pressure cities, planners and police forces to take their safety needs seriously. Even basic features such as better lighting, emergency call boxes and transit safety programmes had to be retroactively designed into cities, and were met with a lot of resistance and even ridicule.

“Mixed-use neighbourhoods with a tight proximity of social services, great public transit and affordable housing could really improve women's lives“

You lived in London as a new mother – can you give examples of the inequalities in the built environment?

When I had my daughter, the gendered barriers to full participation in city life were suddenly very physically present to me. Public transit was my first site of awakening: as an able-bodied, healthy person, accessing transit had always been seamless and simple. When I was pregnant and then travelling about with an infant, every bus or Tube trip was a major expedition. Much of the system was physically inaccessible, and it was clear to me from the often-unhelpful operators and snide passengers that I was 'out of place' and taking up space that I was no longer entitled to. Other issues included a lack of accessible public bathrooms, overcrowded public spaces and a general lack of thought given to human care work.

Why do we need cities that take all genders and sexual orientations into account?

If the pandemic has shown us anything, it's how important the invisible, underpaid and even stigmatised work of care, cleaning and feeding is, and what the barriers to that work are. It's not that only women do this work, but historically women have been the most responsible for it, inside and outside of the home. If we don't acknowledge this, we find ourselves scrambling as a society to figure out how to close the gaps when a crisis comes along. I think the pandemic has also illustrated how much social planning relies on the notion of the traditional heterosexual nuclear family with traditional gender roles – the assumption that someone will be able to care for children who are out of school and daycare, and that this somehow won't have enormous effects on the entire economy. There's still an outdated sexism and heterosexism that misses the reality that most people don't live their lives in ways that fit into these neat, but outdated, boxes.

How can urban spaces be improved for women?

Some cities, such as Paris, have been talking about the idea of the '15-minute city'. This mirrors long-standing feminist visions of the city where spaces of care, work, school, leisure and consumption are not physically separated into distinct zones with the need to commute between them. Mixed-use neighbourhoods with a tight proximity of social services, great public transit and affordable housing could really improve women's lives.

“I would hope people can see equality and sustainability as interlocking goals which, when supported together, further each other's aims“

How does the environmental side of your work inform your ideals?

Environmental problems in cities – such as pollution from industry, cars, diesel buses and trucks – has gendered, classed and raced impacts. Low-income minority communities are more likely to be near sources of pollution. Children have higher rates of asthma and other respiratory issues, and women remain their primary caregivers. It's their livelihoods that suffer as they juggle the needs of sick children with precarious housing and employment. There's a need to take an environmental justice approach to planning in the 'feminist city' to ensure some communities don't continue to be overburdened with environmental harms.

Are suburban areas more inclusive than urban ones?

Historically, no. The suburbs were explicitly designed to be exclusive: white, middle class refuges from the diversity and disorder of the city. They re-imposed a strict gender order: stay-at-home wife, breadwinner husband. Their design made it difficult for women to take up paid work and juggle their unpaid domestic responsibilities at home. In recent decades, as urban areas have become more expensive due to gentrification, lower income and racial minority households are being pushed out to the suburbs. Unfortunately, most suburbs don't have the benefits of urban life: you have to have a car, things are spread far apart, there are fewer social services and worse connections to places of employment.

How can ethnic minorities be supported in the built environment?

We must reduce the harms caused by over-policing, police violence and over-incarceration, and direct public resources into services, developments and projects that would actually tackle the problems we've decided the criminal justice system can solve. I mean affordable housing, childcare, a living wage, affordable transportation, education, healthcare, sustainability and any other social services and spaces needed. Imagine if, as sustainability professionals, you had access to the kind of funding police services do. What amazing projects could you complete?

Can you give examples of inclusive urban spaces?

The trend has been toward more exclusive spaces: corporate-controlled, surveilled, less diverse, more expensive. Where I look for inspiration is grassroots actions, spaces and sites of protest where people are creating different ways of relating, consuming, caring and living. I encourage people to find these spaces in their own cities: it might be a co-housing project, community garden, refugee welcome centre, public toilet initiative, protest camp, co-op store or mutual aid society. They are there, but not likely to be found on a list of 'top 10 things to see and do'.

How can technology provide equality of space?

Women's anti-violence organisations have been experimenting with different digital options that allow women to track and report harassment on city streets or on public transit. Domestic violence shelters are also rolling out apps that are disguised as something neutral, such as a step tracker, so that women can install them on their phones, which are often monitored by abusers. The apps can link women to services or hotlines in a discreet way. Obviously access to internet infrastructure is an urgent question, so planners should also be thinking about the virtual world as a necessary 'space' for public interaction.

What would you like sustainability professionals to learn from your book?

I would hope people can see equality and sustainability as interlocking goals which, when supported together, further each other's aims. The environment is not in competition with equality. Rather, if we put questions of equality and sustainability together at the heart of our visions for the future, we can start to plan for and make real cities that are socially and environmentally sustainable in the face of the numerous challenges that we must tackle.

Leslie Kern is associate professor of geography and environment and director of women's and gender studies at Mount Allison University. Her book Feminist City: Claiming space in a man-made world is published by Verso.

Image credit: Mitchel Raphael


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