Planning Magazine

'Feminist City' Author Leslie Kern Tackles the Built Environment's Gender Bias

Cities were largely made by and for men. Here’s how to start changing that — and why it would benefit everyone.

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Author Leslie Kern in Toronto, Canada. Photo by Mitchel Raphael.

Cities are not gender neutral. Much of the built environment has been designed by and for men — and even then, a narrow male subject: "Usually a white, middle-class father, breadwinner, worker, able bodied, heterosexual, and so on," explains Leslie Kern, PhD, associate professor of geography and environment and director of women's and gender studies at Mount Allison University.

From out-of-reach subway straps to train lines that provide inadequate routes for people in caretaking positions, "women are kind of reminded the city wasn't really built for you," she says.

Feminist City book cover

Kern's latest book, Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World, takes a critical look at gender disparities in the built environment. I recently spoke with her on an episode of APA's podcast series People Behind the Plans to learn how gender equity benefits everyone, what needs to change, and the role planners can play in gender mainstreaming. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

COURTNEY KASHIMA: What is a feminist city, and why is it important?

LESLIE KERN: For me, the feminist city is a vision, really — a set of values and principles that are dedicated to equity, to justice, to sustainability, and to re-envisioning what we really think the city is for. I think during the pandemic, it's been a real key moment for this because so many of us have been told over and over again that we have to look out for the economy. But what is the economy founded on? What other elements of the urban environment are important to us, and what other kinds of roles and work and relationships are really the foundational elements?

So for me, a feminist city is about thinking beyond the city as an economic unit and instead as a place for people, for care work, for social relationships, for interacting with the environment, and as a vehicle for social change.

KASHIMA: Have you seen any glimmers of hope there?

KERN: I think one of the conversations [the pandemic] has sparked is around issues of care work in the home, gender in the workplace, and how those things interrelate together, because in many ways, we are recognizing that despite all of our pretensions to gender equality in the home and workplace, there's still a disproportionate share of care labor that falls on women in the home. And in both Canada and the U.S., many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of women have lost their jobs. So what's the glimmer of hope in that?

Well, our government here in Canada, just like yours in the U.S., now has started to recognize that there can be no real economic recovery without some attention to these gender issues. So we've had renewed conversations about the possibility of a national childcare plan, which is something that comes up over and over again but very little action has been taken towards it.

And I think at the urban level, there's also been some interesting moments where people were saying, "Get outside, socialize outside, make use of outdoor public space, it's safer," and so on. But many of our cities have not really been well set up to encourage that socializing. So some cities took it upon themselves to do things that, again, they'd been dragging their feet on for a long time. They increased bicycle lanes and pedestrian access. They created more space for socializing in urban public space. They limited car traffic. They created opportunities for other sorts of social engagements, whether that's through outdoor dining or outdoor public activities. So I think it's a moment where we could see perhaps some changes in how we use urban public space.

KASHIMA: There's a subtitle or sort of tagline with your book: "Claiming Space in a Man-Made World." What does that mean?

KERN: It's getting at two things, really. One is that much of the urban environment around us has been designed by men and to reflect a typical home and work life of a male subject rather than a woman. And of course, even then, kind of a narrow male subject as well. Usually a white, middle-class father, breadwinner, worker, able bodied, heterosexual, and so on. So in that sense, talking about the city as a man-made space is a deliberate kind of provocation to get people to think about the fact that the spaces around us, including those that we ourselves as humans have made, are socially constructed in that they don't just emerge out of some kind of technical code or something like that, but that they reflect the values and norms and even the biases and inequalities that are built into society. So a society that sees women as secondary, that sees women as having their proper place in the home and so on, will build urban environments that reflect those norms.

The second meaning, what "claiming" space in a man-made world is about, is all of the ways that women kind of contort their daily lives to fit into a world that is not really made for them. Everything from whether or not you can reach the bar on the subway to hold onto a busy train to the weight of doors that are not built for your body or the lack of stroller access on busses and streetcars and so on. On a day-to-day basis, women are kind of reminded the city wasn't really built for you.

Transit issues like out-of-reach subway bars and safety concerns can prevent women from “[claiming] space in a man-made world.”  Photo courtesy of Understanding How Women Travel.

Transit issues like out-of-reach subway bars and safety concerns can prevent women from "claiming space in a man-made world." Photo courtesy of Understanding How Women Travel.

But of course, women survive in the city, thrive in the city. So they do take all of these steps to claim space, as difficult as it is. And over time, there have also been many feminist movements that have really pushed for women's right to access public spaces, to greater safety in cities, to equality in the workplace and in politics, and so on. And these have all also been part of that active claiming.

KASHIMA: Do improvements made using a feminist lens benefit all kinds of people?

KERN: Absolutely. There's nothing that I would imagine as part of a feminist city that is about taking something away from somebody else or limiting another group's access to public spaces, workplaces, and so on. It's about imagining, how do we broaden that access, both in a physical sense in terms of the things that you were talking about, like physical accessibility and the built environment, but also social accessibility, safety, cultural norms, all of these different things that contribute to a person or a group's sense of being included as being part of the city, as belonging to the city.

And the more we can expand that, the more everyone will benefit. And a feminist lens, a gender equity lens, is just one way of opening that up. It's not the only way. And I would never advocate for it to replace other ways of looking at the city. But certainly, if we think about a feminist analysis of care work, for example, you know, who does the, the unpaid and paid labor that keeps human beings alive and cared for and nursed and educated and fed and clean? All of that kind of labor — how is that organized in the city? How could we reshape elements of city spaces to prioritize that care work?

That's not just something that benefits the women who do that work, but that's something that benefits everybody, all sorts of different groups in society.

KASHIMA: And what role do you think municipal urban planners can or should play?

KERN: Planners can engage in active listening with communities, really try to do that on-the-ground work of community engagement. They can also think about what an equity lens would mean for their decision-making processes. So when you're thinking about where to put a new transit line or new park or even just a reorganization of a particular space, you can ask yourself: Does this enhance gender equity and other forms of equity? Does it leave it neutral, or might it have negative effects on that? And that can be a guidepost, kind of a compass, for some decision making as well.

And I think planners can also think about how to diversify the profession. I think in the U.S., from what I've looked into, the profession is still about 80 percent white. That's also an equity issue. So how can we have better representation amongst planners so that some of these questions are not, again, afterthoughts, but that the people already in the room might be saying, "Hey, what about stroller access? What about children? What about seniors? What about racial equity?"

KASHIMA: So you frame the use of a feminist lens as inclusive and a path towards remedying social inequalities. Some may hear the term "feminist city" and have a reaction that is quite the opposite. What would your response be?

KERN: Sure, some people hear the term "feminism" and think that that is about elevating women over men, for example, but it's not about that at all. It's about embracing a set of principles, as I said earlier, around equity, justice, sustainability, and care that are about providing something better for everyone.

Certainly sexism and patriarchy lock men into ways of being, into roles, into different models of masculinity that are quite limiting for them as well. So feminism is about expanding opportunities for men to have different lives, to be different kinds of parents, to do different sorts of work, to engage in different kinds of social relations. It's not about saying that women are better than men or that women's needs should be put first but thinking about, okay, you know, for groups whose needs have been put second or haven't been considered at all, if we kind of bring those into the picture, how can we create a more level playing field for everyone?

Listen to the full interview on APA's podcast.

Courtney Kashima, AICP, is founder and principal of Muse Community + Design, a planning and public engagement studio in Chicago, Illinois. She is also the host of APA’s podcast series People Behind the Plans.