Podcast: People Behind the Plans
"Feminist City" Author Leslie Kern on Envisioning More Equitable Urban Spaces
What is a feminist city? Who is a feminist city for? How do different groups of people experience the cities we live in now? And what does it all mean in a world inching toward recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic? Author Leslie Kern comes on the People Behind the Plans podcast series to untangle these questions with host Courtney Kashima, AICP.
Leslie is the director of women and gender studies and an associate professor of geography and environment at Mount Allison University. Her latest book is Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World. In it, she argues that cities have long been sites for grappling with social questions about how we live and relate to each other, and gender has been at the top of the list of those concerns. The two explore the myriad challenges women face living in and navigating spaces built largely for a narrow subset of the population, and they close their discussion by sharing tips for planners looking to increase gender equity in their urban — or regional, suburban, or rural — spheres.
[00:00:00.600] Leslie Kern: You know, in some ways, some of the advice that women of the Victorian times were given, is not that different than the kind of advice that women get about using urban public spaces today, that you should travel in groups, that you should dress modestly, that you should avoid being in the city at night, that you should avoid certain neighborhoods, that you should watch who you associate with. So there's still a lot of, I think, social and almost moralistic concern about women's place in the city. And we see it often emerging in the kind of advice that women get about their own safety, for example.
[00:00:44.370] Courtney Kashima, AICP: Welcome to the American Planning Association podcast. This episode continues our series that takes a look at the people behind the plans, showcasing the work, life, and stories of planners from all across the profession. I'm your host, Courtney Kashima, founder and principal at Muse Community Design, a planning and public engagement studio in Chicago, Illinois. I'm also a longtime member of the American Planning Association. Our guest today is Leslie Kern. Leslie is an associate professor of geography and environment and director of women's and gender studies at Mount Allison University. She is the author of Sex and the Revitalized City: Gender, Condominium Development, and Urban Citizenship, and her latest book, Feminist City. Leslie, welcome to the podcast.
[00:01:35.550] LK: Thank you. It's great to be here.
[00:01:38.040] CK: So your new book is Feminist City. I loved how this book supports its thesis with not only an examination of the history, policies, and regulatory environment, but also personal anecdotes and experiences. So what is a feminist city and why is it important?
[00:01:56.550] LK: 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 Covid pandemic, it's been a real key moment for this because so many of us have been told over and over again to protect the economy, that we have to look out for the economy. But what is the economy founded on? Right? 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 the city as a place for people, for care work, for social relationships, for interacting with the environment, and as a vehicle for social change.
[00:03:03.460] CK: Yeah, and so speak a little bit about the timing of the publish— you know, working on your book, it coming out, and the pandemic.
[00:03:12.490] LK: Yeah, I certainly could not have anticipated that so many of the conversations I'd be having about this book would be kind of trapped in my home in a very small town, not an urban environment at all. But what's been really great about it is that this moment, I think, has brought more people to the table who are willing to have some different sorts of conversations about cities, in part because people — their day-to-day experience of city life has been radically altered, and it's caused them to look at their workplaces in a different way, at the home in a different way, and at urban public space in a different way. And so people who might not have considered these sorts of questions before are suddenly open to the possibility of saying, hey, maybe the way that we've set all of this up isn't working quite as well as we hoped it would. When we have a moment of crisis like a pandemic, we've seen a lot of cracks in the system. And of course, this is not the only crisis that we are facing or going to face when we think about issues like climate change, for example. So it's a time when people are perhaps willing to shake up some of their taken-for-granted perceptions about what the city is, how it works, and so on, and to imagine different ways of making changes.
[00:04:34.620] CK: And it's easy for me as a woman and a mother and a business owner to focus on the cracks, as you say, but have you seen glimmers of hope or new conversations that this has brought to the forefront? And I know you're based in Canada, so anything North American or anywhere you've seen that, either the conversation has started or solutions have come about? Because personally, I feel like, with Biden's recent announcement on stimulus money for children and families, right? That was a year after people were put in these circumstances. So I would say that's a glimmer of hope, but other examples you might have personally or from your research?
[00:05:20.070] LK: That's definitely a great example because I think one of these conversations that has been sparked is around issues of care work in the home, gender in the workplace, 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 United States, 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. But perhaps this is a moment where so many women might be saying, "Never again do we want to be put in this situation." That's a glimmer of hope. And I think at the urban level, there's also been some interesting moments where especially earlier on in the pandemic last summer, 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.
[00:07:20.350] CK: Yeah, one of those aspects that's front of mind for me — so I'm based in Chicago. And our playgrounds and parks were shut down a year ago and only technically opened one or two weeks ago. And there's a contract, right, or a social pact. Those of us who choose to live in a dense urban environment. We don't have a yard, and being completely cut off from something like a neighborhood park, of course, at some point parents, including myself, just hopped the fence and, you know, had to figure something out. But the parks were not — the playgrounds were not officially open until a week or two ago. And so I'm just — that really brought it home for me about the choices we make and the things we sign up for. So in this instance, we didn't opt for a suburban-sized yard. Right? We have what I call a postage— the typical postage-stamp-sized Chicago backyard. And we had to move and live in a totally different way. I know everyone has been making their way through this situation however they can, but that was one that really struck me.
[00:08:32.950] LK: I think what you're pointing to is that so much of these questions of how we access public spaces like parks and green spaces are equity questions. There's a gender-equity component to it in terms of it still being women who are primarily responsible for taking care of children and entertaining them, but also urban sites and the people who are most likely to live in crowded apartment buildings and have less access to green space tend to be minority communities, working class and lower-income groups, recent immigrants and so on, who often don't have the luxury of that big backyard and sometimes their neighborhoods don't even have the luxury of a park or an amenable public space at all. So it's certainly a moment when we think about how we can improve that access or recognize how much all of us depend on it, that we want to have an equity lens as well and think, How can we make sure that everyone in the city, especially those who have been most excluded from this type of space, have better access to it going forward?
[00:09:34.700] CK: So stepping back a second, the first chapter of your book is called "City of Men," and it digs into the history of urban spaces. I want to hear a little bit more about that, particularly what has changed and what's remained the same.
[00:09:51.700] LK: Great question. Cities have long been sites for critical social questions about how we live together as communities, how we relate to one another across our differences, and gender has been at the top of the list of those concerns. During the time of the Industrial Revolutions in Western Europe and in the growing colonial cities of North America, for example, cities were growing really rapidly in terms of their population. Different groups of people were rubbing shoulders in ways that they hadn't before. And because there were such strict gender roles, especially for upper-class women, this heightened contact between different groups was seen as kind of a threat to women's moral purity, to their status in society and so on. So there were various kinds of interventions proposed in terms of how women should behave and dress in public space, who they should be accompanied with, what sorts of spaces were really proper for them. And then, you know, kind of a burgeoning suburbanization as well, where it was believed that moving out of the city would actually be safer and more appropriate for women. You know, in some ways, some of the advice that women of the Victorian times were given is not that different than the kind of advice that women get about using urban public spaces today, that you should travel in groups, that you should pretend to be married or have a boyfriend if a stranger wants to speak to you, that you should dress modestly, that you should avoid being in the city at night, that you should avoid certain neighborhoods, that you should watch who you associate with. If you add "carry a cell phone" to the list, then it kind of is updated for the 21st century. So there's still a lot of, I think, social and almost moralistic concern about women's place in the city. And we see it often emerging in the kind of advice that women get about their own safety, for example.
[00:11:54.610] CK: It's funny to hear you list all those things out loud, because, of course, I do a mental check along those lines and am very aware when I'm traveling, but to hear another woman say it out loud sort of puts it into perspective. So that brings me to a question about part of the cover of the book. There's a subtitle or sort of tagline, "[Claiming] Space in a Man-Made World." What does it mean to claim space in a man-made world?
[00:12:25.960] LK: This is 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 a, 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, 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. So the second meaning, the "claiming" space in a man-made world is about, in some ways, 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 on on 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. 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.
[00:14:39.750] CK: So I'm a big fan, I don't — I'm not sure if you're familiar with an organization called Policy Link, but they popularized this idea of the curb-cut effect. And the idea is that, you know, at least in the U.S., it's the Americans with Disabilities Act, ADA, to have compliant curbs and ramps for intersections and things like that. But they, they use the term to get people thinking tactically about equity. And so what we may have learned from curb cuts is they benefit all kinds of people, right, beyond folks with disabilities. It's postal workers. It's people pushing strollers. Right? There's all kinds of benefits. And so I wonder if it's fair, and I'll ask you, is it fair to think of your work in the feminist city along these lines, that there are improvements that could be made perhaps using a feminist lens but would benefit all kinds of people?
[00:15:41.940] LK: Absolutely, I think that's fair. 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. So, yes, my vision is definitely one where changes that we might make around a gender analysis would trickle up to hopefully benefit — yeah, many different groups in the city.
[00:17:33.360] CK: Yeah, I'm a careful student, I mean, obviously in an amateur way, of what I would describe as, like, "welcomeness." You know, spaces in which I may or may not feel welcome, and as someone who works in the built environment, I take the responsibility very seriously that, whether I'm designing a community meeting or designing a new space or a plan for a downtown or a corridor, to really be tuned in to, to those ideas. Because I think everyone, if they sat with it and thought about it, could think of examples where they didn't feel welcome and take for granted the times and the spaces that they do. And for those of us who work in the built environment, whether it's through design or policy or the regulatory frameworks like zoning, I think that's where the difference can be made, taking these concepts and putting them into practice. So it's everything from paratransit services to our third-shift workers offered adequate transit, let alone the design of public space. Personally, I'm a little concerned about the increasing reliance on privately owned public spaces. I used to think of it as just a New York situation, but I'm seeing it happen here more in Chicago, and maybe you've taken a look at that. But any other thoughts on the ways we can bring these ideas down to implementable strategies to improve places?
[00:19:15.990] LK: Sure, that's a great example, the, the privately owned public spaces and privatization in general. It's also something that we see here in Canada. And I think in order to do what you're suggesting, which is to enhance inclusivity and welcomeness, we have to be aware and take a hard look at some of the ways that cities, especially over the past maybe 20, 30 years or so, have created what some people have called quite hostile urban environments. So on the one hand, we have privatization, which in many ways kind of closes off the urban sphere to different groups and to different sorts of uses of space that are no longer considered acceptable by whoever is controlling them. We also have increased kind of securitization of the urban realm where we have not only increased numbers of policing, but the, this sort of enhanced and militarized policing where you see police officers with assault rifles and tactical gear and some cities even have tanks for their police and so on. And that can also be reflected in the built environment in terms of the ways that we design spaces to become these like hard targets, right? To resist the possibility of, for example, a terrorist attack or a mass violent moment of some kind. But what this does on a day-to-day basis is kind of, first of all, make the urban environment not very human and not very humane, but it also creates a sense of threat and a sense of danger for people who already face different exclusion. So whether that's homeless people that can no longer find a bench to rest on because we've taken all the benches away to secure that space, or people of color who feel they're being constantly surveilled through CCTV and private security, who we know racially profile people as, as do public police forces. So in order to enhance this welcomeness, I think we have to really consider, you know, how can we kind of scale back some of this really intense, like surveillance, militarized, hostile architecture that we've built into so many of our cities over the past few decades? I think part of starting is, is I think you already mentioned, you know, really listening to communities. Right? Paying attention to what people say about their experience of space, having it not just be planners in city hall or architects in the ivory tower or even authors like myself that say this is what has to happen or this is what you should do, but really listening to people whose day-to-day lived experience can tell you what's working about this space, how do I feel when I enter here? Why do I take this route home and not this other route? And by gathering that kind of much more detailed and sensitive information, we can start to make changes that really impact people's day-to-day lives.
[00:22:19.710] CK: So whether people feel included or welcome in spaces that we are designing or creating policies or regulations around depends on many factors, some of which change throughout your life. As I mentioned earlier, I'm a mother of two, and I really related to the chapter you had centrally around moms. The way I navigated the city of Chicago before and after having children was profound and honestly hard to put into words for those who haven't experienced it. There are also battles within groups, right? So for the moms, there's what I call the stroller wars on public transit. I want to hear a little bit about what you found in your research and your personal experience. Basically what you write about in the book on this topic.
[00:23:18.020] LK: Definitely becoming a mother myself, and at that time, I lived in the city of London. And, just as you say, the difference was really night and day between how I found myself moving about the city and my own sense of whether I belonged or didn't belong. It shifted radically both when I was pregnant and then when I had a small baby with me and tried to navigate space, either using a stroller or carrying her with me. That was really the first time that it kind of clicked for me that the city itself was a gendered construct. I was very aware of gender inequality. I was already a feminist. But it had never really occurred to me before that the built environment was also part of those power structures. But now I was literally bumping up against it with my stroller or my big belly or my diaper bag or my small child who seemed very out of place in the, you know, busy, bustling metropolis of, of London. But I think you raise a good point, which is that for many people, our experience of urban life does change over time. And parenthood is not the only way that that might change. That might change due to illness, injury, or disability. You know, universe willing, we're all going to age as well, and that's going to bring profound changes to how we move about and experience urban environments. We know in most of the global north there's a rapidly aging population, and yet many of our cities have not kind of kept up with this in terms of thinking about what infrastructure is really needed to accommodate the independence and the health and well-being of senior citizens. So this is another reason why I think we need this broad perspective on who the city is for and how we experience the city, not just because there's different groups, but because all of us will go through different phases in our lives where we have different needs that we're going to hope that the city can meet for us. But in many ways, the city is, you know, kind of best adapted to really the narrow needs of what I would say are actually a minority of urban citizens.
[00:25:33.080] CK: Yeah, there's been more than one occasion [that] I've been riding the train or bus, looking at my fellow passengers and then recalling who's on the board of each of these transit agencies. And let me just say, you wouldn't be surprised to learn, at least in our neck of the woods, they do not look the same. And, you know, representation matters, all the things we're hearing about, but this is where, frankly, the, the rubber meets the road, right? In thinking about children in the city, right, it's another subject — you talked about the other end of the spectrum, the aging and the ways we don't adequately plan for aging populations, but the other end is children and infants, the ones accompanying those caregivers and how our urban spaces can encourage or inhibit — right? — their own exploration, their own way of living. So I'm someone that grew up in a small town but made a large U.S. city my adopted home. You have a chapter in the book about friendship that really left an impact on me. So I'm wondering, in your opinion, why don't we build cities based on families, friendship, kinship? Are there any models or practices that you've uncovered in this regard?
[00:26:59.140] LK: There's a lot of reasons that I could give for why I think cities aren't built with alternative sorts of family kinship, friendship relationships in mind. From a feminist point of view, I would argue that the system that we have now, where the private single-family home occupied by the traditional nuclear family, this form works well because it enables the continued exploitation of unpaid care labor in the home to continue. So I think it very much supports the status quo of gender relations and of organizing all of that labor that we, that governments don't really want to think about. "How are we going to provide that if it's not being done for free in the home out of a sense of love and duty to the family?" So if we start to break that down, if we start to see that that's no longer going to be the foundation and we're going to imagine homes that are built for groups of friends to live in, and not just because they're in their early 20s but throughout their lifetime. Or we're going to imagine communal housing arrangements or we're going to think about intergenerational models of housing, it does start to shake those foundations a little bit. So I think that in some ways it's a little bit dangerous to the status quo. But on the other hand, we know that just the reality on the ground is that most, you know, Americans and Canadians, for example, don't live the majority of their lives in this family form. Most married couples, or at least half of them or so, get divorced. We have blended families. We have queer families. We have intergenerational families. We have polyamorous families, different family models based on different norms from different immigrant groups. Like, the ways that people live just don't really match up with that form anymore. So this is a good thing in that it might push developers and push planners and so on to think outside of that literal box of the traditional family home to imagine different ways that we could live together. So to me, thinking about friendship as a kind of kernel there is just one way again of opening up that question. If we were to imagine friendship as equally an important kind of relationship to those that we describe as romantic or intimate partnerships, what would that change about how we set up housing, for example, about how we imagine the family, about how we organize care labor, about how we share economic resources. And just asking that question I think pushes us to reflect on what we've taken for granted as the normal, natural way to organize society. So for me, I think going forward, there is just going to be a natural push to shift some of these things, especially, again, we have an aging population. We've seen during the Covid crisis that long-term care homes have been a really dangerous place for people to be. And it's maybe prompting people to think about what are the alternatives to this that we can imagine. Also, there are so many people that live alone. And again, during the pandemic, those people have been deeply isolated because they don't have, quote unquote, the family around them. So what other ways can we imagine of kind of organizing living for people who are not in a long-term romantic relationship that don't leave them isolated from society? So it's, again, a kind of an interesting moment for reopening some of these questions that I think for many people have long seemed, like, closed. It's, it's, "This is just the normal way of doing things," but maybe it doesn't have to be.
[00:30:41.230] CK: Can we talk about teenagers for a moment?
[00:30:44.170] LK: Sure.
[00:30:45.340] CK: So I found the, the personal experiences you shared and the contrast very touching. Can you share with listeners what you wrote about and how it relates to this conversation?
[00:30:57.550] LK: My own experiences as a teenager, a young woman in — I grew up in the, in the suburbs of Toronto. So a big suburb, certainly, one that was not a quiet little town, but that was in some ways already becoming quite urbanized and was very adjacent to the city of Toronto. But my suburban youth was kind of all about going to the mall and [laughs], you know, anything that you would see in kind of a teen movie, it was pretty similar to what what my life as a teenager in the late '80s and the early '90s was like. But the city itself provided this kind of interesting contrast where you could leave the suburban conformity, especially the gender conformity of being a young teenage girl in the suburbs, and experiment with different identities in the city to be a little bit anonymous, to be kind of a different person, and to have that sense of kind of personal autonomy that one doesn't always feel when you're kind of in the inner circle of the family. So to me, the city was kind of a key space for building that identity. And when I went to university in the city, you know, when I was 18 years old, this was also a moment where I think my freedom from the family was not just felt in terms of moving out, but also in terms of being in the city and feeling like the city was very open to me and could offer a whole new set of experiences and ways to learn, ways to engage with different groups of people, to be exposed to new ideas. All of those kinds of things felt very liberatory to me when I was a young woman.
[00:32:39.620] CK: Definitely relatable, and I think we don't factor that in, right? Again, it's another group that's not being well served. I think the, the appeal is clear and has been well documented in pop culture, but we don't translate that to making decisions in the interest of these groups, as basic as stroller storage in a condo development, the ability to walk and bike to school. I know in Chicago there's a pretty typical path: you sort of graduate from college, you move to a handful of neighborhoods. So from twenty-two to thirty-two, I would say, people are sort of fiercely committed to and enjoying the city. And then it's like when that second kid comes, there's the exodus to the 'burbs. And I think there's real consequences in terms of civic engagement, of people feeling like they not only belong but are involved in the processes that shape the city. I think if someone knows consciously or subconsciously that they're only going to be there about 10 years — and I have to believe there's data to support this, but I'm just, this is my own theory at the moment — they just don't get involved in the same way. You know, I even saw this — I'm, I'm the, I'm the type that started the block party on my block. And almost every year there's — when I hand out the fliers to every home, there's a question from the renters, like, "Us too?" And I'm like, "Of course, you too!" You know? So those kinds of nuanced divides that — or divisions — that can affect a city in a way I don't know that elected officials and policymakers really dig into.
[00:34:26.450] LK: Well, I think you're right that often younger people and renters are overlooked in a lot of city policy and a lot of housing policy, especially in countries like Canada and the U.S., where there's a great deal of emphasis on home ownership as the kind of ultimate pathway into adulthood and financial stability and so on. And if you are not on that path or if you are, you know, before you're on that path, then you're considered kind of in a phase that policymakers don't have to pay that much attention to. But I agree. I think it does have real consequences. I think it does maybe keep us locked into some old patterns around things like suburbanization, for example. So if we're not thinking about how the city can suit people throughout the life course, then people may leave the city. But that also raises its own set of problems, especially for families, especially for women, because juggling the double day of paid labor and unpaid labor in the home becomes even more difficult when your job and your home are further away from one another. So the city holds a lot of promise, I think, in terms of people being able to juggle different aspects of their lives, but in many ways, other aspects of the city, like the kinds of houses that are built, access to green space, good schools, those things, can push people out of the city at different phases of their lives.
[00:35:55.560] CK: Shifting gears a bit, in the book, you talk about violence, fear, protest, and their relationship to urban spaces. Certainly the public conversation has expanded or intensified on these topics in the last year. What should people understand about the gendered aspects of these broader issues?
[00:36:18.170] LK: One of the things that I think people need to understand and to really think about the consequences of is all of the ways in which women, both due to the external advice that we get and to the way that we internalize that advice over time, make choices about our, our lives around safety that have real material consequences. So earlier on, we were talking about the kind of long list and even the mental checklist of things that women will do when we think about going out, especially going out at night: you know, telling someone where we're going, making sure our phone's fully charged, making sure we have money for a cab, texting your friends when you get home, choosing the route that you're going to walk—
[00:37:03.810] CK: What you're wearing, of course.
[00:37:05.100] LK: What you're wearing, what neighborhoods you're going to be going through. This is not just about, OK, how can I have a fun night out? This also impacts, Where am I going to choose to live? Can I take a night job, for example? Is it safe for me to get to and from school? Is it safe for my children to move independently through this space? These choices have material consequences on our very access to the city and to work, to culture, to politics, to so on because we limit ourselves and feel ourselves limited by all of these safety concerns. And as you've mentioned, the discourse around this has evolved now to also say, "Well, why are we telling women what to do when really maybe we should be focusing on perpetrators of violence?" But that somehow seems much more difficult to do, so we'll just keep giving this, you know, centuries-old advice to women about how they should control themselves in public space, even though we know that actually none of these things are guarantees of safety in any way, shape, or form. There is no one right way to behave that protects somebody from the potential of violence. So these things are not just, you know, like, a sort of an inconvenience for women, but they go much deeper than that.
[00:38:30.480] CK: Yeah, to the very issues of mobility, livelihood, yeah, a chance to thrive.
[00:38:35.580] LK: Exactly.
[00:38:37.050] CK: How about the issue of urban spaces and protest? Can you share what's in the book?
[00:38:43.270] LK: In the book, I note that most of the gains that women have made in terms of equality in urban spaces haven't come because somebody sitting in city hall decided that, oh, it was finally time to give women their fair share. They came because women took to the streets, because women were vocal in their protests, and there's a long history of this going back to kind of first-wave feminism and suffragettes, but right through second-wave feminism and the birth of things like Take Back the Night marches, for example, that were a direct response to women feeling like their safety concerns were not being taken seriously and that they were essentially being told over and over again, The city is not for you. You don't have a right to be out in public space. And we've seen that continuing through the 21st century with ongoing Take Back the Night marches, the SlutWalks marches of about a decade ago, and today the Me Too movement as well, which is not just about urban space but is again this broader movement that's saying that, you know, women have bodily autonomy, women are, are entitled to their privacy, women are entitled to be respected and to not be harassed, to not be assaulted, and that nobody is entitled to our time and attention and to access to our bodies. And, you know, this relates to, you know, you get on the subway and who's rubbing their body up against you or taking up more space than you. Harassment and assault on public transit is a huge worldwide issue for women and girls to the workplace itself and where you feel safe from harassment or from the possibility of sexual or physical assault in some way. So we're still fighting these battles, but it's encouraging that there is such a widespread conversation about it happening right now.
[00:40:41.720] CK: 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?
[00:41:00.110] LK: Sure, some people hear the term "feminism" and think that that is about elevating women over men, for example, but it's, 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, OK, you know, for, 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?
[00:42:11.390] CK: And what role do you think municipal urban planners can or should play?
[00:42:17.690] LK: Sure. So I recognize that planners are constrained by lots of different things: legislation, regulations, money. They don't have kind of a clean slate to do whatever they want. So even if they are extremely well intentioned in terms of principles of equity and justice, it's not easy. It's not an easy job. It's not simple to make changes on these grand scales. But certainly there are improvements that can be made. Planners can engage in active listening with communities, as we spoke about before, really try to do that on-the-ground work of community engagement. And in some ways, this is much more efficient in the long run, because if you end up with places that don't work for communities, then you have to redo them. And that is much more expensive and time-consuming than trying to get it right in the first place. Planners 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, can you 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 United States, from what I've looked into, there's a reasonably equal gender balance in urban and regional planners, but the profession is still about 80 percent white. So that's also an equity issue there. 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?"
[00:44:15.590] CK: Right, and I think the data does support what you're saying, but at what level? Right? Because there's the advancement issue. So your typical community development director of a small, medium-sized city, I fear, is still dominated by white men. But I guess if I could answer my own question, I hope planners look for the small wins. Sometimes that's all we have. So it could be about a bench. It could be about a trash can. Right? It can be very small things. And then as you think bigger or are able to achieve more, it's, Does the, you know, residential facility for seniors have to be on the edge of town? You know, it's kind of like, we're already starting with a bad proposition if we're further isolating folks. And I think that's an example of the, the conversations you brought up earlier that people are having with the exacerbation due to Covid and the pandemic. So I think it's important to think big and small, tackle it within the workplace and certainly on behalf of the communities we serve. I'm wondering if you have any resources to share. What have you been reading or have read recently? Any recommended podcasts? Doesn't even have to be planning related, but anything that left an impression on you recently that you think folks should know about.
[00:45:40.370] LK: Hmm. I recently read Isabel Wilkerson's book Caste, which is about the long history of racism and race relations, particularly in the United States, but relating it, as the title suggests, to the caste system in India. And I thought this was a very helpful book for providing a different sort of lens on how we understand that long history of racial discrimination and inequality as something that is really systemic and built into the fabric of society. And I think from an urban perspective, it's important to have that systemic understanding of what racism is and to recognize that it's, it's not just about attitudes and intentions. Like, if we're planners, for example, and we're saying, "Well, I'm not racist," that's great, but it doesn't undo centuries of racial discrimination being built into housing policy and neighborhoods and urban planning policy. So anything that, that enhances that systemic understanding, I think can contribute to this broader equity vision for urban planners. So I would definitely recommend the book. It's a serious topic, but it's just written very beautifully as well. And even though it was a long and serious book, I kind of flew through it. I couldn't wait to hear what else she had to say.
[00:47:05.810] CK: Hopefully books like that can help planners and other professionals in the built environment overcome defensiveness or, you know, further their understanding of the special responsibility of — spoken of that we, we hold. I always say if we were widget makers, we might not have to care so much about the work we do, but we impact individual lives and entire communities. So I appreciate you sharing that book. If people want to learn more about your work, where can they go?
[00:47:37.910] LK: Sure. So my academic work has been published in a variety of different journals like Urban Geography and Gender, Culture, and the City. I also have a faculty webpage at Mount Allison University. And as you mentioned, my new book, Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World, not only tells you about my academic interest but gives you a little bit of my life story as well, so it's probably one of the best places to, to learn more about me.
[00:48:06.800] CK: Leslie, thank you so much for speaking with us today. I really appreciate it.
[00:48:10.400] LK: You're welcome. Thank you so much for having me.
[00:48:15.310] CK: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the American Planning Association podcast. To listen to past episodes, visit planting dot org slash podcast. If you're enjoying the show, please read us on iTunes. And don't forget to subscribe on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Other Ways to Listen
Find us on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud — or wherever you get your podcasts.