What does urban planning look like through a feminist lens and why is feminism a crucial element in city building?

Blog Fem Pic.png

I need to start this blog by clarifying a few things. Feminism is not a dirty word. Feminism is not a man-hating body of ideals, and feminism’s objective is not to push a matriarchal society where men are slaves. Feminism is also not a system that women make up for themselves to keep themselves oppressed (yes, I’ve heard that before, too). What feminism is is a diverse range of movements with the common goal of achieving equal rights, status, and opportunities for women.

You may wonder ‘how does this differ from egalitarianism?’ Feminism is a specific type of egalitarianism which focuses on the equality of women. You can be an egalitarian and you can be feminist. These two ideologies are not mutually exclusive. The same logic applies to the many different kinds of feminism: black feminism, religious feminism, liberal and conservative feminism, etc. I want to clarify that this blog post will be written with an intersectional feminist perspective, meaning my writing will come from a place that supports equal rights, status, and opportunities for women of all identities. Additionally, I want to add that feminism is not just for women. Feminism also aims to liberate men for the benefit of gender justice.

Now that we know, to an extent, what feminism is and what it generally aims to achieve, we can ask ourselves important questions like: how does this manifest itself in the context of urban planning? Why is it important that we achieve feminist goals while developing policies? What does a feminist city or community look like and how does all of this benefit me? Let’s start digging to find out.

So, what does a feminist community look like? It can be pretty hard to describe what a city ‘looks like’ because a city is more of an entity that you experience, and depending on who you are you can experience it very differently from another. I’ll do my best to capture feminist urban planning decisions and structures in words that create images in your mind, in no particular order or organization:

  • A feminist city is well lit, allowing all to feel safe when they travel at dark times. These lights shouldn’t only prioritize streets where cars drive, but also sidewalks, parks, off-grid paths, parking lots, alleys, bus stops, and the like. A city that works to promote safety is a city where women, men, the elderly, and children all feel safe.
  • A feminist city is one that incorporates alternative transportation modes throughout its neighbourhoods and sectors, allowing the choice to travel how you want to work, home, daycare, the park, the recreation centre, and everywhere in between. It is feminist to include bike lanes (and adequate supplies of bike parking), side walks (which are promptly plowed in the winter), and an effective and affordable bus transportation system to accommodate and equate the opportunity to travel through all modes, because owning and maintaining a car is often too expensive for a lot of people.
  • A feminist city is one that optimizes land use for women and parents. This can be seen in a lot of ways — go out into your downtown or take a look at Google Maps. Are there day care facilities near office buildings? Are there men’s and women’s shelters with enough beds nearby essential services? Is there a women’s sexual health clinic where a woman feels safe and free from judgement walking to the doors? Is there a place where women can safely and legally sell sex work? Are all of these facilities/places nearby a bus stop and are these facilities physically accessible for all? Take a look at your city — what would you change to make services more accessible for women of all ages?
  • A feminist city is one that has diverse options for living accommodations in the city’s housing market, including an adequate amount of affordable housing units. These units should be close to essential city services (like the ones mentioned above), as well as places for shopping, leisure, and natural areas.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Because feminism is a global movement spanning different cultures and socio-political contexts, a city’s feminist structure may look different in Bangladesh than it does in my hometown of Belleville, Ontario. However, I think that a city with these structures in place accomplishes an acceptable minimum of a feminist ideology through urban planning and urban design. However, feminist urban planning should not limit itself to merely existing through structure; it is important to foster feminist policy when planning a city. Here is a (again, non-exhaustive) list on how that could be achieved:

  • Encouraging women to participate in urban planning information sessions by hosting them after work hours or on weekends in accessible-by-transit places;
  • Supporting a woman’s goal to open a local business with special programs and fostering a community of local small business owners that offer assistance, advice, and promote the business (potentially through a Business Improvement Area committee);
  • Developing focus-groups to gather the input from targeted groups on proposed developments – women, minorities, Indigenous peoples, and those experiencing poverty. Depending on the development, other groups should be consulted including the elderly, single parents, etc. These focus groups should be consulted via design charrettes to collaborate on alternatives means to achieve project goals;
  • Considering women’s and LGBTQ2IA+ rights issues when developing urban policy. How do you accomplish this? Consult, consult, consult. Planners may be the experts on how to achieve a result, but those with marginalized voices have stories to tell on what is needed to be achieved;
  • Supporting women and minorities running in municipal elections. Feminists in leadership roles is the best way to ensure feminist city building;
  • Protecting public spaces for the benefit of constructive protests. I say this after the Charlottesville, Virginia protests that featured disgusting acts of racism resulting in violence and death. Protests are meant to be a civil way of exercising free speech, and it is important that we protect public spaces to accomplish that goal while actively suppressing the expression of hate speech twisted as free speech. The public square is one of the most historically valuable and important places in cities around the world; marginalized voices especially can not afford to lose public spaces in their communities;
  • And on the topic of public spaces: planners must to their best to inhibit street harassment. Street harassment is a pervasive act that happens all too often in any (honestly, probably every) city that tears women down even in the most casual of acts – walking by while reading a book, pushing a stroller and child to the toy store, sitting on public transit, you name it. This is a difficult issue to tackle as a planner because it is almost impossible to stop someone from saying something destructive or abusive regardless of the environment they are in. Some cities and community groups are trying their best with poster campaigns, stressing loitering limits, building to enable informal social control (citizens looking out for other citizens), and employing on-duty police officers on downtown streets. It is important, first and foremost, that planners begin to recognize this is an issue that destroys the social quality of streets for women especially, and that planners begin to tackle reported problematic areas with solutions that work best for their city or for that specific neighbourhood.

Okay, now that we have some things in mind in how we can begin to achieve the ultimate feminist goal of gender and sexual equality in our cities and communities, let’s address why it is important that we foster feminist communities in the first place. To answer this, let’s remind ourselves that the definition of feminism is essentially the pursuing of the advancement of women from marginalized to equal through their rights, status, and opportunities in society.

It’s my belief that change begins within communities, then reverberates up and out into bigger and better changes that have larger impacts on greater populations. So I think it’s essential that, in order to achieve feminist goals as a global society, we must initiate and foster feminist change within our homes and communities as a preliminary building block. Promoting feminist interests through planning policy and urban design are only the start to making the world a better place that protects the rights, status, and opportunities for women at a pace that already exists for men. Also, we all want to feel safe, included and engaged in our city, right?! So let’s adopt feminist policies! Let’s empower marginalized voices to make a better, safer, and more inclusive city for all to live, work, and play in.

Do you think your city looks like what is described in this post? Do you think your city is missing something that you need to make you feel safer, more included, and lifted up? Write to your councilors! Express your concerns! You are a citizen, regardless of your race or gender or sex or identity, and you deserve to be heard.

Here are some interesting links to take a look at:

Everyday Feminism – 10 FAQs about Feminism

Project for Public Spaces – What Role can Design Play in Making Safer Parks?

The Establishment – The Shocking Connection between Street Harassment and Street Lighting

Safety, dignity, and urban policy: “Safe Access Zones” in Australia

Crime Prevention through Urban Design (or CPTED): What is it and how does it operate?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s