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

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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?

Katie on the Relationship between Cities and Loneliness

cropped-img_20160717_082352.jpg The Rideau Canal, Ottawa, taken by me on a solitary walk on a July morning, 2016.

 It’s been a while since I’ve last written a blog post. In the meantime, my classes and the search for a summer job have both been demanding yet rewarding. Since my last blog post, I’ve come across a podcast called ‘The Lonely Hour,’ with which I’ve explored the feeling of loneliness through multiple avenues. Some I’ve identified with, and some not; mental illness, motherhood, travelling, writing, and even dining alone are some of the topics  it explores. In one episode, there was talk of how cities can make you feel lonely. This is the relationship I attempt to explore in this blog post.

   In ‘The Lonely Hour’ episode 10, traveller Matt Gross recites his essay, ‘I’m Never Alone Anymore, and I Miss It.’ While answering some questions afterwards, the relationship between cities and loneliness was brought up, which inspired this blog post. I’ve included it below:

   ‘Do you find that some cities are more lonely-making than others? And if so, how so?’

   ‘Cities can be very lonely making because they’re cities – they’re places where lots of people go to be anonymous, to live choc-a-bloc with their neighbours, yet not know them. People in some ways go there to be alone, to be lonely, but also be in a position where their solitude makes it possible to meet people. So, I’m not sure if there are particular cities that do that more than others – the bigger they are, the messier they are, sure. It has to do more, though, with the particular culture of the country: whether people talk to strangers; whether people are looking to have conversations; whether they’re outgoing. Certain cities like Buenos Ares and Ho Chi Minh City are great for being alone! Everybody wants to talk to you, it’s wonderful! It’s hard to be lonely just sitting on a bench drinking a beer or fresh coconut juice there. But other cities, I don’t know, Chongqing in Southwestern China, that’s not a great place to be alone. Nobody will talk to you, nobody will pay attention to you. There’s too many millions of people, too many billions of activities going on for anyone to notice that you’re there. It can be a pretty lonely place.’

What is loneliness?

   In order to accurately assess the relationship between loneliness and cities, there is one very important word that should be defined: loneliness. I think loneliness is different to everyone, in terms of what it is connected to, what evokes it, and how to overcome it (if at all). To me, and from what I know, loneliness is the personal experience had when there is too much silence and too little engagement going on for too long of a time. It’s up to the person to define how and where those lines are drawn – I think everyone has a different threshold for accepting independence and solitude before it becomes lonely, as everyone leads a different social life under different circumstances.

   Everyone deals with loneliness differently, and it can be equally understood as a negative, positive, or neutral emotion. It definitely has stronger negative connotations, for example, in the thesaurus you can find ‘loneliness’ is apparently synonymous with ‘heartache,’ ‘desolation,’ and even ‘friendlessness.’ However, loneliness can be a freeing lesson that can teach one how to live alone, which is something I’m learning right now. Ultimately, it’s an emotion that is just as valid as happiness or anger, and should be given the same amount of attention.

   It seems ironic that cities are hot spots for loneliness, because there are so many people living there compared to rural communities. It’s quick for people to assume that where there are more people, there is a bigger opportunity for conversation and connection. Mathematically, of course, this makes sense. However, behaviourally, this isn’t so. At least, this isn’t true for every city on the map. This brings me to the question: why? How do cities affect how people interact with each other, and why do they have the affect that they do? Whether cities have a positive, negative, or neutral affect on human interaction, this seems to be due to a mix of reasons which all interact with each other as mechanisms driving human behaviour and influencing human emotive response.

   From my own observations, I’ve noticed that whether or not I feel connected to people in my community is a result of how the community is built, the culture of the community, to what extent I can be engaged in the community, and to what extent I actively engage myself.

Loneliness and the Built Environment

   I’ll start with commenting on my first noted element affecting human emotion: the built environment. I’ll specify and say that by this I mean how the community is organized physically, what physical amenities are offered, and where all of the elements of the community are placed with respect to each other.

   In my planning classes, I have learned again and again how the built environment can influence social isolation in a community. The example used time and time again that speaks to this sentiment is suburban built form. It is argued that suburbs influence social isolation (which can be exacerbated to loneliness) because of multiple reasons: they are homogenous and uninteresting; they offer no connections to meaningful destinations if you are not driving a car; the layout of the community demands a car for travel which isolates people from each other; and they are physically isolated from other parts of the city which offer an opportunity for community engagement and human interaction. I’ve included a visual below to help you understand why:

   Perhaps now you see what I mean about the lack of connections accessible to the individual when you stray from the urban form of the core of the city, which is often built in either gridiron form or some form offering a similar amount of connection opportunities (which I define as intersections). It is easy to see how the Warped Parallel, Loops and Lollipops, and Lollipops on a Stick forms don’t do a lot of justice for human interaction – these forms do not support a mix of land uses (residential right beside community stores, for example) resulting in a homogenous society where everyone only eats and sleeps in the community between travelling to and from work. Here, there is very little opportunity for community engagement such as neighbourly chitchat, except when you and your neighbour travel from your front doors to your cars in the driveway every morning.

   Of course, built form isn’t directly nor is it solely correlated with loneliness – that is to say, just because you live in the suburbs, does not necessarily mean you are feeling lonely all of the time. It is arguable, however, that you are greater subject to loneliness than people who live in city centres which boast the opportunity for multiple activities at all times of the day. Even still, the built environment is definitely not the only mechanism at play in affecting people’s emotions or solitude. Here I argue that the culture of the community (or region, or even country in general) has a very large impact on a person’s solitude and, hence, loneliness.

Loneliness and Culture

   In his interview on The Lonely Hour, Matt Gross mentions ‘whether people talk to strangers; whether people are looking to have conversations; whether they’re outgoing’ is a playing factor in determining whether a city is lonely-making. For the purposes of this blog post, I argue that rather than the culture of the country, it’s more the culture of the community that plays this role. (However, I say that as a Canadian in an ultimately multicultural national community – in a much smaller country such as Liechtenstein, for example, the culture of the country may be spread nationally. But this is just arguing semantics.)

   This is interesting to consider, and it’s different for every place. In your city, are people welcoming? Do you say hello to people passing by the street, or is it at the very least not too weird to smile to them? Are there lots of different ethnic cultures in your community, and are they culturally accepted by your neighbours? Are there events that you can participate in around your community which you feel wholly welcome to join? If you are actually playing along and answered these questions negatively, perhaps your community is subject to being more lonely-making than other communities which are more welcoming, accepting, and engaging.

Loneliness and You

   Even after the considerations this post makes, the biggest lonely-making factor is yourself (at least, this is what I’m arguing). A city or community could offer so many social connection points, social activities, parks and green spaces, a welcoming atmosphere, and it would still be you who is in the driving seat making the decisions of where and how to participate in your community, if at all.

   An example to illustrate this which I’m very familiar with is myself. I go to an engaging university through which I participate in some volunteering, I go outside a fair amount and take the bus at least twice a weekday, and I go out some nights with friends. I have a lot of friends in my program and in many faculties while also maintaining lots of long-distance friendships. I’m confident with myself and can easily chat with strangers, and the communities I’m a part of are what I would consider welcoming, interesting, and friendly. Even with all of this that my city offers and which I engage in, I still find myself experiencing loneliness at times when I didn’t even know it had creeped up on me. Is this the city’s fault? I doubt it – Kitchener-Waterloo is definitely a place with an engaging atmosphere, offering so many things to do and places to visit. Rather, my loneliness might be a result of some personal decisions of which the built environment and culture of the community were seperate. My emotions might be influenced by the built environment and culture of my community, however, these are not the decisive factors; I am seperate from the place in which I live.

   The idea for this blog post sparked after listening to that podcast episode, but it really came into fruition as a university student who is experiencing living in a relatively unfamiliar city on my own. Then again, I will be living in another relatively unfamiliar city when I move for my co-op job in the summer, then I will be back here in Kitchener-Waterloo for another four months, then off to who knows where for another four months for co-op, and so on. I anticipate the University of Waterloo’s co-op stream to be very lonely-making as I experience living in a new place every four months after this summer, testing relationships with all of my friends. I wanted to explore how cities influence our emotions because I’ll be exploring new cities every other four months for the next three years, and I think it’s good to prepare myself for the loneliness which that may cause.

 With that said, I hope you learned something new about how you are emotionally connected to your community, and perhaps how your city’s built form or culture has affected your mental health, if at all. To learn more about how people are approaching loneliness in cities around the world, check out the links below:

The Lonely Hour Podcast – Matt Gross’ Essay (text)

Talk To Me London – an initiative to curb London’s norm of ignoring passers-by

Edmonton has a Mental Health Action Plan – does your city have one?

‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Liang (review) – now on my reading list.

   I take a lot of time coming up developing blog post ideas because I really like to put a lot of thought and research into them. I hope to have another one up before April, but March is a very heavy month in terms of class work, so we will see about that…