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 Public Art

Happy Holidays!

When I started this blog, I stated my goal of posting weekly. Apparently that hasn’t been happening, and it seems that a post around every 2-3 weeks is more realistic. It’s not due to laziness, but moreso the time it takes to answer the question ‘what do I write about this time?’ I’m only a second year student who admittedly only knows so much about planning to support enough content to write a full and worthwhile post, so I take this question very seriously! However, the answer finally hit me in the face on Christmas eve: write about the role of public art in communities.

The way I think about and perceive communities today was initiated by a walk in my grade 10 art class, where a public art activist brought our class downtown to see where public art could make the downtown space more friendly. I specifically remember standing on the Century Place concrete thinking what landscaping could be done to remove the gray that permiated through the downtown. Below you can see just how bland the space is with a lack of a particular focal point or even seating which could encourage people to stay and converse.

When you hear the words ‘public art,’ a lot of things might come into your mind. And, with how vast visual expression as a concept and as a realization is, your mind should be full with a bunch of things when you hear those words. Public art is a focal-point sculpture; a fountain; a paid-for graffiti artist or muralist who passionately draws life into a once-boring red brick wall. Public art is not limited to what you can see: buskers and street performers are also a valuable form of public art. Anything that appeals to your senses and enhances a public space through creative expression is my definition of ‘public art.’ (See this page for more information on the definition of public art.)

With that said, you can begin to understand the role public art plays in cities and their communities, neighbourhoods, and downtowns. Self expression is a natural response to experiences that we have in our every day lives, and is what drives humans to manifest their self expressions into what we deem ‘art.’ It can be asked, then, that if art is created from personal experiences, then how is public art created and expressed? Public art attempts to capture the attention and, consequentially, the emotions from passersby at a general level. There is something for everyone within a public art piece, whether that be the colour, the shape, the size, the texture, the positioning, or their interpretation of the piece.

With all of these interpretations and opinions of the piece invisibly floating around a community, the passersby are engaged in the space even when they don’t fully realize it. This engagement (if the public art was a success) attracts people to the space again and again, which is good for a downtown, for example, where people would revisit and the local economy would consequentially grow. Successful art peices promote conversation between friends — and, with an even greater deal of success, strangers — which makes the space a more interesting place to be.

It is okay to question why public art is so important to spaces. At face-value, it can seem like a question that can only be faced with circular reasoning: ‘public art makes places interesting, okay, but why is that important?’ ‘Well, you know, because it makes places interesting!‘ We initially resort to this quick answer because it is natural for us to want to be in a place that isn’t boring. Boring places make us unenthused, make us want to be elsewhere, and actively change our emotions while being in that boring space. We as people constantly want something to entertain ourselves with, whether that leaves us looking at news feeds on our tiny handhelds or stopping to look in storewindows or people-watching. We live off of our opinions of things, events, and people, and our short attention span reflects that. You may notice that when you are in a boring place (vaguely self-defined as containing what you personally perceive as ‘boring’) you may be annoyed, agitated, or just plain bummed out. This can be compared to an exciting and interesting place with conversation-pieces and entertaining events in which you might notice you are happy, engaged, and interested. Public art is important to spaces because of its effect on that space and on the people who visit that space. This, in turn, makes the space more vibrant, which could very well have a positive effect on the space’s performance economically, socially and environmentally.

To better describe what public art can do to improve a space, we will go back to Century Place in Belleville, Ontario. Let’s look at that picture again:

Ahh, yes, a drab concrete slab right at the major intersection of Belleville’s downtown core. This area is actually a major hub for pedestrians and drivers, either passing through, working, or spending leisure time within the downtown core. Perhaps you have walked through here and noticed how empty this space is – or perhaps you haven’t even really thought about it at all. It really is an empty canvas just waiting for something – anything – even planters to bring a little life to the space. Having been there myself, I can tell you the only thing for people to sit on in this space is one small and lonely concrete bench which is often taken up by a smoker not many people want to sit beside.

As someone who has a huge passion for downtown Belleville’s history, I almost take offense to the lack of public art here. Public art can and often does take on a civil service of historic commemoration, and I touched upon this in my last post. Belleville’s downtown has an intricate and interesting history and in the most traffic-heavy space in the downtown core there isn’t even anything that offers passersby a connection to it.

Take a look at some of the many projects that cities and communities around the world are doing to enhance public spaces for the passersby there, in hopes of making the space more engaging, interesting, and vibrant and, in turn, lifting passersbys spirits if even just a little bit.

An example of sustainable and purposeful public art can be found in Sherbourne Common, Toronto, where stormwater is cleaned and runs through the park in a visually engaging structure:

A very simple yet functional and effective design in Baltimore, Maryland encourages creativity and playfulness while waiting for the bus:

Even something like creative paving and lines on a space like what was done in Copenhagen by the Bjarke Ingels Group can offer a sense of creativity and engagement to people of all ages while just walking through a space:

Public art is more than just creating an engaging space for people and encouraging them to look, listen, converse, stay a while, then come back later. Public art offers a sense of identity to cities, communities, and most importantly their people: shoppers, residents, workers; all classes, all ages, all races and speakers of all languages. What is more cool than a free art show in your community? Consider what public art there is to experience in your community, and how it makes you feel. If your city spaces are boring, what can be done to create interest in that space? Maybe you’re not an artist, but you are the one who’s looking at and experiencing the art when it is installed — what do you want to see and experience in your public spaces?

Here are some links to consider as 2016 comes to an end:

The pros of graffiti

The case for temporary public art

Paying for public art (Ottawa)

Popular and controversial street artist: Banksy