Thoughts on Indigenous Planning

In certain contexts around the globe, at least for Canada which is what I am concerned with, planning is essentially a very colonialist concept and practice. Settlers settle, take, and configure policy, design, and public goods over top of Native land after extracting and exploiting all the resources it takes to do so. Yuck. When I finally and fully realized that, I felt gross to be a student studying it.

I feel like I always intrinsically understood this about planning, but finally putting the language to it is a slap in the face and a wake-up call. If planning is such a colonialist concept, what are planners across Canada doing to aid in the reconciliation efforts of Indigenous peoples? Yes, planners in some places across Canada are doing their due diligence. But this is not true for everywhere. Another thought: why am I figuring this out on my own instead of having it grilled in me at my program which is arguably the best undergrad for planning studies in the country? I felt betrayed by my own potential future profession and by professors who did and still do not make Indigenous consultation, knowledge, and wisdom a priority. Hell, I’ve only heard the land acknowledgement a couple times in all of the 25 classes I’ve taken thus far.

I want to work in a profession where ‘Indigenous planning’ is a common, meaningful term used to the same extent as, for example, ‘urban design.’

Additionally, I felt frustrated with myself. I had always known I was part Native, but I have only taken an interest in understanding what being “part Native” meant for me recently (as I’m entering my twenties and learning what pretty much everything means to me). Now that I’m undergoing that journey (which is a whole other story), I am regretting that I am only considering Indigenous issues now. Both my self identity exploration and Indigenous planning consideration stemmed from being exposed to urban Indigenous issues at my last job, but it is so internally frustrating that I am only concerning myself with Indigenous issues in planning now that I am understanding what it means to be me. Everyone should be concerned with Indigenous issues. We all play a part on the path to reconciliation. I think I should have known better to pay attention to this before. Thankfully I am so young in my career that I am still able to make a big difference in this dialogue; one that I think needs to be made.

What does ‘Indigenous planning’ even look like, though? To be honest, I can’t answer that. I can not answer that for Indigenous peoples. I feel like this is an answer that is up for them to give. It isn’t right to speak their words. Indigenous planning, as far as I can say, is giving Indigenous peoples themselves priority in the planning dialogue when matters concern their culture, community, and value system. It means giving them back their voices on what they want done to solve problems that concern them. This means letting them teach about the land, the medicines, and lead the dialogue. This, of course, is not only limited to resource allocation and land, but also public safety and public health. It’s their turn to speak on what needs to be done.

We can do better as planners to include the voices that were originally stomped on in order for planning to even exist in our country. It’s our duty as planners to do better, not only for the benefit of advancing reconciliation efforts, but also as decent human beings.

Niá:wen!

Note: This post will be followed up with a more thoughtfully researched and better articulated post that digs into what is currently being done re: Indigenous planning in Canada. I can see this post being the first of many on the topic.

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?

Hello again!

Whew! It’s been a while. I took somewhat of a blog-hiatus this summer to let my thoughts brew a bit on what to next contribute to this blog. While offline, I spent the summer in Ottawa working at Employment and Social Development Canada’s Innovation Lab as a communications assistant. After internalizing a bit of what I learned, I’m prepared to connect it to the urban planning realm here along with some other topics, which you may find lean a bit more on the social aspects of planning.

Here’s a list of topics you can expect to see me explore here in the next couple months:

Innovation and Urban Planning – what is ‘design thinking’ and how can we use it?

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

Why and how should planners emphasize Indigenous participation?

I’ll get my next (actual) blog post out this Friday.

Pedestrians First on Sparks Street, Ottawa

Normally this term I wouldn’t be writing a blog post on a Monday afternoon, but due to the flooding situation in the region, my office building was closed for the day. I had already spent the whole weekend in my house due to the rainy weather, so today I decided I wanted to make use of this opportunity at another day off to go out and explore. Thankfully the weather was somewhat cooperative: it was slightly snowing and a bit chilly, but this was better than cold, constant rain.

Naturally the tourist in me wanted to visit the Byward Market area first. I explored around there for a while – I’m not really the kind of person to visit the shops so much as the kind of person to just admire the buildings and enjoy being around people on the street – even if the weather is not as friendly as they are!

Additionally, I enjoy leaving my phone in my pocket on these sorts of walks. I am a rather stubborn person, and I like checking the map app only when I think I really have to (this is mostly to strengthen my very poor sense of direction). I managed to find my way down Wellington Street (heading West), and remembered from past visits to Ottawa many months ago that Sparks Street is close by, which features a pedestrian promenade called the ‘Sparks Street Mall.’

Where I grew up in Belleville, there is no such thing as this type of grand pedestrian infrastructure. Pedestrian infrastructure is often limited, as it is in many cities and neighbourhoods across the globe, to sidewalks and trails only. The system we have built dictates pedestrians are the ones who must wait to cross a street after clicking a button, and after they are given clearance to go there is a measly 20 or 30 second limit to walking to the other side. Had one not pressed this button, cars would be free to cross the intersection as long as they would like – it is often only when a pedestrian comes does the light change. This tells me that the system is built for automatic transportation first and pedestrians second – there is a hierarchy built into the system which favours those in big metal boxes with wheels.

Of course I am not saying that this system is 100% bad. It does often make sense at many intersections to have traffic stop for pedestrians only when it needs to, perhaps because there are only so many pedestrians desiring to cross the road and otherwise traffic would be heavily interrupted causing jams throughout the network. However, this system is simply not completely optimized for both very valid forms of transportation – active and passive. Rather than creating a hierarchy – which, in turn, gives rise to poor attitudes about who ‘owns the road’ – streets and roads should be optimized and engineered to create a level playing field if you will so that everyone can easily and efficiently access their destination, whether or not they are on their feet, on two wheels, in a bus or in a private car.

One way that Ottawa is accomplishing this is with the Sparks Street Mall (along with, for example, bike lanes which are highlighted and sometimes even divided from car traffic on some streets). The Sparks Street Mall runs as a pedestrian-only street for 5 blocks from Elgin Street to Lyon Street, and is lined with many boutiques, delis, coffee-shops, and more. Though Sparks Street has existed throughout much of Ottawa’s history, part of it was dedicated for pedestrians only in 1967. This was done in an effort to revitalize the commercial activity of that section. From my walk today and from previous walks, it seems to have been an excellent planning decision if you ask me.

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Here is a section of the Sparks Street Mall looking West. I mentioned I think it was an excellent planning decision to boost commercial activity by making this a pedestrian avenue – look at the amount of people using it! If you’re not convinced, consider if every person were in their own personal vehicle. Now all I see in my head is traffic congestion. Opening this up to people and people alone allows for a social bounce-back against personal vehicle traffic and congestion, which enables a free movement of people following wherever they want to go without being stuck if they were in a car or limited to the sidewalk and crosswalks if they were on a street alongside cars.

Additionally – look at how pretty it is! It doesn’t sound very academic, but it is true; this is a gorgeous street (even during that rainy day). All along Sparks Street Mall there are flower planters, antique-looking light posts, aesthetically pleasing and kinetically engaging brick paving stones, benches, public art at intersections, and many beautiful architectural facades facing the street housing interesting shops, restaurants, and offices.

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Look at how many people there are in this image. If they were in cars, you can imagine how congested the street would be, limiting the availability of destinations. It is important, then, to equally accommodate all modes of transportation not just to achieve a social equality within a municipality, but to also allow for smooth traffic flow and to avoid unnecessary heightened stresses on our civic infrastructure.

Ultimately what the Sparks Street Mall contributes to (with respect to the focus of my blog, of course) is what is called a ‘complete community.’ A complete community is one that enables accessible transportation routes for both active and passive transportation users – cyclists and pedestrians, and private cars and public transit in whatever organizational or structural way that makes sense for that city. Because of Sparks Street Mall’s existence, there is increased pedestrian inclusion within those surrounding blocks for those who do not desire to use private cars or public transit for whatever reason.

Cities should strive to prioritize these complete communities for the benefit of all citizens. Speaking as someone who lives in an area surrounding by highways, it is difficult and rather frustrating to not be able to access anywhere truly meaningful to my daily life without using a private car or public transit. At least, it is possible to access these places, but only after forfeiting my safety, and that is not okay. Municipalities that equate all forms of transportation rather than prioritize certain kinds are setting themselves up for accessibility failures that unfortunately leave some citizens alienated without the proper and accepted forms of transportation in that area.

Of course, while addressing this problem, it is always important to consider those with accessibility issues as well. For example, Sparks Street Mall is not without faults – the brick paving that I deemed aesthetically pleasing may not be the best for those with mobility issues, where it can actually be considered detrimental to accessibility.

So, while you go out on your next walk or drive, consider how those using other forms of transportation would get from a similar starting point as yours to a similar destination as yours. How would their mobility and accessibility be impacted? What mode of transportation is considerably prioritized along your route? Would another mode of transportation be faster or slower, and why? What barriers exist to those with mobility issues? Keep an open mind about these things. You might be surprised by what you observe.

Below are some more pictures from my walk today:

Katie in… the National Capital Region!

I haven’t written in a couple of weeks and I figured it’s time to at least provide an update even though I have not yet found the time to dedicate to a legitimate post that will get me back on track.

Because….

I have moved! Because of my program’s co-op component, I will be spending the next four months in Ottawa-Gatineau working at Employment and Social Development Canada’s Innovation Lab, where I started on May 1st. The lab is actually located in Gatineau (Hull, to be specific), while I am residing in Ottawa. I think this set-up should make for some interesting location-specific blog posts over the next few months while I commute and explore both cities. Something specific stirring up in my mind is a post about the building where I work, and how it’s arguable that its complex reflects an actual city – but that is for later!

Anyway, this post was just an update. I’m looking forward to some exploring this weekend so I can grab more pictures and experience to write about on here.

— Katie