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Transformative Ideas

Feminist in the City


Leslie Kern/Photo by Mitchel Raphael

Part memoir, part theory, and part geography, Feminist City: A Field Guide is the latest book by Leslie Kern. It delivers a fresh perspective with feminist intersectional ideas to inform urban development. And Kern is not alone. People like Ellie Cosgrave of the UK’s Urban Innovation and Policy Lab, Madrid’s mayor Manuela Carmena Castrillo, and Lucinda Hartley of Australia’s Neighbourlytics have been advocating for urban change for years.

Kern is an associate professor of geography and environment, as well as program director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. As an academic, she writes about gender, gentrification, and feminism, while teaching urban, social, and feminist geography.

Her book, Feminist City, will be published by Between the Lines on October 24, 2019, just in time when Canadians will be venturing out into their own neighbourhoods post election, in need of an inspiring read that will ideally help them think about their streets and parks in a new light.

LiisBeth spoke with Kern on the phone from her home in Sackville. We talked about what she thinks a feminist city could look like, her influences, and the wider impact that a feminist city could have on society.

LiisBeth: Tell us a little bit about how the book came to be. What was the catalyst?

Leslie Kern: In my day job, I get to be a feminist urban geographer, and I really love taking that approach to cities. I love teaching that material, I love writing about that material. So much of it is, for me, really connected to the things that women and other people in cities really experience on a day-to-day basis. It’s not just abstract, theoretical things that only academics are interested in. It’s about what it’s like to try to cross a busy intersection, or to access public transit. The catalyst for me was thinking, How can I bring some of these insights and ideas and provocations from the scholarly field, and bring it to a wider audience in ways that I think will allow people to connect to their own experiences of living in, travelling to, working in cities?

Did you have an “aha” moment? One where you were in a class and thought, “This has got to be bigger?”

I just started writing it in my head, almost as a thought experiment. If I was going to write about this, what would it sound like, what would the stories be, and then thought, Why don’t you actually write it? In a broader sense, I think coincidentally, the Me Too movement really exploded just at the time that I was writing the book. That seemed like an exciting coincidence where so many people, mostly women, but many people were standing up and saying harassment of all sorts is rampant, it affects our lives in dozens and dozens of ways, some visible, some invisible. It has a huge impact on the presence of women and other marginalized people in politics and art, and education, culture, science, and all of these fields. I was thinking, yeah, from a geographer’s perspective, the kind of harassment that women face in public spaces, but also private spaces like workplaces and educational institutions and so on, is all sort of tied together, thinking about what kind of spaces we can access, where we feel that we belong, where we have to kick down doors just to get in, and where we might be pushed out of. It felt like a great moment to bring that geographical perspective to this issue that so many people were talking about.

Those are external influences on your thought process. Were there any writers that influenced you?

There’s been a really productive boom in feminist public writing recently, maybe the last decade or so. People like Rebecca Solnit, who also writes about a lot of urban issues. She writes about the experience of different sorts of cities, inequality in cities, policing and violence, all sorts of things. She’s a big influence.

People like Roxane Gay, Rebecca Traister, Tressie McMillan Cottom are feminist public intellectuals who do such amazing work weaving stories of their personal experience, starting from their realities, their lived realities as women, as Black women, as women living in cities in some cases, and connecting that to really deep, critical, social analysis.

Listen to a 6 min reading by Leslie Kerns from Feminist City:

In your opinion, why hasn’t this [creating feminist cities] happened sooner?

Any society, and any of the built environments that societies create, such as cities, they reflect the power relations that exist in that society, and I think we know who has traditionally or for a very long time held the power. We’re talking about wealthy, propertied, able-bodied, cis, white men. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the urban environments that we have are really set up to support their success, their power, their daily needs.

In order for something like a feminist city, or the principles of a feminist city to evolve, you really have to have a lot of social pressure for that to happen, whether that comes in the form of activism, or legal changes, or other kinds of social movements, or just the wider entry of women into positions of power in cities and government, policymaking, architecture, design, all those sorts of things. It’s sort of a slow moving process.

Do you think a feminist city wasn’t at the forefront, or did the idea exist back in the 1960s and 1970s?

I do talk about this in the book. Feminist ideas for urban design, neighborhood design, and household design have existed for a long time, and they actually go back to the 19th century. Women, particularly coming out of socialist movements and so on, were thinking about the ways in which the built environment was set up, and in many ways it was to isolate them, to keep them busy with unpaid domestic work, to keep them from sharing their domestic labour with other households, to keep them out of the spheres that were properly designated for men, the public sphere, politics, education, science, and so on.

It’s not a brand new thing to be thinking about how cities, neighbourhoods, communities could be set up in ways that support other sorts of social ideals, including feminist ones.

Interestingly, you can actually look back in time and see women coming up with their own ideas for how neighbourhoods could be structured to really reshape the household, and reshape women’s labour, and make more time for women. Over time, some of those things have just been lost, other trends have been more dominant, and of course I think it’s fair to say that the feminist social movements of the 20th century have been really focused on things like legal change and equality in the formal, legal sphere.

Vienna is an interesting example of a city where what they call gender mainstreaming has really been put into practice. The idea behind that is that any kind of city policy, or planning, or new urban design plan, whether that’s a park, or a new neighbourhood, or transit lines, those have to be first looked at through a gendered lens. What that means is asking, How might this affect men and women differently? Will it increase gender equity, or will it maybe decrease gender equity? With the aim of explicitly increasing gender equity in cities, cities like Vienna that have done gender mainstreaming are making sure that all of their redevelopment and new design projects support that vision. That has tended to mean things like more public transit, and better access to things like child care, and other sorts of social services that are better integrated with home environments, and all those sorts of things.

When you say it like that, it just seems so obvious.


Whose behaviour do we need to change, and how do we do that?

We could look at this on a very day-to-day, interpersonal level in terms of the regular relations that people experience in cities, and certainly things like harassment and violence come to mind as major factors where we could think about, okay, there is an actual behaviour there that needs to change.

Of course, we also have to think about the systemic level, where it can be difficult to point to individuals and say, there’s some conspiracy to be sexist, or racist, or homophobic there, but over time we can look at patterns of choices and decisions that are made at city hall, and in planning offices and so on, that either uphold the status quo or challenge the status quo. To change that, then we have to use the power of social movements, of our vote in electoral politics, and education as well would be an important component of that.

How do you convince politicians, planners, and the general population that this is the right thing to do?

Unfortunately, arguments that are in favour of equality and inclusion aren’t always enough to sway people, even though we might think ethically they should be. We can turn to arguments that emphasize the wider array of benefits that can come, so that it’s not fixing things just for women, but what about everybody else?

A lot of feminist urban research is about starting from a gender lens, then the kinds of improvements that you might make to the city can affect people more widely. Like how do women with strollers get around the city? If you want to improve that, then you’re going to be improving access for disabled people, for the elderly, you’re going to be probably creating a more accessible public transit system which is good for the environment. There’s all of these sorts of associated benefits that impact a wider swath of society than just women. Of course women are 50 percent of society, but you can make arguments around sustainability, environmental sustainability, that when you pay attention to gendered concerns which often do have a lot to do with things like access to public transit and so on, that if you want to encourage people to use public transit more, and you want to make it safer, harassment-free, affordable, accessible, then you’re promoting that goal of sustainability at the same time.

If you can show how these feminist, gendered concerns intersect with other issues, then maybe we can make a little more headway with those people in power.

I hope that my book is one of many voices that talk about these issues more generally. I tried to touch on some things that maybe aren’t talked about as much, even within feminist urban research. Talking about friendship, women’s friendship, and cities, and how that sort of relationship and certain kinds of spaces can support that relationship.

What will it take to create these cities in terms of resources and timelines and budgets? Combined with that, what do you think a feminist will look like?

To me, a feminist city has to be one where issues around safety and freedom from fear are prioritized. There are certain kinds of changes to the physical environment that can facilitate that, but it also has to be a wider social commitment to equality and non-violence. A feminist city, I think, has to be one where public space in general is safe and accessible, not just for women, but for people of colour, for homeless people, for queer folks, for trans people, for disabled people. A public space where everybody feels welcome and everybody feels that they are contributing to the city through their presence.

It has to be a kind of city where the heterosexual nuclear family is not presumed to be the default. When we think about the kinds of housing that we build, or that we’ve been left with over decades of suburban building, the kind of homes that we have are designed with that default in mind. That is increasingly not the norm in most people’s lives, or it’s not the norm for their entire lives, given divorce, later-in-life marriage, same sex relationships, polyamory, singlehood, all sorts of blended families, all sorts of different household forms. A feminist city has to be one where different kinds of households can flourish, and not feel that they’re being pushed into a box that wasn’t made for them.

Is there anything that you physically envision?

Green space could be an example, but communal and collective spaces for things like growing food or preparing food. More shared spaces for things like child care, more spaces for people to come together. At the moment, we look around and we think there’s a lot of public space, but a lot of it is privately owned, it’s patrolled by private security forces. It’s not really all that public, and it can be quite difficult to actually engage in different forms of social relations there, for example, cooking for people. We could think about spaces that exist within the built fabric that we have, but that are able to be used for a wider variety of purposes.

A library is one of those places that fulfills so many sorts of social needs in society, and yet we’ve seen it be really under attack by austerity-leaning governments that see those sorts of public spaces as easy funding cuts. We know that they’re about so much more than books.

Do you think the rise in co-working spaces is a precursor to what could happen?

I think those spaces can be good examples of the kind of flexibility that can be helpful for people, especially women, who are trying to juggle multiple roles, both their paid work roles, their community roles, their home roles, their parenting roles, all those sorts of things. Co-working spaces might provide locations where people can easily go to work. They are the sorts of spaces where the people who use them can maybe create their own culture and rules and norms about what goes on there, rather than a corporate-derived culture.

What do we stand to lose as a culture if feminist cities aren’t created?

We stand to lose out. Or maybe we should say continue to lose out, because I think we could argue that we’ve long lost out on so many contributions from women and other marginalized people in terms of public life. Their contributions to politics, education, culture, art, science, business. If we continue to have built environments that are both physically and socially inaccessible or unwelcoming, or that just make people’s everyday lives really fearful or really difficult, then they’re not going to be in those spaces that we need them to be.

Not to end on a doom-and-gloom note, but let’s face it, climate crises are already here, as are crises of inequality. And cities are really going to be on the front lines of having to deal with those crises. Cities are not going to either survive or thrive if we don’t figure out ways to address those problems, and to address the ways that those things intersect together. We know that the future is a little bit fragile right now, and if we keep going forward doing the same things that we’ve always done, it’s not going to make for a very bright future for anybody.

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Join LiisBeth and Jane’s Walk TO on September 29 in Toronto for the city’s FIRST-EVER Feminist City Walk & Talk. Get tickets for the event here.

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