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You are here: Home » Books » Sexism and the City

Sexism and the City

Josh Stephens on
Aug 13, 2020

Oh, to be a teenager in grunge-era Toronto:

Thrift stores and army surplus stores reigned. Punk kids hung out on the steps, glaring attractively at the shoppers. We coveted the Doc Martens we couldn't yet afford and rummaged for ripped jeans…

This is the reminiscence of Leslie Kern, now a professor of geography at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick but then an aspiring urban adventurer on the edge of being cool. Kern admits, “Of course this all feels like a cliché now.”

It’s a cliché because, well, it is. And Kern has enough of a sense of humor to know it. But the adult Kern, the one who has spent a career both studying how people use urban spaces and a lifetime using urban spaces herself, knows that, in a city — even one as well mannered as Toronto — there is far more at stake than coolness. Especially for women.

Kern explains that the fun of urban loitering was, and, to an extent, still is heightened by "the hint of danger…. The energy and pull of the city [is] tangled up with the sense that anything might happen.” If there’s a better expression of the complexity of urban life, I have yet to read it.

Of course, “anything,” can be bad. Sometimes, very bad.

Feminist City explains the multiple ways that modern cities (primarily in North America) treat women. As with so many other shortcomings of 21st century life, that treatment is often inequitable and harrowing, through both design and disregard.

Kern begins with a reminder: For the most part, cities have been designed and built by men. She’s careful to note that male-dominated planning doesn’t necessarily result in anti-female cities, but “questions about gender, sexuality, and families are typically viewed as outside the rational, technical box ascribed to planning,” Kern writes.

The mythical character of the “flaneuse,” based on the Parisian dandy of the late 1800s and popularized by the recent book of the same name by Lauren Elkind, does not fare well in Kern’s city. It’s not that women don’t enjoy strolling or that they aren’t astute observers of the urban scene. It’s hard, though, to people-watch when you have to keep an eye out for potential assailants and creeps. 

For Kern, fear of assault, battery, or rape, or other forms of violence constitutes the invisible infrastructure of modern cities: "We displace some of our fear onto spaces: city streets, alleyways, subway platforms, darkened sidewalks.” It’s an anxiety that men rarely experience firsthand and are ignorant of even in the secondhand. (Meanwhile, Kern has choice words for urban police forces.)

One experience that male planners certainly do not appreciate is that of motherhood. Kern’s first full chapter describes countless obstacles, physical and interpersonal, that mothers encounter as they push strollers along sidewalks and into subway cars and tote groceries, tasks that may fall to women more frequently than to men.

Kern longs for public spaces where friendships can develop, beyond athletic facilities, which Kern describes as limiting, limited, and biased toward men and boys. She suggests benches that face each other to promote intimate conversation and sheltered spaces that grant a semblance of privacy. To experience urban life, women shouldn’t have to rely on white-tablecloth restaurants like the foursome in Sex and the City do, to cite a cultural portrayal of city life that Kern finds marginally appealing but unrealistic for many women. Kern describes the importance of cities as venues for protest (such as "Take Back the Night"), labor strikes, and sit-ins and other demonstrations calling for social justice. 

Intersectionality looms large in Kern’s advocacy. She notes that the challenges faced by educated, white women like herself pale in comparison with those faced by women, including trans women, of other groups and identities. She envisions cities that acknowledge "the needs, demands, and desires of women of color, disabled women, queer women, single women caregivers, Asian women, Indigenous women, and especially those for whom these identities intersect.”

She describes complex, conflicted feelings about gentrification, which is, of course, a largely white phenomenon in many cities. She describes the transition of a Toronto neighborhood from seedy and masculine to upscale and feminized: "Greasy diners, porn shops, pawnshops, and bars that catered to a mostly male, working class clientele were gradually replaced by yoga studios, nail salons, cafés, and organic grocery stores.” Gentrification thus nominally benefits wealthier women while shutting out poorer women, so much so that high housing costs often force women to cohabitate with abusive partners. That’s a particularly terrifying consequence of the housing crisis that grips many urban areas. 

For all of her concerns, Kern does not hate cities. She loves them. She accepts “the good and the bad, the fun and the frightening.”

What, though, would a safer, more equitable, more gender-sensitive city look like, though? Kern does not quite say.

She does not claim to have her own master plan. She writes, "I don't want a feminist super planner to tear everything down and start again. But once we begin to see… across gender, race, sexuality, and more — we can start to look for new possibilities.” We may or may not know how the optimal feminist city looks and functions — but we can be pretty sure that the cities we have today are not it. 

Her message is that thoughtful planners can and, eventually will, arrive at the feminist city as long as women’s voices get the attention they deserve. And Kern knows that cities are not zero-sum games. A city does not need to disadvantage men in order to advantage women. A city that is safer, more pleasant, and more equitable for women — whatever it may look like — can be safer, more pleasant, and more equitable for everyone. 

Indeed, men (planners and non-planners alike) should be outraged by the offenses and discomforts that Kern describes. They should also be excited by the type of city that Kern advocates for. Whether the feminist city includes intimate park benches, larger bus doors, more housing, more enlightened police, fewer suburban developments, or more thrift stores, the feminist city is likely to be a pretty good city — full stop.

Fortunately, the profession is not the male-dominated technocracy that it once was – at least not in California. As in many other fields, women do not yet hold their fair share of big-city director positions, and the state’s planning profession does necessarily reflect the demographic composition of its stakeholders. But I speak with visionary women planners from around the state on a regular basis, and I am hopeful that the ranks of up-and-coming planners are far more equitable. And, of course, the most influential figure in contemporary planning is a woman—Jane Jacobs endures, five decades after she first bulldozed the patriarchy.

I hope that Feminist City can unite women planners who want to create more gender-equitable cities but might not have previously had a rallying point. Just as importantly, Kern gives men — be they planners or everyday city-dwellers — a bracing sort of revelation that can make them better allies. What does this mean for men in the planning profession? It means we should listen, collaborate, compromise, and, to whatever extent possible, consider the needs and desires of everyone who makes up the urban tapestry. In other words, we should do what good planners are supposed to do. 

We could do a lot worse than walk a mile in Leslie Kern’s Doc Martens.

Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World

Leslie Kern
Verso
224 Pages
$24.95

 

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