photos: Author Leslie Kern believes municipal planning is the best mechanism for drawing a map of new social relations based on care and justice. Mitchel Raphael photo.

Femme Town: Thoughts from a 'feminist geographer'

Leslie Kern says that when it comes to urban planning, by looking through a lens that includes women's lives and experiences, solutions could have a ripple effect on many other groups. Mitchel Raphael photo.

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Who is the city of Vancouver built for?

How does the city actively reinforce social inequalities?

How can we revolutionize urban life in the name of social equality and justice?

These were just some of the questions that emerged at the Vancouver book launch of Feminist City: A Field Guide, by “feminist geographer” Leslie Kern, who is an associate professor and program director for Women’s and Gender Studies at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.

The event, which happened in November and focused on gendered experiences in the city, brought together five panelists—including the author—to discuss the social inequalities built right into our cities, homes and neighbourhoods. 

According to Kern, being a “feminist geographer” means that no matter what kind of space or place she’s looking at, she’s always ultimately concerned with power relations.

“This includes considering how any space functions to uphold (and in rare cases, challenge) the norms, values and beliefs of the society that created and maintains it,” she explained. “As a feminist, I pay particular attention to how gendered norms are ‘built into’ spaces such as cities, but I also think about patterns of inclusion and exclusion more broadly across a wide range of identities and markers of difference such as ability, race, class and sexuality.”

By combining memoir, feminist theory, pop culture and geography, Kern’s book exposes what is hidden in plain sight: the embedded inequities that exist in cities—through the way neighbourhoods are zoned, how public space and women’s bodies are regulated, where security and police patrols are concentrated, and where minority groups (such as immigrants, the disabled or queer citizens) are clearly welcome or not.

“On a really practical level, this means that in the context of practices like planning, you have to be thinking about how factors like design and use of space affect the most marginalized, rather than defaulting to an imagined 'typical' city dweller,” said Kern, “usually imagined to be a white, able-bodied man.”


An ongoing site of gendered struggle

At the heart of the panel discussion was the argument that gendered norms are not only built into the spaces we live in, but that they also affect the most vulnerable disproportionately. 

Take, for example, access to health care. According to Genesa Greening, president and CEO of the BC Women’s Health Foundation, in a recent survey carried out by the organization, more than half of the female participants said they felt like they had been recently dismissed by a health care practitioner.

“That number goes up if you are a woman of compounding experiences—whether you're a woman of colour, Indigenous, poor, or aging,” Greening explained.

“For example, three-quarters of Indigenous women surveyed said they've been let down by the health care system.” 

So, who does the city belong to and who belongs in the city?

To Cicely Belle Blain, CEO of Cicely Blain Consulting and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Vancouver, anti-Blackness is a predominant and prevalent issue that's not being addressed enough.

“Especially here in Vancouver, thinking of our history with Hogan’s Alley,” Blain said. “We really see that disparity in terms of how the city is formed and how the city is shaped to privilege, keep safe and centre certain communities, while specifically eradicating and erasing other communities.” 

This disparity is particularly evident in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), where Vancouver’s most vulnerable live and work.

Mebrat Beyene, executive director of WISH Drop-In Centre Society, said the organization, which provides support services to street-based sex industry workers, sees a high number of women struggling with mental health issues, drug use and trauma, as well as an over-representation of Indigenous, Black and trans women. 

“Now, if you talk about all of those identities living in one person, who is also resorting to street-based sex work, that's a tremendous amount of vulnerability and marginalization—and targeted violence,” Beyene said.

Street-based sex workers normalize the violence that they face to a shocking degree, she added. This is violence that is unreported, under-reported and unseen. Consequently the questions arise: what does safety look like if you are someone who is not comfortable reporting to the police? What does safety look like if you are already criminalized and your existence is stigmatized?

According to the panel experts, the problem lies in the fact that voices at the margins are seldom included in conversations about the city.

That, the panel unanimously agreed, should change. 


Whose time is it to speak?

Despite its shortcomings, Kern still believes municipal planning is perhaps the best hope for shaping new social relations based around care and justice.

“Everything from zoning bylaws to bike lanes, speed limits to snowplowing, budget priorities to public housing renewal—all of which deeply affect our everyday lives—are decided at the city level and above,” Kern noted.

“Too often people are led to believe that their struggles are unique or the fault of their particular circumstances. But often, the range of choices they have were already shaped in narrow ways by decisions made at the city level. Noticing, and then pushing to change, breaks us out of the mode of thinking that we’re each solely responsible for our own well-being or our own misfortune. It enables us to think about much more powerful and far-reaching solutions to everything from segregation, to poverty, to sexual assault."

In order to implement better design and use of space, the panelists said the aim should be to move those at the margins to the centre of discussions.

According to Beyene, a huge amount of the conversation around women's safety focuses on use of spaces—and those spaces could be housing, service providers, drop-ins, shelters, streets and alleyways, to name a few. In the DTES, for example, often times a co-ed space means a men’s only space.

“But what if we put a sex worker at the centre and asked what would a space look like if it were safe for them? What would radiate out from that?” she asked. 

Kern believes that by looking through a lens that includes women's lives, solutions could have a great ripple effect on so many other groups. For instance, for Greening, a measure of success in her profession would look like an Indigenous woman feeling heard and served by the health care system.

“Then, we know we will have finally developed an equitable health care system. And by concentrating on what the needs of the people in the margins are, others will definitely benefit from it,” she said.  

The panelists said the challenge lies in how to include these voices in discussions about the city. First, it’s important to make conversations safe enough for true participation to happen.

“There are enough people who are waiting for opportunities to attack and further silence marginalized voices, so it’s crucial to create a structure where their input will not be tokenized,” explained Beyene.

A remedy might involve asking certain people not to speak and instead listening to voices that are not being heard or represented.

For those in a position of privilege, Greening said, it’s not just about making sure that people don't talk.

“It's equally about making sure that you understand the level of discomfort you have to be comfortable in, and to sit in and to be OK with that, and honour that, and not try to push it away.”

Second, politics needs to do a better job with representation. According to Blain, “People of colour, radicalized folks, especially Black and Indigenous folks, have no faith and no trust in people in positions of leadership—people who often don't understand these communities but are representing them in parliament.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must work together and remember we are not alone, said Chief Janice George, Chepximiya Siyam, a Squamish hereditary chief. 


Feminist City: A Field Guide—Q&A with Leslie Kern

Q: Tell us about how the physicality of a city—and its urban architecture—can affect social behaviour and interactions. 

A: Our built environment constantly sends us information about expected behaviour, norms and values. You could think about it like body language: it’s communicating things to us on both conscious and subconscious levels.

The more obvious signals include signs telling us what not to do, structures such as gates and barriers, and the presence (or absence) of places to sit or hang out. These give pretty clear messages about what sorts of social interactions are discouraged or encouraged.

For disabled people, the built environment is usually loud and clear about where they are welcome and accommodated, and where they are presumed absent. More subtly, we receive messages about where we feel welcome, safe and included—or not—through the presence of surveillance technologies like CCTV, the presence of open public spaces and the design of buildings that can either signal an invitation in, or a fortress-like mentality.

Design features that prevent people from sitting, such as metal spikes or “decorative” iron works, also prevent people from finding public space for interaction. And of course features like lighting, good sightlines and open areas are crucial factors in shaping a sense of safety, which is a necessary precursor for engaging in urban social interactions. 


Q: Keys grasped in knuckles; headphones on; no direct eye contact. Women have employed many techniques in dealing with the unease they experience in city centres, especially at night. What are some of the ways cities negatively impact women that aren’t often immediately apparent? 

A: Some of women’s safety strategies are visible or at least well-known, but the more insidious effects of fear and exclusion are less visible and under-researched.

For example, how many women turn down or ignore employment opportunities that would require them to work or travel at night or in unsafe areas? How much money do women spend taking cabs or public transit rather than walking or biking? How many women see their careers stalled because they can’t effectively juggle parenthood and work in cities with too few/too expensive daycare spots, unreliable and inaccessible mass transit, and a lack of affordable housing near places of good employment?

These challenges are exacerbated by urban planning that creates separate zones for residential, commercial, institutional and industrial functions in cities, as women are more likely to become confined to the residential as a result of distance. 


Q: Your research opens the door to many issues facing People of Colour (POC), queer and minority citizens across Canada, and how someone’s socio-economic status plays a large role in their perception of personal safety in urban spaces. What other contributing factors to this unease did you discover in your research? 

A: It might seem paradoxical to some, but for many people the signs of “security” in cities are quite threatening. Private security guards, armed police, CCTV, fenced and barricaded space, metal detectors and more create a sense of profound unease. For POC, poor, homeless, queer, trans and otherwise marginalized people, these measures communicate not safety, but exclusion and even active danger.

All too often, these measures are activated not in response to actual crime or violence, but to the everyday activities that people might engage in. Those with racial and economic privilege might never consider the police or CCTV as problematic, but for many people they create more unease than safety. 


Q: Many cities struggle with gentrification, which can lead to increased discrimination, displacement and divisions within neighbourhoods. Are there ways for cities to modernize and improve their infrastructure and remain inclusive? 

A: Too often communities are presented with a false choice: stay in a state of disinvestment and disrepair, or welcome gentrification—as if gentrification is the only strategy for urban improvement. Of course there are other ways, but they involve a commitment from the state (at municipal levels and up) to publicly funded infrastructure (both physical and social), subsidized housing, rent control and other mechanisms for preventing evictions, slowing spiralling housing costs and limiting real estate speculation.

At a minimum, city planning offices need to have more power (and to use their powers) to push developers to provide for or subsidize public infrastructure that benefits existing communities as well as newcomers, including parks, transit and schools. 


Q: How can feminists claim back space in their city? What inspiring projects have you seen that you hope will be implemented in more urban spaces? 

A: Although I would love to see gender truly taken seriously at the urban policy level, I don’t think we have to wait for that shift before we start our feminist world-making projects in our own backyards. For example, artist OlaRonke Akinmowo created the Free Black Women’s Library, a mobile pop-up trading library of books by Black women, especially feminists, that circulates through Brooklyn and beyond. 

Another example is the work of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, which serves an extremely marginalized community that includes sex workers, recent immigrants, Indigenous women, homeless women, women escaping violence and women with addictions. It is located at one of the geographic centres of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis. Its recent Red Woman Rising report centred Indigenous women survivors in a compelling call to action on gendered colonial violence and a life-affirming focus on healing.

These two very different examples both highlight intersectionality—a feminism that understands the juxtaposition of multiple systems of oppression in women’s lives—and embody a grassroots, women-centred approach to making women’s urban lives more liveable.


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