Feminist City: How to Build a More Just, Sustainable Vancouver
When: Nov. 27, 7-9 p.m.
Where: Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, Salon 20—30, 580 W. Hastings St.
In her new book Feminist City: A Field Guide author and Mount Allison University associate professor and professional coach Leslie Kern outlines how urban environments marginalize women and minorities and offers ways for a city to become more equitable, affordable, sustainable and safe for everyone.
A Fulbright scholar, Kern took some time to answer a few questions for Postmedia News before she lands here in Vancouver for the Simon Fraser University co-hosted event: Feminist City: How to Build a More Just, Sustainable Vancouver.
Q: You are described as a feminist geographer. What does that title mean to you?
A: It means that no matter what kind of space I’m looking at, I’m always concerned with power. 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. As a feminist I pay particular attention to how gendered norms are “built into” spaces such as cities, but I also think about inclusion and exclusion more broadly across a wide range of identities and differences like ability, race, class, and sexuality.
Q: How do cities continue to marginalize women and make their daily lives more difficult?
A: Women remain under-represented in the professions and positions that shape cities: municipal politics, policy-making, business development, real estate development, architecture, and urban planning. A lack of consideration for women’s needs and ignorance of their daily experiences means that women struggle with everything from getting a stroller onto the bus to balancing their safety needs with their needs for affordable housing and good jobs.
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?
Q: How can we begin to change our cities into more gender equal places?
A: One top-down approach is gender-mainstreaming: making sure all policy and spending decisions are oriented toward gender equity. Cities like Vienna have seen enormous progress with this method.
Issues such as safety and freedom from fear must be prioritized; public space and services must be safe and accessible; there should be communal or collective options for responsibilities such as child care, cooking, and care of the elderly and sick.
In a more radical way, though, we have to challenge the structures that make women responsible for most of this labour. A more gender equal city would offer affordable housing that doesn’t assume or prioritize a traditional nuclear family, for example.
Q: What are the foremost signs of a city’s livability?
A: Most people would agree that factors like walkability, green space, and safe public spaces are hallmarks of livability. I don’t disagree, but I think we have to ask harder questions about who has the means and the perceived right to enjoy these factors; who is excluded by surveillance and over-policing; and who decides what the appropriate activities and behaviours are in such spaces.
Q: What do you hope the individual and groups (government, planning departments, developers) in charge of cities take away from your book?
A: That moves made toward gender equity in cities are about more than making women’s lives “easier.” They are about fundamental issues of economic and social equality. At the same time, the changes I talk about are also connected to wider issues such as accessibility and environmental sustainability, and have the potential to benefit everyone in cities, not just women.
Q: How does gentrification fit into this story, this issue?
A: Women continue to experience a wage gap, are more likely to be single heads of household, have higher rates of core housing need (such as living in unsuitable or unaffordable housing), and are more reliant on the close urban connections between school, work, and home. As gentrification pushes housing costs up, women are further disadvantaged in the market. As women are displaced out of central areas, they are stretched thin trying to juggle their already complicated routines around work, home, and family.
Q: What kind of affect has #MeToo had, or will have, on making cities more livable?
A: #MeToo is exposing the widespread nature of all forms of sexual harassment and assault, including those in the urban public sphere, and illustrating that these are not momentary experiences: they have profound effects on women’s ability to participate in public life.
#MeToo is also helping to illuminate rape myths, including those that suggest that women are responsible for avoiding certain places and staying out of the public realm at night. The more we can continue having this conversation, the further we can move toward creating a public realm where women are equal and unafraid.
Q: Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has long been a place of marginalized people and great unease. What do you see as vehicles for change and what can citizens do to help support that change?
A: I think anti-gentrification movements and the push to maintain affordable housing and a locus of social services in the DTES are key to creating a supportive yet livable neighbourhood. When people are well-housed, have access to harm-reduction sites and services, feel connected to community, and have their basic needs met, the things that make people uneasy start to fade away. Citizens can support the work of the DTES Women’s Centre, safe injection sites, and affordable housing campaigns.
Q: Let’s talk about public toilets. Why are they so terrible?
A: Not only are they terrible, but true public toilets are almost non-existent today. As part of many cities’ rush to revitalization, toilets have become focal points for fears about things like drug use, public sex, sex work, and homelessness.
Getting rid of public toilets or severely curtailing access is not only a harsh punishment for homelessness. It also makes life much more difficult for people with illnesses and disabilities that lead to frequent toilet use, for parents and caregivers, and for those who don’t have the means to purchase items in stores and cafes that have washrooms for customers only.
Q: When did headphones become armour for women?
A: Probably when the first Walkman appeared! Headphones are a subtle, non-aggressive way to signal the desire to be left alone. They can permit women to ignore men’s comments and questions without seeming rude or angry. Given that women are often faced with verbal and physical assault when they “hollaback” or even just ignore men, headphones offer a line of first defence against unwanted intrusions.
Q: How do we women learn to reframe how we think about our choices and instincts? How do we go from: “that was a stupid thing to do. I’m so lucky I wasn’t murdered,” to: “That was smart. That was brave?”
A: The “I’m so lucky” response is the only logical one in a world where violence against women is normalized, and even expected. I don’t blame anyone for having that reaction. Moving toward the “I made smart choices” response requires a greater respect for women’s agency and intelligence.Ideally, however, we have to move toward a world where violence against women, against anyone, is so rare that neither response is needed.
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