This is a guest post from reader Daphne Lawless. An earlier version was first published in Fightback. It is a review of Feminist City by Leslie Kern (Verso, 2020). Images added by Greater Auckland.
I forget the source, but I remember a socialist writer saying something like “the middle class are the vanguard of living well under capitalism”. Due to having more education, more disposable income and more leisure time, professionals and the relatively well-off are often among the first to experiment with new ways of living – such as minimising the use of animal products, or making carbon-neutral and sustainable choices in housing and transport. Crucially, they also have the time and resources they need to advocate effectively for such positive social reforms.
This leads to a paradox whereby these reforms can then be stigmatised as “elitist” or “anti-working-class”, by those seeking to promote reactionary politics – even if they would benefit working people if they were adopted across society. Thus, in a recent council by-election in working-class Māngere-Ōtāhuhu, a right-wing candidate was able to describe Māngere’s new network of cycle lanes as “elitist and bordering on racism” (1), echoing a line promoted by Conservative-Left blogger Martyn Bradbury (2).
Attempts to promote alternatives to car dependency, such as the “Safer Streets” trial in Ōnehunga, or the campaign to open up the Auckland Harbour Bridge for cycling, are vulnerable to cynical commentators playing upon the fact that quite often the leading “faces” of such events are white professionals.
Working people who don’t have the time or confidence to participate in formal consultations, and who are understandably suspicious that reforms proposed by the already-privileged could make their lives harder and more expensive, will be vulnerable to such bad-faith messaging.
To be clear, there are already many strong brown and working-class advocates of carbon-neutral and active transport modes (3,4). But – while we should reject bad faith criticisms from the Right and the Conservative Left – the movement for sustainable urbanism, housing and transport does need an “intersectional” approach. This framework looks at how different social and political identities combine and interact, and can be useful for understanding how urban changes may be felt by very diverse groups.
An example is the new streetscape on Karangahape Road. The cyclelane is clearly safer for many people, including some people with mobility impairments.
For others, however, there are real issues with the accessibility of the footpath. The problem is systemic, stemming from Auckland Transport placing low value on accessibility and universal design. They need to follow their own design guidance more, fix its weaknesses, and enforce the rules around appropriate retailer use of the footpath. But critical to improving the situation is consulting and engaging with disability advocates throughout the design and planning process.
Solutions to urban issues such as intensified housing and removing some of the privileges of private automobiles, as long as they are mainly designed and advocated for by the already-privileged, will inevitably have “blind spots” and “gaps” which might paradoxically make things worse for some of the marginalised and vulnerable. In turn this will offer opponents of sustainability an easy line of attack, to disrupt the broad coalition necessary to make such changes stick.
This is a massive topic, but Leslie Kern’s Feminist City offers a convincing call for a better urbanism along one axis of intersectionality: gender. Kern, an academic geographer working in small-town Canada, is refreshingly upfront with her acknowledgements that gender is only one issue, and repeatedly reminds her readers to also listen to Black, indigenous, queer, trans and working-class voices on urban questions:
Asking “women’s questions” about the city means asking about so much more than gender. I have to ask how my desire for safety might lead to increased policing of communities of colour. I have to ask how my need for stroller access can work in solidarity with the needs of disabled people and seniors. I have to ask how my desire to “claim” urban space for women could perpetuate colonial practices and discourses that harm the efforts of Indigenous people to reclaim lands taken and colonized (p. 26)
Kern is conscious that urban reforms which make things easier for some women or some parents might paradoxically make things worse for others – for example, urban cafés which are comforting and safe “third spaces” for professional women often replace spaces used by working-class and marginalised groups (p. 106):
making cities seem safe for women also tends to make them less safe for other marginalized groups. Efforts to “clean up” downtown areas and “revitalize” residential and retail districts are typically accomplished through a combination of aesthetic measures (beautification projects) and the active removal of groups of people that have been marked as symbols of disorder, danger, crime, or disease… Bodies that do not conform due to age, illness, disability, racialization, class, sexuality, addiction, etc., are marked as “out of place” and targeted for displacement. (pp. 160, 168)
Key to Kern’s argument is the difference between what is and what could be in urbanism, for women:
the suburbs are anything but natural. Suburban development fulfilled very specific social and economic agendas…
the suburbs are not consciously trying to keep women in the kitchen and out of the workplace, but…
The isolation, size of the family home, need for multiple vehicles, and demands of child care can continue to push women either out of the workplace or into lower-paying, part-time jobs that mostly allow them to juggle the responsibilities of suburban life…
For families headed by women, “their very survival,” argues Wekerle, is dependent “on a wide network of social services frequently found only in central city areas” (pp. 38–40)
In principle, dense urban living should thus offer much more possibilities for not only women, but for other oppressed groups. Kern explores how lesbians and other queer people have built communities based around urban living which would have been impossible in any other environment (pp. 80–2).
On the other hand, actually-existing urban life is not much more friendly to women than the suburbs. Kern explains that since the 19th century, women have been considered to simply not belong in the urban environment – “streetwalkers” and “public women” were euphemisms for the despised class of sex workers (p. 12). Contemporary urban form continues to indicate that women (and parents of small children, in particular) are not welcome:
The city has been set up to support and facilitate the traditional gender roles of men and with men’s experiences as the “norm,” with little regard for how the city throws up roadblocks for women and ignores their day-to-day experience of city life….
“Why doesn’t my stroller fit on the streetcar [tram]?” “Why do I have to walk an extra half mile home because the shortcut is too dangerous?”…
The constant, low-grade threat of violence mixed with daily harassment shapes women’s urban lives in countless conscious and unconscious ways… the spectre of urban violence limits women’s choices, power, and economic opportunities… urban environments are structured to support patriarchal family forms, gender-segregated labour markets, and traditional gender roles. (pp. 15–18)
Kern is dismissive of the nostalgic view of small-town or suburban life “where everyone knows your name”. She is clear that the autonomy and anonymity of urban living offers space and freedom for women and traditionally marginalised communities, and centres the right to be left alone as the basis of urban life.
The extent to which violations of women’s personal space via touch, words, or other infringements are tolerated and even encouraged in the city is as good a measure as any for me of how far away we actually are from the sociable—and feminist—city of spontaneous encounters… It takes an enormous amount of mental energy to navigate the public and private spaces of the city alone as a woman. (pp. 91, 94)…
Although women often experience comments on our bodies and uninvited physical contact, pregnancy and motherhood elevate these intrusions to a new level. People read my protruding belly as if it said, “rub here please!” I was expected to cheerfully welcome all manner of unsolicited advice … [which] didn’t translate into much of an uptick in urban courtesy. (pp. 33–4)
On the other hand, says Kern, “I could function without a car. Compared to the suburbs, this kind of urban density offered a lot more ways to manage parenting, grad school, and domestic responsibilities” (p. 37). She also emphasises how media narratives which promote a climate of fear lead to women self-excluding from urban spaces, through sensationalized reporting on violent stranger crimes against women and a relative lack of reporting on intimate partner violence… In contrast, domestic violence, sexual assault by acquaintances, incest, child abuse, and other “private,” yet much more prevalent, crimes receive far less attention (pp. 144–5).
Making the issues of violence and harassment worse is the prevailing neoliberal logic of responsibilisation – the idea that victims of oppression are “responsible” for keeping themselves safe and healthy, diverting attention from the systems which cause oppression. This need to be “responsible” is a constant drain for women, taking a huge toll on their ability to participate.
Kern weaves her personal narrative together with humility in acknowledging that marginalised people in the city have never been granted “the right to be left alone”, as any street-based sex worker, homeless person or person struggling with addiction could tell you (p. 107). She mentions the availability of public toilets as a crucial factor which excludes, not only women, but trans people from urban life – not to mention people of colour who might have the cops called on them for asking to use a business’s facilities (pp. 108–11). Once again, we are faced with a gap between what urban life is, and what it could be – while today’s reality of urban life may be grim, it holds possibilities for freedom and fulfilment which don’t exist in suburbia.
Also resonant for me was Kern’s account of how, growing up in mega-cities such as Toronto and London, public transport gave her and her teenage friends the necessary freedom to explore not only their cities, but their own identities: She makes the excellent point that often-derided urban spaces such as shopping malls and streets are essential places of self-discovery for young people:
Girls must learn to make do with the limited spaces that they’re offered. In my suburban adolescence, that space was the mall… Girls paradoxically identify public spaces, such as city streets, as “private,” because these spaces allow them anonymity away from the prying gaze of parents, teachers, and other caregivers. The home was strangely more like a public space, since girls didn’t feel a sense of privacy or control over their bedrooms and possessions her (pp. 70–5)
Kerr points out that department stores and shopping malls originated as places where women could be out in public without male chaperoning or harassment (pp. 101–3). Kerr’s stories from her teenage years strike a particular chord with me. As a teenager growing up in Wellington, what is now known as the Kāpiti rail line was my lifeline out of the stultifying conformity of the outer suburban fringe (and parental surveillance) into what seemed to be an exciting, colourful and cosmopolitan urban environment.
Public transport (ideally) means freedom to younger people and others who don’t have access to cars.
But again, actually existing transit is specifically not designed for the actual lives of women:
Most urban public transportation systems are designed to accommodate the typical rush hour commute of a nine-to-five office worker… research shows that women’s commutes are often more complex, reflecting the layered and sometimes conflicting duties of paid and unpaid work… Recent research has found that transportation is yet another area where women pay a “pink tax” (paying more for similar services than men). Women are more likely to rely on public transportation than men, although they’re more poorly served by it. (pp. 41–2)
Every aspect of public transit reminded me that I wasn’t the ideal imagined user. Stairs, revolving doors, turnstiles, no space for strollers, broken elevators and escalators, rude comments, glares: all of these told me that the city wasn’t designed with parents and children in mind… I sheepishly realized that until I faced these barriers, I’d rarely considered the experiences of disabled people or seniors who are even more poorly accommodated (pp. 43–4)
Kern doesn’t try to offer any firm models for urbanist reform in her book, but returns over and over again to the theme that a sustainable urban future is only possible with the active participation and voices of women and other marginalised urban communities. She sees possibilities for the future not only in the survival strategies of low-income and marginalised groups, but in female friendship networks which she sees as increasingly displacing the nuclear family (p. 88). She is also crystal clear that top-down, technocratic planning by privileged experts won’t solve anything: “no amount of lighting is going abolish the patriarchy” (p. 155):
the faces of urban planning, politics, and architecture have to change. A wider range of lived experience needs to be represented among those who make the decisions that have enormous effects on people’s everyday lives (p. 170)
One caveat for readers in Aotearoa – Kern’s experience of urban form is predominantly that of North America, where working-class people and especially people of colour are concentrated in the inner cities. Contrast that with the urban form as we know it in Aotearoa, where – apart from students and homeless people – the population of the urban cores and inner suburbs are predominantly middle-class beneficiaries of gentrification, while working-class people, tangata whenua and migrant communities are concentrated in outer suburbs at the end of long motorways. It is for this reason that an urbanism which is suited to our local conditions must begin by understanding that suburban, car-dependent living is all that a generation of the marginalised in this country have known. A reversion to a densified, transit- and cycling-based sustainable urban model will need to include working-class suburban dwellers as protagonists. They can’t have their communities unilaterally rearranged by privileged planners, in the same way that their parents or grandparents had to adjust to being “ethnically cleansed” from the centre of our cities during the 1960s and 1970s (5). In short, we need a sustainable urbanism from below.