Looking at the city from a gender perspective

  • Publish On 26 January 2024
  • Leslie Kern
  • 10 minutes

For feminist geographer Leslie Kern, the urban environment is not neutral and stems from norms and power dynamics. She calls for a greater variety of urban user needs to be examined, and for physicality to be reintroduced into urban design. This translates into spatial and social interventions around mixed use considerations and taking into account marginalised voices in decision-making processes.

As a geographer and the author of Feminist City, could you describe your vision of a ‘feminist geography’?

Feminist geography is a way of looking at both the natural and the human-made environments around us, and trying to understand how historical and contemporary ideas about gender have shaped those spaces with the basic understanding that they reflect the values and norms and biases of the society that built them. If gender norms and biases are part of a society, chances are they’re going to be reflected in the built environment. Feminist geography is a therefore a way of exploring the city through a gendered lens, and also trying to understand how power works through the spaces that we build and live in.

Your book, Feminist City, is informed not only by your academic research, but by your own personal experience. Is this a way of challenging your own perspective, and inviting reflexivity into your thinking?

One of the critiques of city planning and policy making is that they have long been dominated by men, usually upper-class white men, whose own experiences might not reflect the needs of the wide variety of city dwellers. So reflexivity is really key, and has long been a part of feminist research and theory. The idea is that we need to be thinking critically about our own positions, about the power and privileges that we have, and expanding our perspectives to take into account a wider variety of people’s needs. There are different ways to do so, for instance including a more diverse group of people in those professions, but also just by listening to communities, and paying attention to the voices that are typically not heard within the walls of City Hall.

One interesting consequence of using personal experiences is that it brings back the physical experience of cities. Was it a way for you to remind yourself that urban planning is never pure theory?

The fact that people have a physical body is indeed often neglected in planning, architecture, and mobility politics. Many cities, especially here in North America, have become so car-centered that they seem only concerned by motorized traffic, while the very everyday embodied reality of people moving through the city is secondary or an afterthought. A whole lot of basic questions are neglected—Are there public toilets? Is the space accessible for somebody pushing a stroller or using a wheelchair? Are there places to sit down? Is there shade? Are there places to rest? It’s interesting that during the pandemic, when people have been trying to make use of outdoor space more for socializing, many realized that our cities have not been well designed in recent years to allow us to make use of them in that way, in part because we haven’t really been thinking about human bodies and their needs in city spaces.

Could you expand on the importance of challenging the supposed neutrality of urban space to rethink our cities?

Most of us, as we move through the city, just take the environment for granted—we don’t think a lot about who built it, why it’s built that way, or how different groups of people might use and experience it. One of my points in writing the book was to get people to see the city not as just this neutral ‘container’ where social relations play out, where the economy happens, where we move around and encounter one another, but as a space that has been set up to support certain sorts of power relations, a certain status quo across factors such as gender, class, and race. The city is a place where norms about different groups of people are built into society, and in some ways we can see this on a very surface level just by looking at who streets and buildings are named after. It’s almost always men, and almost always people from a dominant or upper-class group in society. On a more everyday level, we can look at who feels safe in the city, who feels comfortable moving through urban space, and who finds it more challenging and difficult. Those questions will clue us into how power relations have been built into the city itself.

Beside the large social change of mindset, is there some material aspect to feminist city, some concrete urban improvements we could initiate?

It has to be a combination of what we might call ‘urban spatial interventions’ and also social interventions. I mentioned creating the kind of social safety net that allows women and other vulnerable people to have a measure of economic independence and stability preventing them from having to be in dangerous situations. That’s crucial, but in the city itself we can also imagine very obvious things such as improving the lighting and walkways, having the kind of spaces where, as Jane Jacobs famously said, there are ‘eyes on the street’, where there’s a community, where there’s a vibrant public life at different times of the day, where people are able to look through their windows and see what’s going on in the community, where people know their neighbors so we don’t have quiet and abandoned spaces. People often express that they feel fearful of homeless people, but the solution to that is not to move them out of the city, rather to give people homes so that they are not forced to live on the street and engage in activities that may make other people afraid of them. It has to be this combined approach where we have a good social safety net as well as an urban environment that is open and welcoming to as many people as possible.

Improving lighting provides a good example of a holistic approach: on a basic level, it seems to go against environmental energy conservation measures, but we have to consider this within the broader issue of the kinds of neighborhoods we create. We don’t need bright, glowing lights everywhere if we do have a variety of mixed uses on the street with homes, businesses and cafes, shops, public transportation, and so on, and such a configuration would feel much safer to people than even a well-lit but abandoned street. Being alone is the greatest factor for fear. We have to rethink the way cities have been designed to separate work in one zone, homes in another, industry or shopping in another. If we have more mixed-use spaces, people are out and about, and they feel comfortable in the presence of others. In Paris, the mayor has been talking about the 15-minute city, and that concept certainly relates to feminist ideas about bringing those things to gather and creating more proximity of services, which could also help with the care work burden. At least, as long as we address the question of who can afford to live in these 15-minute neighborhoods.

It’s the same with smart technologies. In some cases, women have been making use of technology like mobile apps to stay safe, tracking places of harassment and fear for instance. This can be a useful thing, but in many cases we know that these technologies, just like the city, are not neutral. They’re designed by particular people, and they might not serve the needs of a majority of users, and there’s still a technology divide in who has access to a smartphone or a computer at home. Not everybody has access to those things, so it’s likely to lead to skewed data in terms of what gets input into the system based on who has the technology and from which information is being gathered.

One of the great things about cities is that there are so many different communitiesand neighborhoods in them that have long been generating their own ideas about what they need and what works for them. I would like to imagine that we can pay attention to those communities and listen to what they actually need. For many cities over the last several decades, the goal has been to use urban space to create as much capital accumulation as possible. So it is also about a greater mindset shift away from thinking about cities as profit-generating machines to thinking about them as viable.

OLIVIA ROHDE, Roskilde Festival (DK) 2019

The involvement of community is key in many aspects of the gendered and inclusive approach you describe. Do you think it should inspire a shift from top-down to a more bottom-up approach of urban planning?

A bottom-up approach is definitely key. It’s challenging because it does take more time for planners and developers to consult with the community, to really listen to people, to find ways to engage a wide variety of community members who might not feel that they should go to a planning meeting, or don’t think that they can have their voices heard by the people in power. So it’s a slower process. It’s not always easy to give communities everything that they want, but as someone pointed out to me once, it actually will save you time and money in the long run, because if you design a space that nobody wants to use, or is unsafe, or becomes a haven for dangerous activity, or isn’t sustainable in some way, then you have to rebuild it. And this is much more expensive than just taking the time from the beginning to create the kind of housing, or playground, or green space, or transportation routes that would actually serve the people in those communities.

With the pandemic, we’ve also seen communities really taking matters into their own hands in terms of creating what we call ‘mutual aid practices’, which is where you are making sure that the people in your neighborhood have enough food to eat, where you’re checking on senior citizens, where you’re helping to look after each other’s children when it’s safe to do so, when you are giving people rides to and from work or Covid tests, these sorts of things. communities have long found ways to create their own networks of care. I think that if we pay attention to and start to look for what is already happening, we can learn a lot about how we might scale those things up and learn where our cities need to do better to provide for the needs of people who are vulnerable in our cities. It’s just a question of what we decide to make a priority for our society.




How feminism and urbanism can influence each other

Diann Bauer is an artist and co-founder of the Laboria Cuboniks collective, which launched the Xenofemist movement – a feminism of the 21st century, which takes into account the revolution associated with the development of new technologies, and wants to make it a tool of struggle. Xenofeminism argues that alienation is not an obstacle, but rather a weapon in the struggle for the emancipation of individuals. Indeed, being marginalized allows us to develop our consciousness and redefine our identity. She describes how her studies in architecture and town planning inspired her thinking, and, conversely, how the artistic and feminist research into which she has embarked can influence urban planning. She also returns in more detail to the notion of consciousness, which occupies her current research.


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Rethinking Urban Spaces through Gender Mainstreaming

The city of the future will be more sustainable, leveraging technology and nature, but it must also be more inclusive, which entails conducting efforts to engage in reflexivity regarding the making of the city. For feminist geographer Leslie Kern, the urban environment is not neutral. It was set up to support standards and power relations and was long operated by white men from the upper classes. She invites us to examine a broader spectrum of needs of city dwellers and to reintroduce embodied reality into urban design. This results in tangible spatial interventions, for instance, on lighting and walkways, but also on social issues, around mixed use and taking into account marginalized voices in the decision-making processes.