Feminist City is an inclusive, intersectional and empowering place, writes Rachel Fisher, founder of Urbanistas, in this review of Leslie Kern’s new book
In May of 2012, fifteen women came together in a borrowed office in London after work to talk about their shared love of cities. Drawn together by Liane Hartley from a list of the people who’d been most helpful as she set up her new business, these women formed the kernel of Urbanistas, a now international loose network of several thousand.
The Urbanistas mission is to ‘Amplify the voices of women to make cities better for everyone’. We’ve been guided by Jane Jacob’s principle that “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
We do this through building confidence and leadership. The method is simple. We bring women together, and a few pitch their ideas – anything from a project they’ve been working on to a question they’ve been asking themselves. Then women around the table pledge their support. In this way we have supported books to be written, companies and charities to be started, job leads, and new friendships.
I was lucky enough to be asked by Liane to co-pilot this growing and extraordinary group. Despite neither of us being architects, the most common question we are asked as Urbanistas’ founders is: What would a city designed by women look like?
This is the wrong question, as Leslie Kern articulates in Feminist City. The question is – what would a feminist city feel like? Not just for women, but for everyone. It would, in Kern’s imagination, be a truly inclusive and intersectional city; one where everyone is empowered by the place in which they live and work.
Kern brings out an important point – that Jane Jacobs’ New York didn’t reflect the same neighbourhood that James Baldwin experienced as a Black queer man.
Kern’s book is laid out as a series of interrelated cities, which are layered and experienced simultaneously and separately. Echoing Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities she describes them as cities of Men, of Moms, of Friends, of One, of Protest, of Fear, and of Possibility. These coexist, and this framing device makes the book a joy to dip into and out of again. I’ve come back to it several times since I first read it, to find images and sentences that have stayed with me.
A professor of geography and women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University in Canada, Kern marries academic research with personal narrative. A thread through the book is her own engagement and deepening understanding of city life; one which was brought into relief when she left the city for a more rural life (and a tenure track job).
To start, let’s consider what a city designed by men would look like. For Kern and others it looks an awful lot like the suburbs, particularly post-war suburbs.
Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique argued that women were trapped in their suburban lives and growing increasingly desperate and that the cause of this desperation was essentially boredom and isolation.
That was nearly 60 years ago. We’ve made incredible strides in terms of feminism and the long march to equality since then but even now we are talking about cities as places for Millennials (code for young and single) rather than families and older people.
Video: Leslie Kern, author of Feminist City, and Shiromi Pinto, author of Plastic Emotions (Influx Press, 2019) in conversation with Christine Murray, Editor-in-chief of The Developer at Verso Live on 6 August.
Cities are presented as places to spend your now extended adolescence until you finally settle down at 30-35, but even that doesn’t necessarily mean a move to the suburbs. Those of us on the Generation X-Millennial cusp are increasingly choosing to stay in a city, if we can afford it. But the other question is, can we afford not to?
Suburbs were designed for single income families, they are almost always car dominated, and many are what we would call ‘company towns’ near your job-for-life. In Feminist City, Kern points out how economic realities like the rising cost of living, as well as personal ambition and an increase in women in the workplace overall, have meant that most families are now dual income or headed by a single woman. Therefore, it now makes sense to be close to work and with easy access to all the places women need to be, preferably via public transport.
Who are we planning and building for? Whose voices do we need to hear? How do we repopulate empty streets? Do And actually, do we want to get back to the old normal?
The importance of public transport in this dynamic is two-fold, firstly there is the very real problem of suburbanised poverty, cars are expensive to own and run, living in a car-dependent neighbourhood can therefore cut you off from labour markets. Secondly, there is the climate imperative. Until a full-scale electric vehicle revolution, cars are still problematic both in terms of climate change, and as we’ve seen during lockdown, air quality.
The final piece of this puzzle is that we now live in a world where there are almost no ‘jobs-for-life’ therefore you need access to multiple firms if your career is to progress, and if you are to have choices about what shape that progress takes.
The death of density, like the death of distance 30 years ago, has been greatly exaggerated.
It is in these contexts that city living continues to make sense. The death of density, like the death of distance 30 years ago, has been greatly exaggerated. People love to come together; we are a social species. But all of this is predicated on the notion of choice. Choice isn’t open to everyone. Choice is an illusion; the lie of which places blame squarely on the shoulders of the individuals who fail to make the ‘right’ choices.
Throughout Feminist City, Kern is intensely (sometimes painfully) aware of her privilege. As a white cis woman she has access to spaces denied to Black or Trans people, and she is careful to speak for her experience. When Kern seeks to bring in others’ experiences, often she does so in their words. In this she brings out an important point – that Jane Jacobs’ New York neighbourhood that gave birth to the notion of a ‘sidewalk ballet’ didn’t reflect the same neighbourhood that James Baldwin experienced as a Black queer man.
The public square can be a place of freedom and protest, as we’ve seen with the Black Lives Matter marches and the subsequent debate over public statuary. But how do we build places where people can come together to support one another?
Can the built environment hold us accountable for past and present actions? Who are we planning and building for? Whose voices do we need to hear? How do we repopulate empty streets? And actually, do we want to get back to the old normal?
These are some of the questions Urbanistas is currently exploring. We celebrated our 8th birthday in May in the midst of lockdown with a virtual global gathering, bringing together chapter leads and members from across the UK and Australia to compare notes on the weird times in which we live.
It’s strange – the technology has always been there – how we’re now more willing to use it. I think this is because even our local relationships have been mediated through a laptop, so time differences notwithstanding, there is more enthusiasm to have virtual meet ups.
Urbanistas has always been about bringing your personal self to your professional life. This was even more true during lockdown - we’ve been able to engage people where they are, in their homes, with visits from kids and partners, and seeing inside the comfortable chaos of everyday life. It also means that Urbanistas anywhere can join the conversation different chapters are having online. Urbanistas chapters have been leading virtual meet-ups, from our regular ‘expo’ meets, to virtual mask-making sessions, to yoga.
People feel a real need to make in-person connections again, but I hope that we will still have online, and therefore more inclusive, meet-ups with Urbanistas around the world. Ironically the digital space has become our intersectional city – the real trick will be bringing this off-line and into everyday life.