Cities Weren’t Built for Women. The Pandemic Could Change That

GEN: Your book looks at the way certain elements of cities make life a bit easier for most men, and a bit harder for most women. What are some examples?

Kern: One of the first ones that comes to mind would be public transportation. Most urban mass transit systems were set up with the idea of transporting your male, breadwinning husband and father from the suburbs or the other areas of the city into the central business district, and then to leave again. That assumes a certain rhythm of the day, like what time you go into work and what time you leave, and it assumes a linear trip from home to office. It assumes, generally, an able-bodiedness.

Women’s movements tend to be a lot more complex. Women are more responsible, even if they have a job outside of the home, for dropping the kids at daycare or school, or for picking up groceries. Their trips are not linear, and in fact sometimes involve a lot of backtracking, using multiple transit systems, and incurring more costs. And of course, women might also be more likely to be traveling with a stroller.

There needs to be a gender lens in planning cities, so that when we’re thinking about where new housing developments are going, [we’re also asking] where areas of shopping or education or work are going, and what do the nodes of connection between those places look like? Because we’ve assumed that things like school and work don’t need to be somehow closely connected, but of course, for women, we know that they do.

Right. Strollers are one of these cases where if you make something better for one disadvantaged group — mothers — it becomes better for another group as well — people who use wheelchairs.

Yes, absolutely. When we think of accessibility, a wide range of people in society would enormously benefit. We can think about disabled people, elderly people or people who have chronic illness who might like a bench to sit on here and there, or access to priority seating, or access to clean and safe public restrooms.

Say more about the need for bathrooms in public places.

Yeah. [Right now] there’s all this news that socializing outside is safer than socializing inside [because of Covid]. We want to create more outdoor spaces, and we are relaxing certain laws around being able to drink outside. But this is creating this very urgent, very human need. We’ve seen problems in cities like Toronto, where large gatherings of parks have led to people urinating and defecating in front of people’s homes because there’s just nowhere to go.

But this is a problem that’s been building over 50, 60 years or longer, where the provision of public accessible toilets has been hived off to the Starbucks or other quasi-public spaces. As a middle-class white lady, I don’t have much problem going into Starbucks and getting a key or using the washroom without being harassed. But that’s not the case for a lot of other people.

[City] planning is a very male-dominated profession, and people who are planning housing developments like this probably haven’t lived in them.

Another issue explored in the book is the question of snowplowing: Which neighborhoods and areas within those neighborhoods get plowed first in a snowstorm?

Most cities have tended to prioritize clearing the major car thoroughfares for getting into and out of the city. This has an underlying economic logic to get certain people to and from work. Residential streets, sidewalks (if you’re lucky enough to live in a city that takes care of sidewalks, which most don’t as far as I can tell), and school zones are considered secondary. But what that means is that getting the children to school is much more difficult.

In Stockholm, they found that if you focus more on plowing smaller roads, residential spaces, spaces of institutions like schools and hospitals, then you get more people out moving faster, and you actually discourage people from relying on the car as much.

Another issue you explore is how breaking up housing projects to be mixed-income can have a negative side effect for low-income mothers. Can you explain that?

So many women, particularly lower-income women, rely on a series of informal arrangements to just make their lives work. That could be swapping childcare with your neighbor because you both do shift work, or developing an informal network to share cooking, or having somebody who’s older and retired walk the kids to school.

[City] planning is a very male-dominated profession, and people who are planning housing developments like this probably haven’t lived in them, and so this might be a completely invisible set of social networks [to them]. When you break up these housing projects, you are also breaking up those networks of survival.

You write about the safety question for women in cities — both real and perceived. How can women’s fear be weaponized against others?

Women are definitely socialized to feel fear in urban spaces, and that message is reinforced from early childhood: through sensationalized media reports of violence against women, through popular culture, cop shows. [At the same time,] women do experience street harassment, catcalling, groping on public transit. This is a worldwide problem that women face.

But the other part of that equation is the problematic ways that concerns about women’s safety can be used to justify things like increased surveillance, increased policing, cleanup tactics of certain areas, which would involve the removal or displacement of homeless people, of sex workers, of young people using the street, in order to create this glossy veneer of safety that is designed to make middle-class white women, like myself, feel more at home or comfortable in the city. Yet, it creates a huge range of problems for all sorts of other people — including women who don’t fit the image of the desirable female urban citizen.

Our cities are temporarily so different under Covid-19. When we all reemerge, is there an opportunity in that moment to look at some of the things that aren’t working about cities and use the moment of transition to do some work on those things?

I hope so. I’m cautiously optimistic that the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns have exposed a lot of the shaky foundations of our economic systems that rely so much on unpaid and underpaid labor that is often done by women, racialized folks, or immigrants. When you suddenly take away supports like childcare, you realize that this is actually an essential service that keeps the economy going. People like grocery store workers, people who work in long-term care homes who’ve gotten temporary pay rises during this crisis — do we recognize this as important labor, and would that go some distance towards closing a gender wage gap, as well?

Here in Canada, our big grocery store chains had bumped the pay of their grocery store workers up by $2 an hour during the pandemic, but they just decided to stop doing that. So that’s why I’m not 100% optimistic, because I think even before the end of the pandemic, we’re already seeing some of that scaled back in terms of how far the private sector’s really willing to go.

What sort of changes would you hope that city planners would be contemplating for public transportation right now, while we’re on pause?

Well, honestly, I think public transportation should be free or almost free. We also need to start thinking about how we prioritize the geography of public transportation. So often, the areas that are best served by the fastest, cleanest, most frequent services become very expensive and very exclusive, and the inner suburbs are left with infrequent schedules. So it’s thinking about which areas are currently in real need of better service and directing our energy there rather than to the already privileged locations.

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