Cover photo by Mitchel Raphael
Reading time 6 minutes
Design elements related to the needs of women, all, none excluded. Public transport that facilitates travel for those who have to navigate between home, school, work with heavy shopping bags and strollers. Safe and well-lit roads that are passable. Observe with a careful, critical eye what until yesterday seemed normal to us to live in our cities and discover that in reality it is not so normal. There is more we can aspire to, more that can make the daily life of women, the elderly, the disabled and many others more functional and hopefully better. They come out copiously from the pen of Leslie Kern, author of Feminist City: claiming space in a male made world released a few weeks ago also in Italy with the title Feminist city. The struggle for space in a world designed by men, the starting points for building an ideal, inclusive, safe and suitable city for everyone. Associate Professor of Geography and Environment and Director of the Program on Women and Gender Studies at the Canadian University Mount Allison, Kern highlights not only the critical issues in the city built entirely on a male model and focused mainly on the needs of the few, but it also offers solutions to follow, wide-ranging ideas that can bring to the center the duty to listen and satisfy everyone’s needs. From the city for mothers, to the city for singles, to the fears that can emerge in the face of unforeseen and dangerous situations, to the lack of protection on the part of those who should protect us, especially against minorities. With extreme competence acquired also thanks to her PhD, a critical spirit that nothing escapes and at the same time direct experiences as a woman and mother, Kern told me about the work that we can all do together, citizens, professionals, institutions, to achieve an ideal city that leaves no one behind.
In your book you tell how modern urban spaces are designed exclusively for men, completely forgetting the bodies of women and their needs as workers and mothers. So how should the ideal city be in your opinion?
One of the thoughts that has become very clear, especially after the pandemic, is that most of our cities are unable to support the work women do caring for children, families, the elderly … and so on. . Many social services in our countries are reduced and much of this work is done by women in their private homes. Cities have not really considered how this care work can develop and be organized. For me one of the elements of the feminist city or the ideal city will be precisely planning where and how our care work can take place and not just letting women do it in a home for free. We also need to talk about safety and allow women to express their fears about the urban environment to also change the design of the city and make it safer. Another point that makes up my ideal city is accommodation. Women struggle to pay the high cost of rent, especially if they are single or single parents. The greatest risk is the phenomenon of gentrification, so having cheap and low-level housing is another key to creating a feminist city.
How has everyday life affected our way of experiencing the city?
An everyday approach to life is important because much of the way women experience exclusion in the city is in everyday life. We experience difficulties such as not being able to run to the bus if full of shopping bags with children or not finding a place to change the diaper, for example. Or we experience being stopped on the street in unpleasant ways that can make us feel offended or helpless. Often, we do not find a space in which to feel safe, so it is precisely in every moment of the day that we experience situations that remind us how much the city is not tailor-made for us. I think part of the solution can arise from reflecting on how the plot of everyday life develops, therefore thinking about how people go from home to work, children to school, how we relate to our community, etc. Often architects and planners think of flashy buildings, big projects, sometimes forgetting to pay attention to where the school bus stop is.
Your book opens our eyes on how the structure of the city we live in every day is not inclusive. What can we do to develop a critical look and recognize what is and what is not suitable for women?
It is precisely for this reason that I wrote the book. The cities we live in seem normal because they have always been like this. But we don’t pay much attention to the question “who makes the decisions?”. We need to start being aware that there are people behind the design of public transport or a new park. Architecture and planning are still professions dominated by a specific vision. They are not sexist, but they do not take into account the different experiences of women and other people. North America, for example, is white and middle-class and has not designed cities with the experience of immigrants or the most marginalized people in mind. We need to pay attention to who makes these decisions and ask people from different backgrounds how they live in cities and what there should be to meet their needs as well.
What change have you seen in these years on this topic?
A lot has changed since the Black Lives Matter movement appeared again in 2020. We started talking, for example, about public space, then about the type of statues, flags, images, names that surround us and how representative they are of only a part of reality … Because what we see in the public space tells a story about who is included and who is not, all over the world. Safety in cities is also an important issue. We women need to feel safe, to feel protected and we need the police for this but, what is happening is something else especially for immigrant women and black women. In recent years, therefore, we have begun to look more critically at what our cities represent and to talk about how some groups of people experience violence from those who should make you feel safe.
It is a strong and inclusive message. Do you have a significant personal experience?
One of the experiences told in the book is the experience of becoming a mother when I lived in London, a wonderful city of great diversity that I really loved and of which I really felt a part. When I had my daughter, however, I was no longer able to walk around like I used to. I quickly realized that using public transport with a stroller in a city like London was madness. Although many subway stations had lifts, only fifty stations out of two hundred and seventy, as I tell in the book, are accessible by stroller. Curved stairways, unexpected steps, steep escalators, narrow tunnels and thousands of commuters and tourists make the journey truly an adventure. This awakening to reality made me understand, even with a certain embarrassment, that before encountering these obstacles I had never paused to reflect on the experiences of disabled people and the elderly. Until then I had enjoyed the city as a privileged body.
What can we do from now to change this reality?
First of all by increasing the diversity of representation in key professions, as politicians, designers, architects, urban planners. There needs to be more inclusion of gender, race, class and so on in designing cities. The more diversity there will be in these professions, the more they will be able to understand all the different needs. It is also important to think about housing and transport more suitable for women. We can also get involved in social movements by engaging at the forefront of what we believe in. It takes time for a change to take place, but it is necessary to start from our personal sense of responsibility.