‘Our public spaces are not designed for female bodies’, runs the blurb on on Leslie Kerns’ book feminist city published by Verso. Writer and housing activist Andrea Gibbons takes a critical read, and ponders on why our cities are still made for and by ‘mostly men’, and what are the possibilities for other, better cities for all sorts of bodies and beyond the already charted pathways…
Who we are shapes how we experience and move through the city.
Such a simple statement, such an obvious idea. Exactly the kind of simple, obvious idea that we need put into words. It reminds me that some move through urban spaces much more easily than I ever will, but also that many more encounter even more obstacles of varying kinds and natures. The closer you are to the ‘standard’ white male—a ubiquitous figure of standard design emerging from the history of the military and biopolitical engineering, as so beautifully laid out by Aimi Hamraie –the better you fit. The less hassle you face. The more freely you move.
Yet city streets are full of people who do not resemble any kind of standard figure. The very life of cities come from these thousands, millions all moving very differently: walking and wheeling and shuffling and crutching and running and supporting an elderly arm or pulling along a recalcitrant toddler by the hand. Each move through their own everyday routines and maps of accessibility as well as of danger and safety and beauty and love and memory and home. They somehow make this city their own, even if it was for the most part not really designed to be. To be a woman and a perennial pedestrian in cities designed by men who obviously drive everywhere, it is clear to me that I know a great deal they don’t know. The older and (hopefully) wiser I get, the more aware I am that there is much more I (as well as they) do not know. Luckily a growing body of work that speaks from the many axes of our human differences. It challenges us to learn, to change, to do better. It demands our opening up to the experience of others, requires us to listen, to be aware, to question our own comfort, to read, to enter into dialogue. It requires rethinking it all, and we are lucky that there exist some powerful radical and feminist tools to do just this.
One such tool is accompanimiento, a term central to the Zapatista movement for the enactment of solidarity. But like accompaniment, it can also translate to a simple moving side by side through the city with someone else. What do you learn? What do you see?
My favourite way is to do this with friends, on foot or bike. To become paired physical presences in streets and metros and alley ways navigating with wheelchairs, crutches, prams, neuropathy, all our glorious diversities of age, race, class, dress, religion, language, sexuality. There is also listening to others. How else could anyone not Muslim know what it’s like to cycle through the city wearing a hijab? Anyone not young and Black know the constant weight of possibility of being stopped and harassed by police? Anyone never homeless know the stories of life and death, violence and kindness that fills every city doorway? We must turn to each other, and to art, to film, to poetry, observation. We can find installations and interviews like those of Bekki Perriman, activist projects, marches, blogs. Books open this up, whether comics or fiction or people writing about how they wander the city. They also give the contexts of power, economics, architectural and design practices, planning debates. The multiple, often conflicting layers of decisions slowly accreted to create the city we know, whose edges we often work to wear down.
Of course, it seems it is still (with some glorious exceptions) mostly men wandering and theorising and bankrolling and building the city and being paid to write about it. So what are they missing?
What am I missing?
Leslie Kern’s The Feminist City gives somewhere to start. A framework on which to hang thinking cities differently. Grounded in her own experience, it offers a way to walk alongside her for a time, though for me it was a strangely unsettling experience of accompaniamento upwards. We are both white, cis. She is Canadian, from the suburbs, middle class, a mother, a successful academic. Having grown up on a dirt road in the Arizona desert will always define me, as has growing up poor, my experience of the racial, cultural and linguistic hybridities of the border. Decades now of living and working (and almost always walking or on a bike or bus) in Central and South Central Los Angeles, Glasgow, London and Manchester. I adore being a universal aunt and have wandered many a time and place with children in tow. But we see the world and this handful of the Global North’s cities very differently. She uses her own experience to open out this conversation of course, and perhaps this article just pushes that a little further.
We agree on a great deal though, as patriarchy still needs smashing. It remains at the core of so much that is wrong: the attitudes of (straight) men and their impositions on others in public space, their needs built into the fabric of our cities shaping how we move through them. We start, then, with a first glimpse of the City of Men.
There is a quote from Jane Darke – and it is a fabulous quote: ‘Any settlement is an inscription in space of the social relations in the society that built it…Our cities are patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete.’ (13) Take that thought out with you into your city, try it on for size. Transit systems that facilitate a fixed daily commute from suburb to city and back, rather than the multiple sideways trips that children and household require. The city as hub, of towering egos built phallic towards the skies, decades of sweeping redevelopment plans emerging from architecture and planning departments dominated by men, the growing financialisation of urban space twisting ‘home’ into nothing more than an investment to be bought or sold.
Within these often intimidating spaces, our everyday urban experience is deeply gendered, and this shapes the choices of how and where we move. For women, this is too often shaped by men’s reactions to us – the constant low-grade threat of violence, the daily harassment that moves us in conscious and unconscious ways. We all walk with our own maps of safety and danger, our own negotiations with the threat of rape too long understood as something we invite by what we wear and where we dare to go.
It made me think of how Sara Ahmed using ‘girling’ as a word, and how this operates:
Becoming a girl is here about how you experience your body in relation to space. Gendering operates in how bodies take up space: think of the intense sociality of the subway or train, how some men typically lounge around, with their legs wide, taking up not only the space in front of their own seat but the space in front of other seats. … To become accommodating, we take up less space. The more accommodating we are the less space we have to take up. Gender: a loop, tightening.
This experience is also always intersectional, these maps inflected by race, sexuality and so on. It is often difficult when we fit into and feel comfortable in a space, to know who might feel distinctly unwelcome there. This is why we must open our everyday to as many different voices and experiences as we can.
Examining the provisions made for those with children is one good way to examine who space has been designed for and who is welcome. City of Moms does that very well, even as it unpacks the patriarchal and deeply racialised politics built into the city form through the historical development of suburbs – white flight, the measures put into place to protect property values and white womanhood and male domestic bliss.
Dolores Hayden’s marvellous 1996 book The Grand Domestic Revolution puts them into perspective through contrast with what women themselves designed instead and the utopian thinking material feminists wished to build in the world – a great variety of apartment and community designs where in various ways the hard domestic work of child care, cooking, laundry and cleaning might be communally shared to make time for intellectual and artistic growth. Imagine. Instead we have suburbia’s isolation and imposed need for cars. While the city is more compact, offers more contact, this is not necessarily supportive. Instead it too often consists of fast-paced movement, stairs and crowds impatient of pregnancy’s space and slowness or the awkwardness of a pram. It lacks spaces to sit and breastfeed or change kids. Its bathrooms are totally inadequate (though you don’t need to be a mom to know that). For all the encomiums heaped upon motherhood, we do surprisingly badly at providing spaces that support it.
Of course the city isn’t always kind to the woman alone either. City of One explores the difficulties of being alone in everyday spaces like restaurants, but also the privileges that whiteness still confers there. How much do we mind discomfort, how much do we mind danger? How do we know who is most at risk? Even as spaces seem to be ever more welcoming to quiet and lonesome enjoyment of a coffee or a meal, there remain the everyday white fear and racism that continues to make such places unsafe for people of colour. As Kern quotes from Teju Cole, ‘We are not safe even in the most banal of places…’ (94). Depending on how our appearances are judged, we are more or less, as Jane Darke says, ‘like guests in the city’, ‘on men’s territory’, and needing to comport ourselves properly.
For me this connects directly to a final critique of the city – City of Fear and the ways that this fear is structured differently depending on where we sit within these multiple intersections of race and class and gender. Kern notes the very real link being made by developers and planners between the redevelopment andtransformation of city spaces and the safety of white able-bodied middle class cis women. Gentrification sold as a remaking of neighbourhoods to be clean and safe, facilitating the cleansing of these spaces of those bodies historically and socially constructed as unclean and unsafe. This is partly possible because of the very power of fear, particularly around rape, and the ways it has traditionally been blamed upon women themselves. We must always be careful, prudent. We must always be on watch, and danger is socially defined for us as certain kinds of strangers.
It is tragically absurd, given that any good feminist knows that most violence, rape and assault take place in the home and/or with people we trust.
Kern writes that such socialization is so powerful and deep that ‘female fear’ itself has been assumed to be an innate trait of girls and women. That the social function of this fear is the control of women. The real feminist fear then, is to what degree it succeeds, and to what degree this then divides solidarity along lines of race, class and the many other modes of identity that define us.
In a way, I think this is the most important thing I took away from Feminist City – the depths of this fear and how it can be so easily twisted to support certain versions of development and sterilised, racialised progress. It is true that the push to keep city safe for white women has led to militarised policing, heightened state and corporate surveillance, privatization of public space – all the things that make others less safe. The ability to be clear about who is actually at risk in different city spaces is vital, and requires an intersectional approach that starts from the needs and perspectives of the most vulnerable.
I hope this book allows us to always start there.
I’ve grouped these critiques of the city together because I find them important, but am still one of those people who find the city more liberating and more safe than many another kind of place. Perhaps this is why the depths of the fear surprised me a little. But it explains a lot I hadn’t quite thought through before. Women try to keep safe, which means maintaining a bubble, which in turn, Kern writes, can lead to not helping those in need, not empathising with those who are homeless, not risking volunteering, not allying with trans people, not integrating, not not not… (168) A whole list of no. What a closed, bordered life fear leads to. Which is why we need feminism and feminist authors.
Because it doesn’t have to. The beauty of cities is the way in which they allow us to open up. One of my favourite authors on public space is Lynn Lofland, who writes:
The city offers women freedom . . . Surely it is possible to be both pro-cities and pro-women, to hold in balance an awareness of both the pleasures and the dangers that the city offers women, and to judge that in the end, urban life, however fraught with difficulty, has emancipated women more than rural life or suburban domesticity. (230)
She emphasises that a vibrant cosmopolitan city space cannot be a fully safe space. To work it has to be full of strangers, it must challenge people’s prejudices, it needs to minimize segregation and homogeneity.
Cities have pasts that spread out before us to be unpicked, as Paula Meehan does:
To walk the streets of the city was, is, to stroll at will through the layers of its making and its peopling, to learn to place a particular building within its era…all that, and always the lives lived there.
City streets offer a kind of anonymised liberation. I love this passage from Assia Djebar on the defiant walks of an Algerian woman in Paris:
A woman walks alone one night in Paris. Walking for walking’s sake, to try to understand…Searching for words and so dream no more, wait no longer.
Rue Richelieu, ten, eleven o’clock at night; the autumn air is damp, To understand . . . Where will this tunnel of interior silence lead? Just the act of walking, just to put one foot energetically down in front of the other, feeling my hips swinging, sensing my body lightly moving, makes my life seem brighter and the walls, all the walls vanish . . .
City streets fill with working class women, always have done. I love this description from Elizabeth Gaskell, herself such a strange mix of middle class fear but also admiration I think, of the Lancashire mill girls that ‘came rushing along, with bold fearless faces and loud laughter and jest, particularly aimed at all those who appeared to be above them in rank and station’ (North and South). This resonates so incredibly with the girls moving proudly and rather belligerently through the landscapes of the many cities I have lived in, and what came to my mind in thinking of a City of Friends. Definitely not Sex and the City.
I did love how Kern draws on Erin Wunker’s descriptions of friendships among women as world-making and all that can mean: ‘In queer theory, world-making includes creative, disruptive, utopian and even failed performances, practices, relationships and imaginings that not only challenge structures like hetero- and homonormativity, public and private etc., but that map queer, insurgent other worlds beyond the already charted pathways. (57) I wanted more about Laverne and Shirley and Golden Girls, more thinking about how we age together as friends. But just the phrase City of Friends is close to my heart. As is City of Protest. Lefebvre writes of the city as site and stakes of struggle, and so it is. Kern writes, ‘I’ve learned that a feminist city is one you have to be willing to fight for.’ (141) And so it is. All of this together is why we should spend more time thinking of, and fighting for, the City of Possibility.
Kern, Leslie (2020) feminist city: Claiming Space in a Man-made world. New York and London: Verso. Hardback, £12.99
 Hamraie, Aimi (2017) Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
 Perriman, Bekki (2019) Door Ways: Women, Homelessness, Trauma and Resistance. Kackney: House Sparrow Press.
 Ahmed, Sara (2017) Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press, p. 25.
 Lofland, Lyn H. (1998) The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Territory. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
 Boland, Eavan with editors Paula Meehan and Jody Allen Randolph (2014) A Poet’s Dublin. Manchester:Carcenet Press.