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Imagining a Feminist City

Leslie Kern's new book 'Feminist City' is a flawed but compelling argument for an urban environment that genuinely exists for everyone.

I was once having a conversation about disused red phone boxes. It was not long after they’d made the front page of the New York Times international edition. The picture was eerie: dozens of them, disused, lined up together in a yard in Redhill, Surrey. With their cracked and faded paint, it looked like a graveyard – a rather sad metaphor for unadaptable national icons in decay. The article itself was about how the boxes were being reinvented: some now house defibrillators, community libraries, or tiny coffee kiosks. I said some of them should be turned into breast-feeding/pumping pods (not because I believe parents shouldn’t pump or feed their infants in public, but for those who might want to avoid the hostility or prying eyes they encounter all too often when doing so). My housemate didn’t understand what I meant. He thought what I had in mind was a giant breast you went into the box, as an adult, to suckle on. His misunderstanding was silly and we all laughed. But it is also an example, however benign, of a man’s inability to conceive of urban infrastructure which might not be for him. 

Men overwhelmingly organise the city. Consequently, the city is overwhelmingly organised for men. The city was traditionally conceived of as a place that men head into to make their fortunes, while their spouses stay tied to the home and the unpaid labour within it. That organisations run by one demographic group might have blindspots in the services they provide to a varied group of users is well-documented. We live, writes feminist geographer Leslie Kern in the introduction of Feminist City, in ‘a world where everything from medication to crash test dummies, bullet-proof vests to kitchen counters, smartphones to office temperatures, are designed, tested, and set to standards determined by men’s bodies and needs’. It is the presumed neutrality of the white, able-bodied, commuting, securely-housed man as user of the city that answers Kern’s questions “Why doesn’t my stroller fit on the street car?”, “Why do I have to walk an extra half-mile home because the shortcut is too dangerous?”.

Kern begins her investigation by looking at the needs of primary caregivers and pregnant people in cities, which leads into questions about the access needs of other groups (senior citizens, the disabled): why is seat-offering etiquette not more firmly ingrained on the Tube? And why are there so few public toilets? Of course, for those who can afford to pay for childminders or cleaners (overwhelmingly immigrants or women of colour, often kept in insecure working conditions by being paid cash in hand) to alleviate professional women’s double shift of work within and without the home, the problem becomes one of deepening inequality between women, as they ‘participate in multiple layers of exploitation in order to keep [them]selves afloat’.

Mass transit networks form a big part of her focus: how we might reimagine them to better serve a variety of users and make them feel safer. Most transit networks are built and run with a certain type of journey in mind: from the fringes inwards, a linear single journey corresponding with a commute at certain times of day. In cities with heavy snowfalls, snow-plowing patterns can mimic this valorisation of commuting, clearing main roads into the business district first. Stockholm is among a few cities now adopting a ‘gender mainstreaming ploughing strategy’, clearing pavements, bike paths, and roads to schools or creches before commuting highways, recognising that children need to be dropped off for school before work begins for many, and that women, children, and seniors are more likely to use public transport. Tactics such as these also have ecological benefits: Stockholm looks away from a car-centred status quo. 

The most compelling part of Feminist City is Kern’s emphasis on female friendship. There’s ‘something world-making’ about imagining a future centred on it, Kern argues, on reconfiguring female friendship as a ‘cultural force’ to rival and outrank the institution of marriage and to depose the nuclear, hetero-patriarchal family and the ‘settler sexuality’ particular to a North American context where displacement and dispossession of indigenous communities is still ongoing. She makes a few too many excuses over the parameters of her demographic status (white, able-bodied, cis, gentrifying). Peppering one’s writing with disclaimers about your limitations as a fair observer is all well and good, but one wishes she had deferred to other groups through simply interviewing a wide range of city users. Without this, statement such as ‘I sheepishly realised that until I faced these barriers [getting around with a stroller in tow], I’d rarely considered the experiences of disabled people’ are just hot air, whereas the admission ‘I have to ask how my increased desire for safety might lead to increased policing of communities of colour’ is much more apposite, and leads to elegant unpicking of the white supremacy inherent in the notion of the flâneur. 

Kern spends a long time on women’s urban safety (from violence, both public and private) and freedom (from interruption; she praises headphones as man-deterring devices), and rightly so, but it can feel like re-covering ground already well-trodden by others. When she mentions how misogyny affected Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign in emphasising the all-pervasive nature of misogyny, the book feels as if it’s bumping ashore on the long backwash of an old tide. It is far more refreshing when she muses on women’s right to “exist in public space by themselves, for themselves’. Gone are the days when a lone woman walking in the street was read as a sex worker, aka a streetwalker – a term which tells you everything you need to know about how far we’ve already come. Overall, this is an optimistic, pragmatic book, which points to already extant solutions and looks forward to a more just, joyous urban future.