How to remake the manmade city

When a city designs for the needs of women, the results serve us all. From snow plowing routes to sidewalk widths, geographer and author Leslie Kern argues that it’s high time to rethink the manmade default.

“When we make improvements … we're really lifting things up for a much wider range of people,” Leslie Kern

Geographer and author Leslie Kern (right) argues that by making improvements to cities for women, we can lift up the lives of all citizens. (ESB Professional/Shutterstock, Mitchel Raphael)

Architects can design beautiful buildings. But sometimes those designs exclude people.

Take the new fine arts library at Cornell University. It's light, airy and modern.

But "all of the flooring is metal grates … to really showcase the books. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to take into account that different sorts of humans would also need to use this space," says writer and academic Leslie Kern.

It's not a welcoming place for those wearing skirts, accompanied by children, or using mobility devices, says the urban geographer and author of Feminist City: A Field Guide

Questioning the Universal Standard

That's just one example of a tendency of design created from the standard of a "typical male user," says Kern. She sees this "rather outdated" thinking evident in the buildings, plans and policies of cities, too. It leaves many residents underserved.

It's hard to build, plan and design for experiences that you haven't had in your own life- Leslie Kern

Speaking at an online presentation by Carleton University, she noted that so-called "niche groups" — including women, the elderly, LGBTQ people, and those with mobility needs — actually now make up a majority of urban residents. 

Everything from sidewalk width to traffic patterns can be redesigned to benefit everyone in a city, not just the mythical standard male user, says Kern. (Maxi Kore/Shutterstock)

Additionally, the default "might not apply to the lives of nearly as many men as we think it ought to."

After all, any transit user who has strained to reach an overhead strap, any parent bumping a baby stroller backwards up steps, or anyone accompanying an elderly person to a public bathroom, may recognize the problem. 

Applying Feminist Principles

The pandemic era has made these inequities more visible to more people, says Kern, who is also director of Women's and Gender Studies at Mount Allison University. 

This COVID-19 year has also demonstrated that the immutable can change quickly. So she proposes that applying "feminist principles might help transform our cities into more just, equitable and sustainable spaces."

A view of the Aspern district in Vienna, Austria. Surrounding an airfield, Aspern's urban planning was designed using data gathered from women in the neighbourhood. (Wikimedia Commons)

Kern points to the way a gender lens was applied to the planning of the residential Aspern district of Vienna. 

Women were asked how they used their neighbourhood. The data suggested that they took more pedestrian trips, needed multipurpose space in housing, and wanted convenience and public-private space adjacency.

As a result of the findings, useful alterations were made, to street lighting, park facilities, sidewalk widths and apartment floor plans.

Gender Mainstreaming 

Gender mainstreaming, as the practice of incorporating women's needs and perspectives into public spaces is called, can help make cities more inclusive. But Kern argues that race, economics, sexuality, neurodifference, and other factors, need to be taken into account as well. 

She points to "care work" for others as being more than a female domestic responsibility. So Kern argues should be free to occur more collectively, and in public spaces. She challenges planners, architects, and policymakers to think as themselves the following question: "How can our cities and buildings support care work outside the home?"

Then there's the symbolic yet vital matter of making places more inclusive and welcoming by changing the "story" of a place, Kern says. That's because names and historical acknowledgements in public places tell us who belongs.

Improving the future

Answering questions from an audience at Carleton's Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism, Leslie Kern said that architecture and planning still tend to be male-dominated fields, but can do better.

She pointed out that her book builds on decades of work by consultants and theorists who have developed ways to achieve more user-oriented design when it comes to buildings and cities. 

Women tend to make more pedestrian trips and use public transit, a fact that has been incorporated into more equitable city planning and policies. (Maggie MacPherson, CBC)

Residents, users, and stakeholders, in all their diversity, need to be brought into the process directly rather than have their needs imagined "Actually speaking to them, seeking them out, understanding what their needs are" is paramount for Kern.

Simply put, "it's hard to build, plan and design for experiences that you haven't had in your own life," Kern says. 

**This episode is from the Carleton University online Forum Lecture, "Towards a Feminist Post-COVID City" given by Leslie Kern in February 2021.

Guests in this program

Leslie Kern is an associate professor of Geography and Environment, as well as program director of Women's and Gender Studies, at Mount Allison University. Her latest book is Feminist City: A Field Guide