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Feminist City:
Claiming Space in a Man-made World
Lori Brown

Leslie Kern
Verso, 2020

Feminist City by Leslie Kern is an aspirational book that seeks to introduce what feminist cities could and do look like and to make visible these often-invisible urban experiences. “There are little feminist cities sprouting up in neighborhoods all over the place,” Kern tells us, “if we can only learn to recognize and nurture them” (176). The book provides a useful overview of both theory and real-world examples illustrating her arguments through spatial experiences; the book would be useful in both design and theory courses. It would also be an important resource for students from an array of disciplines including architecture, design, women and gender studies, legal studies, and policy.

Using examples from queer, feminist and critical theory that examine the way space participates in the structuring systems of oppression, Kern shows how built environments shape our lives, experiences, relationships, and mobilities, reinforcing and often perpetuating power dynamics that continue to benefit the most powerful (historically, heterosexual white men). However, from at least the mid-nineteenth century onwards, women have found ways to creatively intervene in the spaces where they live: to create more supportive environments for themselves, their families, and their social networks. Kern’s book brings into focus the complexities and structural inequalities of urban life and highlights successful efforts by feminists to challenge patriarchal conditions through the inclusion of more diverse users and their needs in the design of our cities and public spaces. Kern highlights spatial practices that forged grassroots socially engaged arrangements that resulted in both formal and informal interventions—like the Swedish architecture firm White Arkitekter collaborating with teenage girls to design more inclusive and safe public space and Glasgow’s immigrant and working-class neighbors of Kinning Park Complex creating meals, repair cafes, and performances to foster a livable city. She cites examples where large segments of urban populations invent ways to meet their basic needs when the state does not. The collective Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia helps women secure housing and better public services, forming social networks beyond families, something which Kern sees as part of deconstructing households that center heteropatriarchal rigid gender norms, to create relations where “all bodies are welcome and accommodated” (54).

At the core of Kern’s feminist city is what philosopher Maria Puig del la Bellacasa argues is a feminist ethics of care that is aware of the interdependencies between all living beings.  Kern describes the feminist city as “an ongoing experiment in living differently, living better, and living more justly in an urban world” (176). Cities provide potentials for care work—work women still disproportionally provide—to become more equally shared through a variety of models beyond the heterosexual, nuclear family to support more diverse spatial and social relations and their environments. For example, Send Flere Krydderier (Send More Spices) café in Copenhagen is a space for immigrant women to prepare and sell food, share their stories, and connect with the neighborhood combining care, community, and employment.

The “City of Moms” chapter discusses the city through the lens of mothering, highlighting how cities are not designed to holistically accommodate parents with children.  Beginning with the pregnant body, Kern describes ways pregnancy produces a different spatial experience. One is made more aware of their bulging and expanding body, a body that is read as different and oftentimes not welcomed. Once the child is born, an entire new set of challenges emerges through the ways in which cities are built and the negotiations these spaces require with, for example, a stroller or a wandering toddler. At least in cities with accessible public transportation, a mother has more supported mobility for daily life needs like groceries and parks. The suburbs, created with “very specific social and economic agendas,” pose a different set of challenges for mothers. Isolated and most often not near public transit, the suburban mom frequently becomes the stay-at-home caretaker and home manager—reinforcing the traditional heterosexual nuclear family.

“City of Protest” examines cities as spaces of protest for the improvement of life and work conditions. As Kern writes, “[a]ny attempt to sketch out a vision of the feminist city must consider the role of activism” (118).  For example, Women Plant Toronto’s municipal activism brought gender concerns into Toronto’s urban agenda. Other ongoing protest movements such as Take Back The Night marches, begun in the 1970s, continue to raise public awareness about domestic violence to the more recent Slutwalks protests. Begun in 2011, Slutwalks was in direct response to a Toronto police officer’s comment that women should not dress like sluts if they want to be safe, which has become a global movement calling out pervasive rape culture endemic across the world. As Kern notes, most improvements in cities that benefit women are associated with activist work; “…a feminist city is one you have to be willing to fight for” (141).

“City of Fear” discusses how cities are spaces that produce and reproduce fear, restricting women’s ability to move and work, thus limiting a woman’s bodily, emotional, and financial autonomy. Feminists acknowledge “that women’s lack of safety exists within an interlocking network of domination that facilitates the social control of women and other less powerful groups in the city” (158) and therefore, cannot be just “designed out” of cities. However, Korn provides examples of cities becoming safer and more user-friendly. In Barcelona, a feminist cooperative of architects, sociologists, and planners are proposing ways to alter the built environment to increase visibility and more open public space. By banning sexist advertisements, Stockholm and Geneva have created harassment-free transit systems. Apps are being designed to enable easier and faster reporting of harassment such as SaftiPin developed by Kalpana Viswanath in Delhi.  Kern features a range of examples of those who are creating more inclusive, diverse, and egalitarian places like the research by black feminist theorist Zenzele Isoke revealing how Black women in Newark, New Jersey use practices of “homemaking” for collective transformation in their city, or in Kigali, Rwanda where women’s safety and economic conditions improved after more secure market space was built that included breastfeeding spaces for their female vendors.
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Kern is not optimistic about the likelihood of current institutions incorporating feminist “care-centered” approaches, an area where I must disagree. There are many global movements underway that are centering the work of care—from climate justice and reproductive justice to racial justice. Yes, it is a slow and long-term process, but it is happening.

Lori Brown, FAIA, is an architect, professor of architecture, and director of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the School of Architecture at Syracuse University. Her creative research practice examines relationships between architecture and social justice with particular emphasis on gender and its impact upon spatial relationships. She is cofounder and leads ArchiteXX, a gender equity in architecture organization transforming the profession by bridging the academy and practice in New York City. She is a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a 2021 Architectural League of New York Emerging Voices recipient.