Reflecting on International Women’s Day

March 8, 2021

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This year we are marking International Women’s Day by reflecting on several themes:

City design can reflect gender bias. In this 2020 article in Dezeen, author Caroline Criado Perez states “Things like zoning are really very biased against women. This idea of zoning has been designed around this idea of a very traditional male-centric lifestyle.” Further, Perez adds “We haven’t designed public spaces to account for the violence that women experience, and not just to protect women from the violence, but also to account for the way that it’s always in our heads.”

It is an intersectional issue. The feeling of “hypervisibility” experienced by BIPOC, trans women and non-binary people while in public spaces is important to understand. This conversation hosted by the Bentway, Hypervisibility in Public Space, provides personal reflections as well as artistic responses to these traumas by diverse panelists.  Justine Abigail Yu (Founder & Editor and Chief, Living Hyphen) states “… Always my expectation has been danger at night as a woman. But actually, the hyper visibility of my skin in broad daylight, really pushed that to the forefront especially during this time, during this climate of such tensions.”

In an interview with Streetsblog, Leslie Kern, author of Feminist City states “One of the things that the people have connected with during the pandemic that I touch on in the book are issues around care work in cities, the long-standing gender divisions in care work, and the ways in which some care work is put off on the shoulders of low-income women, women of color, immigrants, etc. The pandemic has made that system much more visible to a lot of people who might not otherwise want to pay attention, and the instability in that system is exposed.”

She continues, “What does a more just and equitable city look like if you start from the standpoint of a disabled person, a senior citizen, a low-income single mother, of a recent immigrant, and all of these pieces of the puzzle are going to give you a slightly different perspective? If we can take these multiple starting points then we might end up with a different way of looking at everything from how bus routes are organized, which neighborhoods they go to, what time, and how does that affect different groups of people.”

There are some exemplary precedents. Recently, The Toronto Star reported on “a new private-public partnership that created 34 affordable units for single mothers in a private rental building in Regent Park, is being hailed as “innovative” and something that needs to be replicated in other buildings being constructed in Toronto… The 34 units are a result of a lease that Daniels and Sun Life are entering into with WoodGreen, a charitable organization in Toronto that operates Homeward Bound, a training and counselling program that helps single moms who are on social assistance and/or homeless get into college, find jobs and permanent housing.”

In 2019, Vancouver Fire Rescue Services partnered with YWCA to redevelop an underutilized fire hall, “providing a unique partnership opportunity to address the lack of affordable housing for single mothers and their children in Vancouver… The four floors above the Fire Hall contain two and three-bedroom homes for single mothers and their children, along with a rooftop patio. A range of YWCA services will be offered to ensure residents are well supported.” Read more about this innovative facility.

Strategists respond:

Associate Yasmin Afshar responds: While affordable housing for single mothers has always been a necessity, it is all the more important during this pandemic, where we are seeing a rise in reports of domestic violence. According to CP24., Canada’s Assaulted Women’s Helpline fielded 20,334 calls between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, 2020, compared to 12,352 over the same period the previous year.

For years, experts have been saying that to end violence against women, we need long-term solutions, including safe and affordable housing. While there are many reasons abused women do not leave, one of the most prominent is a lack of housing options to turn to, including shelters, transitional housing, and affordable housing. And this strain on available resources has been heightened during this pandemic, which as seen a lack of shelter space for the unhoused population, let alone housed women who are currently in dangerous living conditions.

If we are going to tell women that they are safest in their homes, we need to make sure that this is actually possible. We need more housing geared to the experiences and needs of women in our communities.

Intern Lindsay Nooren, in response to Caroline Criado Perez’s Dezeen article: From the perspective of a student who’s focus is public spaces and the influence they have in a community, something I’ve learned is that that women and public spaces have one thing in common – both are often incredibly overlooked and undervalued in urban planning policy, design, and implementation. The benefits of public spaces span far and wide, but if they do not represent the unique voices occupying a community, they fail. The intrinsic values placed on spaces like sidewalks, parks, public squares, streets, bus stops, etc. are diverse and require unique and diverse approaches. The functionality of space and the future of it has long been dictated with women’s opinions, needs, and feelings as an afterthought. This lack of diversity and inclusion is not only counter-productive, but it is also incredibly dangerous.

Criado Perez mentions that; ‘the thing that I think really marks women’s experience and engagement with public spaces is violence against women, and how that hasn’t been factored in so much to design’. Cramming to-do lists between the hours of 8 and 6 to avoid an unlit and lonely walk, pepper spray in the purse, keys in hand, calls to friends and loved ones put on speaker when the sun has set but the journey is not yet over – these are some realities.”

Criado follows up by saying that “we haven’t designed public spaces to account for the violence that women experience, and not just to protect women from the violence, but also to account for the way that it’s always in our heads.” Gaining a seat at a very full table has been a constant uphill battle – feeling secure in our communities is no different. Women of colour, trans women, young women, old women, young girls, women who have a disability, etc. have unique lived socio-spatial experiences that have long been neglected by a standardized opinion and approach on how our cities should function, look, and feel.

In the words of Jay Pitter, “I’m good with profiles & potlucks but I’d prefer safer & accessible streets, more public transit, affordable housing & child and elder care facilities.”. The profound influence of urban planning demands a diverse approach which is fundamental to the prosperity and well-being of our communities, especially for women.

Planner Michelle Rowland responds: Transit in Toronto does not account for women. The busiest surface transit routes such as the Dufferin bus, Spadina streetcar and Queen streetcar, connect with diverse neighbourhoods, other important transit stations and commercial areas. Research has shown that women partake in greater trip chaining, where multiple stops are included on a tour, where they might go to work, pick up children from daycare, complete errands and then travel home. The interior design of bus and streetcar makes room for seating, standing and space for wheelchairs, but it does not account for the gendered nature of mobility. When riding the Dufferin bus, it’s evident that women’s travel behaviours are not accounted for when parents and strollers try to get on the bus with their dozens of shopping bags from the Dufferin mall but there isn’t room available. There are ways to improve this issue, it could be a redesign of the interior of a bus to be more spacious to allow for strollers or it could be to increase bus frequency to provide more space.