The overlapping care crises of COVID-19 make the case for feminist cities clear — and more urgent.By Diana Budds Jul 7, 2020
While there are still many unknowns about the coronavirus pandemic, one thing has become certain: Our cities aren’t taking care of us like they should. Sidewalks are too narrow. Buses are too slow. Parks are too crowded (if there’s even a park to go to). Homes are too cramped (if you’re fortunate enough to have a home). Working from home isn’t always an option, and is nearly impossible for those who have children.
To Leslie Kern, an urban geographer, associate professor at Mount Allison University, and the author of Feminist City: Claiming Space In The Man-Made World, out now from Verso Books, none of these problems are new; they’ve just become more apparent during the pandemic.
“There’s a broad economic reliance on unpaid and underpaid labor, a lot of which is done by women, women of color, recent immigrants, and other minority groups,” Kern says. “What the pandemic has shown is that when this kind of labor, like childcare or education, is not able to function then everything else kind of also has to shut down … We’ve created a really shaky foundation for our basic human needs: everything from care of the elderly to getting our groceries to looking after our children.”
Our cities are designed around optimizing the economic growth of a certain strata of society and not around the day-to-day needs of everyone else. The overlapping care crises of COVID-19 make the case for feminist cities clearer than it’s ever been.
But Kern resists drawing a blueprint for a new master-planned feminist city. Instead, she believes we ought to take a closer look at how cities perpetuate inequality from the perspective of race, gender, ability, and class. “Just as the patriarchy is enshrined in the urban environment, white supremacy is also the ground upon which we walk,” Kern writes in her book. By first recognizing these unequal systems and social dynamics, we can then imagine new ways of inhabiting urban spaces.
Kern’s book draws on her experiences as a mother, teenager, college student, and single woman to illuminate the most enriching aspects of city life. She acknowledges the many ways people — and specifically women — thrive in cities despite the environmental inequality, referencing things like female friendship, protest, and policy change. These things are not unique to cities, but are essential to claiming space within them.
“The feminist city is an ongoing experiment in living differently, living better, and living more justly in an urban world,” Kern concludes.
The evidence of inequality is hidden in plain sight, Kern explains in the book. It’s public transportation oriented around a nine-to-five office worker in a central business district; the preponderance of housing oriented around the nuclear family; the neighborhood amenities and architectural styles used to market urban living to gentrifiers; how the perception of fear and crime against women contributes to hyper surveillance, over policing, and mass incarceration (also known as carceral feminism) that actually makes cities less safe for certain groups; and how all of these things have prevented people who aren’t cisgender white males from fully inhabiting their cities.
Kern calls for the creation of a city that lives up to the values of intersectional feminism. Metaphorically speaking, it’s about care.
“It has to be a city that prioritizes how people get their basic needs met,” she says, referring to food, shelter, and social connection. “If we thought of those sorts of things first and then layer on top of that economic question of production and consumption, what would that change in the way that we organize our built environments and the way that we move through them? Could we create some kind of order so that care isn’t just an afterthought to a primary need to produce things?”
According to Kern, this order could be implemented through housing policies and zoning codes that make it easier for people to live together in ways beyond the narrow definition of a single-family home, which has recently been a subject of debate in cities trying to update their land-use practices.
“You have to think about what counts as a family in this situation,” she says. “Who is this designed to exclude? So many of our cities have become completely unaffordable for people to live in, especially people who work in service, caregiving, and education. Without a huge emphasis on affordability, I don’t know how we can resolve that issue.”
Affordability is also a question of access. Rethinking transportation networks so that people can get where they need to go quickly and inexpensively is an important step toward creating a care-oriented, feminist city. “At various places in the book I touch on how many of our public transit networks are still designed around the idea of, like, a commuter that comes into the city at a particular time on a linear trip,” Kern says. “This doesn’t reflect the complexity of many people’s lives, and especially women’s lives.” And rethinking transportation networks from a feminist perspective doesn’t always require new construction. It could be as simple as reprioritizing snow plows to clear sidewalks and the areas around schools before moving on to roads and central business districts — a strategy Sweden already uses.
A feminist city oriented around care could also include police abolition. “We want to take women’s fear seriously, but by expanding and relying so much on policing and the criminal justice system to do that, we have created a situation where greater levels of policing and harm have been able to be weaponized against Black people, indigenous people, people of color, homeless people, sex workers, youth, and so on,” Kern says. “This has happened in ways that I don’t think have actually made any women safer at all, but which created the veneer of safety that looks good for cities and policy makers, but doesn’t really change anything on the ground or in the home.”
The problems amplified by the coronavirus aren’t new, and neither is advocacy for affordable housing, better transportation, and decarceration. Cities are societal values embodied in concrete and steel, and making feminist cities will require redesigning more than just roads and buildings.
“I would love to imagine that if we could design out crime and fear and inequalities that we would have done it by now,” Kern says. “Although, one could argue that those very inequalities are part of what keeps our entire economic system functioning. Maybe there isn’t actually a will to completely design away inequality since that propels everything from our property markets to our labor markets…We can’t just take for granted the land that we’re on and that the kind of regime of power and property that it’s based on should remain the same going forward.”
Life in Denver could look a lot different if the city follows a set of recommendations released Tuesday by a city-appointed Climate Action Task Force.
In a lengthy report, the group, which consists of representatives from energy, business, conservation, neighborhood, education and other interests, urged “immediate and decisive action to reduce our impact and prepare for climate change.”
Among the group’s top priorities:
- A retrofit of existing homes and buildings to support energy efficiency, and stricter requirements for new buildings
- An expanded bus system that is more affordable and fully electric
- A reconfiguration of city streets to give more space to buses, cyclists, and in commercial areas, food vendors
- An investment in electric vehicle infrastructure
- An end to the use of natural gas for heating and cooking as much as possible
The recommendations are the result of months of meetings among Denver citizens appointed to the Climate Action Task Force. Mayor Michael Hancock agreed to form the group and launch a new climate office after Denver Council President Jolon Clark dropped an effort to put an energy tax on the 2019 ballot.
“It’s huge,” Clark said of the report. “I think that it’s an extraordinarily heavy lift, but I think that anything less is a failure. The scale of the problem that we’re facing and the reality of how that is going to impact people in our community we’re seeing play out right now with this pandemic.”
Some of the recommendations echo earlier planning documents, like Denver Moves and Blueprint Denver. This set of proposals would likely be implemented piece by piece, and would require action by the City Council and other political entities including the state legislature and the Regional Transportation District board.
They would cost nearly $200 million each year and $3.4 billion over the next decade. The task force recommended a quarter-cent sales tax hike and a slate of new fees on parking and personal vehicles to cover the cost.
A City Council committee will discuss the report next week, where Clark said he will also present a draft motion for the council to refer that sales tax measure to the ballot.
A different funding mechanism is already on the November ballot. Resilient Denver, a citizen advocacy organization, had planned to place the proposal on last year’s city ballot but missed a key deadline. Its plan would ask voters to approve a tax on electricity and natural gas consumption, but the group could be willing to pull the initiative in favor of a sales tax.
“We will determine that when we see a sales tax on the ballot,” said Resilient Denver spokesperson Ean Thomas Tafoya. “Right now, it’s just a recommendation.”
While the task force acknowledges their recommendations amount to a “significant investment,” their report suggests the plan could save Denver citizens billions in the long run. The policies could blunt the most expensive impacts of climate change. The recommendations could also move the city to technologies like electric buses, which are more expensive to purchase than fossil fuel-powered versions but cheaper to maintain.
“Every dollar we spend in prevention and preparedness now will save many dollars in the future,” the report’s authors wrote.
The overarching goal of the task force to suggest policies to put Denver on a much more ambitious plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Under the city’s current 80×50 Climate Action Plan from 2018, Denver would need to reduce emissions 80 percent below 2005 baseline levels by 2050. The new plan aims to eliminate all emissions by 2040.
Grace Rink, executive director of Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency, said the city would still need to review the plan before adopting the new goals, but said the more ambitious targets fit with the growing urgency of climate change. UN climate scientists have recommended humanity move to net-zero emissions by 2050, with even faster declines in industrialized countries.
“The task force has made it clear the city of Denver should align its climate goals to current science. Although the 80×50 climate goals were right at the time, so much has evolved on the subject,” said Rink.
The authors also say the investments will help address the city’s history of racist planning practices by implementing more equitable land use policies. The coronavirus pandemic and climate change will both disproportionately affect the city’s low-income and minority communities, they wrote.
“We have an opportunity to build Denver back better by interlacing the recovery across our current economic, racial justice, and climate crises,” they wrote.
Sebastian Andrews, an 18-year-old who also sat on the task force, said the report outlines a more “collective” city, where people understand they share space and resources. The result, he said, isn’t just a necessary response to climate change. It could be an altogether more livable city.
“With this plan, Denver can be an actual model nationally and internationally for solid and effective climate action,” he said. “This task force process has given us a chance to be the leader.”
The report recommends significant changes to land use policies, favoring density over sprawl. That could mean relatively low-impact measures like allowing granny flats in more areas or more significant changes like lifting single-unit zoning restrictions across the city and eliminating parking requirements for new buildings. The overall goal is to reduce the need to travel for everyday needs.
The group also recommended big changes to how people travel.
If fully realized, the changes would result in a dramatic shift away from personal vehicle travel to greater use of transit, bicycles, and yes, your feet.
Transportation accounts for 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the city, the report stated. The goal is to achieve a complete emissions-free, affordable and convenient transportation system by 2040.
To achieve that, by 2022, the city would pay the RTD to run buses more frequently with a focus on denser areas in the city. It would plan for a bus rapid transit system, where buses run in dedicated lanes, on “all major corridors” — a future RTD is already preparing for. Denver would also pay RTD to make transit free for all seniors, passengers with disabilities, Medicare recipients, and youth. The city would also consider making transit free for all riders by 2030.
RTD itself is in the midst of a massive overhaul of its bus network, and it’s become clear in recent weeks that major cuts from pre-pandemic service levels are needed across its system. Some board members suggested RTD could provide regional service with local governments either paying extra for local service as this plan suggests for Denver, or operating it themselves.
Buses are far more space-efficient at moving large numbers of people than personal vehicles. And transit-only lanes will help them move a whole lot faster than they do today across most of the city. And some residential streets would be converted to car-free or car-lite zones. But such moves will also result in less space for personal vehicles — long Denver’s favorite method of getting around.
Clark said he expects to hear from frustrated drivers. But he framed the addition of better, faster bus service and more space for bicycles as an increase in mobility options. He also pointed out that because of the city’s breakneck growth over the last decade, it’s no longer possible to drive across the city in 20 minutes.
“Even if we take the climate conversation out, you can’t continue to put more single-occupancy vehicles on our roads,” he said. “That commute that everyone dreams of from 10 years ago, or 15 years ago — it’s already gone.”
Naomi Amaha with the Denver Streets Partnership sat on the task force. She acknowledged that the group is asking many Denver residents to change their lifestyles. But she noted the coronavirus pandemic has already done that in the last four months.
“There’s opportunity to continue to shift, and pivot, and re-evaluate and change the way in which we exist so that we can have the outcomes that we want — especially knowing that so many people do care about our planet and climate change,” Amaha said.