Urbanism for Women: what is, and what could be (Book Review: Feminist City)

Book title: Feminist City
Author: Leslie Kern
Released: 2020
Review by: Daphne Lawless

I forget the source, but I remember a socialist writer saying something like “the middle class are the vanguard of living well under capitalism”. Quite often, due to having more education, more disposable income and more leisure time, professionals and the relatively well-off are among the first to experiment with new ways of living – such as minimising the use of animal products, or making carbon-neutral and sustainable choices in housing and transport. Crucially, they also have the time and resources they need to advocate effectively for such positive social reforms.

This leads to a paradox whereby these reforms can be stigmatised as “elitist” or “anti-working-class”, by those seeking to promote reactionary politics – even if they would benefit working people if they were adopted across society. Thus, in a recent council by-election in working-class Māngere-Ōtāhuhu, a Right-wing candidate was able to describe Māngere’s new network of cycle lanes as “elitist and bordering on racism”[1], echoing a line promoted by Conservative-Left blogger Martyn Bradbury[2]. Attempts to promote alternatives to car dependency, such as the “Safer Streets” trial in Ōnehunga, or the campaign to open up the Auckland Harbour Bridge for cycling, are vulnerable to cynical commentators playing upon the fact that quite often the leading “faces” of such events are white professionals. Working people who don’t have the time or confidence to participate in formal consultations, and who are understandably suspicious that reforms proposed by the already-privileged will inevitably make their lives harder and more expensive, will be vulnerable to such bad-faith messaging.

To be clear, there are already many strong brown and working-class advocates of carbon-neutral and active transport modes.[3] But to give another example, many disabled Aucklanders complain that the new cycle lanes on Karangahape Road have made the street less accessible for those with mobility impairments; a problem which could have been avoided if disability advocates had been consulted in design and planning.[4]

All this is a roundabout way of saying that – while we should reject bad faith criticisms from the Right and the Conservative Left – there is a problem of lack of intersectionality in the movement for sustainable urbanism, housing and transport. Solutions such as intensified housing and removing some of the privileges of private automobiles, as long as they are mainly designed and advocated for by the already privileged, will inevitably have “blind spots” and “gaps” which might paradoxically make things worse for some of the marginalised and vulnerable, and offer opponents of sustainability an easy line of attack, that will disrupt the broad coalition necessary to make such changes stick.

This is an absolutely huge topic, but Leslie Kern’s Feminist City offers a convincing call for a better urbanism along one axis of intersectionality – that is, gender. Kern, an academic geographer working in small-town Canada, is refreshingly upfront with her acknowledgements that this is only one issue, and repeatedly reminds her readers to also listen to Black, indigenous, queer, trans and working-class voices on the issues:

Asking “women’s questions” about the city means asking about so much more than gender. I have to ask how my desire for safety might lead to increased policing of communities of colour. I have to ask how my need for stroller access can work in solidarity with the needs of disabled people and seniors. I have to ask how my desire to “claim” urban space for women could perpetuate colonial practices and discourses that harm the efforts of Indigenous people to reclaim lands taken and colonized (p.26).

Kern is conscious that certain urban reforms which make things easier for a certain class of women or a certain class of parents might paradoxically make things worse for others – for example, urban cafés which are comforting and safe “third spaces” for professional women often push out working-class and marginalised groups’ spaces (p. 106). This is an example of ways in which

making cities seem safe for women also tends to make them less safe for other marginalized groups. Efforts to “clean up” downtown areas and “revitalize” residential and retail districts are typically accomplished through a combination of aesthetic measures (beautification projects) and the active removal of groups of people that have been marked as symbols of disorder, danger, crime, or disease… Bodies that do not conform due to age, illness, disability, racialization, class, sexuality, addiction, etc., are marked as “out of place” and targeted for displacement. (pp. 160, 168)

Amid a discussion of the notorious phenomenon of gentrification, she raises the issue of the gentrification of parenting:

The norms and cultural signifiers of good parenting have been gentrified as they’re increasingly defined by the particular product brands, styles, and kinds of activities purchased and practiced by middle and upper class urban households. This plays out in the urban environment and middle-class parents demand and draw resources to their neighbourhoods and provide a market for upscale shopping and carefully curated child-centred activities…

As the work of motherhood becomes costlier via the gentrification of parenting, those who can afford privatized services benefit while those who cannot are shoved into neighbourhoods that make their lives even harder… low-income women are forced to find ways to weave care and paid labour together. (pp. 46, 57)

Key to Kern’s argument is the difference between what is and what could be in urbanism, for women. She understands very clearly that the suburban, car-dependent model of urban life is not only ecologically sustainable, but destructive to community life and individual flourishing, particularly for women:

the suburbs are anything but natural. Suburban development fulfilled very specific social and economic agendas… The suburban lifestyle both assumed and required, in order to function properly, a heterosexual nuclear family with one adult working outside the home and one inside…

the suburbs are not consciously trying to keep women in the kitchen and out of the workplace, but given the assumptions they rest upon, the suburbs will actively (if not agentically) stymie attempts to manage different family shapes and working lives…

The isolation, size of the family home, need for multiple vehicles, and demands of child care can continue to push women either out of the workplace or into lower-paying, part-time jobs that mostly allow them to juggle the responsibilities of suburban life…

For families headed by women, “their very survival,” argues Wekerle, is dependent “on a wide network of social services frequently found only in central city areas” (pp. 38–40)

In principle, dense urban living should thus offer much more possibilities for not only women, but for other oppressed groups – Kern goes into details on the way that lesbians and other queer people have built their communities on the basis of an urban lifestyle that would have been impossible in any other environment (pp. 80–2).

On the other hand, actually-existing urban life is not much more friendly to women than the suburban wastelands. Kern explains that since the 19th century, women have been considered to simply not belong in the urban environment – “streetwalkers” and “public women” were euphemisms for the despised class of sex workers. (p. 12) Contemporary urban form continues to indicate that women (and parents of small children, in particular) are not welcome:

The city has been set up to support and facilitate the traditional gender roles of men and with men’s experiences as the “norm,” with little regard for how the city throws up roadblocks for women and ignores their day-to-day experience of city life…

“Why doesn’t my stroller fit on the streetcar [tram]?” “Why do I have to walk an extra half mile home because the shortcut is too dangerous?” “Who will pick up my kid from camp if I get arrested at a G20 protest?” These aren’t just personal questions. They start to get to the heart of why and how cities keep women “in their place.”

The constant, low-grade threat of violence mixed with daily harassment shapes women’s urban lives in countless conscious and unconscious ways… the spectre of urban violence limits women’s choices, power, and economic opportunities. Just as industry norms are structured to permit harassment, protect abusers, and punish victims, urban environments are structured to support patriarchal family forms, gender-segregated labour markets, and traditional gender roles. (pp. 15-18)

Kern is dismissive of the nostalgic view of small-town or suburban life “where everyone knows your name”, understanding that the autonomy and anonymity of urban living offers space and freedom for women traditionally marginalised communities.

The extent to which violations of women’s personal space via touch, words, or other infringements are tolerated and even encouraged in the city is as good a measure as any for me of how away we actually are from the sociable – and feminist – city of spontaneous encounters… It takes an enormous amount of mental energy to navigate the public and private spaces of the city alone as a woman. (pp. 91, 94).

Kern centres the right to be left alone as the basis of urban life. Violence, harassment, and even the sheer unwillingness to allow a woman to enjoy public space without demands for male attention, make urban living unsafe for women, and this is redoubled for pregnant people. Kern describes how her pregnant body became “public property” and an “inconvenience”, something that my family is currently experiencing:

Although women often experience comments on our bodies and uninvited physical contact, pregnancy and motherhood elevate these intrusions to a new level. People read my protruding belly as if it said, “rub here please!” I was expected to cheerfully welcome all manner of unsolicited advice … [S]trangers’ fascination with my body didn’t translate into much of an uptick in urban courtesy. In fact, I sensed a constant, low-grade reminder that I was now different, Other, and out of place. (pp. 33-4)

On the other hand, says Kern, “I could function without a car. Compared to the suburbs, this kind of urban density offered a lot more ways to manage parenting, grad school, and domestic responsibilities” (p. 37). She is clear also about the way in which media narratives promote a climate of fear which leads to women self-excluding from urban spaces,

through sensationalized reporting on violent stranger crimes against women and a relative lack of reporting on intimate partner violence… In contrast, domestic violence, sexual assault by acquaintances, incest, child abuse, and other “private,” yet much more prevalent, crimes receive far less attentio.n (pp. 144-5)

Making the issues of violence and harassment worse is the prevailing neoliberal logic of responsibilisation – the idea that victims of oppression are “responsible” for keeping themselves safe and healthy, rather than a focus on the systems causing oppression. This need to be “responsible” is a constant drain for women, taking a huge toll on their ability to participate: “It’s depressing to decline events or leave early because there’s no safe and affordable way home. It’s psychologically draining to second guess our choices, wondering if we’ll be blamed if something bad happens” (p. 149)

Kern weaves her personal narrative together with humility in acknowledging that marginalised people in the city have never been granted “the right to be left alone”, as any street-based sex worker, homeless person or person struggling with addiction could tell you (p. 107). She mentions the availability of public toilets as a crucial factor which excludes, not only women, but trans people from urban life – not to mention people of colour who might have the cops called on them for asking to use a business’s facilities (pp. 108–11). Once again, we are faced with a gap between what urban life is, and what it could be – possibilities which don’t exist in suburbia.

Also resonant for me was Kern’s account of how, growing up in mega-cities such as Toronto and London, public transport gave her and her teenage friends the necessary freedom to explore not only their cities, but their own identities: She makes the excellent point that often-derided urban spaces such as shopping malls and streets are essential places of self-discovery for young people:

Girls must learn to make do with the limited spaces that they’re offered. In my suburban adolescence, that space was the mall… Girls paradoxically identify public spaces, such as city streets, as “private,” because these spaces allow them anonymity away from the prying gaze of parents, teachers, and other caregivers. The home was strangely more like a public space, since girls didn’t feel a sense of privacy or control over their bedrooms and possessions her (pp. 70-5)

The same goes for adult women, of course –Kerr points out that department stores and shopping malls originated as places where women could be out in public without male chaperoning or harassment (pp. 101–3). But her stories from her teenage years strike a chord with me. As a teenager growing up in Wellington, what is now known as the Kāpiti rail line was my lifeline out of the stultifying conformity of the outer suburban fringe into what seemed to be an exciting, colourful and cosmopolitan urban environment. (Of course, it’s pretty “cringe” to be comparing Wellington to Toronto or London; imagine if I’d gotten to Melbourne, my head would have probably exploded.)

Nevertheless, public transport (ideally) means freedom to younger people and others who don’t have access to cars. But again, actually existing transit has exactly the same problem as the actually-existing urban form, that it is specifically not designed for women’s actual lives:

Most urban public transportation systems are designed to accommodate the typical rush hour commute of a nine-to-five office worker… However, research shows that women’s commutes are often more complex, reflecting the layered and sometimes conflicting duties of paid and unpaid work… Recent research has found that transportation is yet another area where women pay a “pink tax” (paying more for similar services than men). Women are more likely to rely on public transportation than men, although they’re more poorly served by it. (pp. 41-2)

Every aspect of public transit reminded me that I wasn’t the ideal imagined user. Stairs, revolving doors, turnstiles, no space for strollers, broken elevators and escalators, rude comments, glares: all of these told me that the city wasn’t designed with parents and children in mind… I sheepishly realized that until I faced these barriers, I’d rarely considered the experiences of disabled people or seniors who are even more poorly accommodated (pp. 43-4)

Added to all this, of course, is the possibility of violence and harassment raising its head on public transport as well (p. 151). Unless such problems are dealt with, women are only acting rationally if they think like the classic song by Gary Numan – “here in my car, I feel safest of all”. Kern is careful to emphasise that being afraid in an urban environment and in public transit is a highly rational response (p. 145), that must be dealt with by material changes, not by “responsibilising” it away.

A particularly fascinating chapter of this book for Fightback readers is Kern’s discussion of cities as a place for mass protest. She is refreshingly critical about the sexism, racism, ableism, and transphobia that I witnessed” in protest and labour-movement spaces (p. 127) and the way in which women and parents of small children are excluded in “activist culture”:

I realized this was a choice women throughout history have had to make: be politically active, with all of its risks, or perform your duties as a caregiver in the private, depoliticized space of the home… Not only is this a systemic way that women are excluded from opportunities to have their voices heard by the state, but women’s disproportionate responsibility for child care is typically ignored by protest organizers as well…

For those who take the activist route, we still have to second guess ourselves both as mothers and as activists—are we appropriately committed to both? Is that even possible? (pp. 131-3)

Kern doesn’t try to offer any firm models for urbanist reform in her book, but returns over and over again to the theme that a sustainable urban future is only possible with the active participation and voices of women and other marginalised urban communities. She sees possibilities for the future not only in the survival strategies of low-income and marginalised groups, but in female friendship networks which she sees as increasingly displacing the nuclear family and heterosexual monogamy as the normative way of living together in the urban future (p. 88). Her statement that “the right to take up space is where the pleasure of being alone meets a wider politics of gender and power” (p. 113) offers a possible rallying call for an intersectional urbanism which includes everyone. And she is also crystal clear that top-down, technocratic planning won’t solve anything: “no amount of lighting is going abolish the patriarchy” (p. 155):

the faces of urban planning, politics, and architecture have to change. A wider range of lived experience needs to be represented among those who make the decisions that have enormous effects on people’s everyday lives (p. 170)

One caveat for readers in Aotearoa – Kern’s experience of urban form is predominantly that of North America, where working-class people and especially people of colour are concentrated in the inner cities. Contrast that with the urban form as we know it in Aotearoa, where – apart from students and homeless people – the population of the urban cores and inner suburbs are predominantly middle-class beneficiaries of gentrification, while working-class people, tangata whenua and migrant communities are concentrated in outer suburbs at the end of long motorways. It is for this reason that an urbanism which is suited to our local conditions has to start from understanding that suburban, car-dependent living is all that a generation of the marginalised in this country have known. A reversion to a densified, transit- and cycling-based sustainable urban model has to include working-class suburban dwellers as protagonists. They can’t just be “shifted around the board” or have their communities unilaterally rearranged by privileged planners, in the same way that their parents or grandparents had to adjust to being “ethnically cleansed” from the centre of our cities during the 1960s and 1970s.[5] In short, we need a sustainable urbanism from below.


[1] https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/02–02–2021/meet-the-fascinating-bunch-running-to-represent-a-south-auckland-community/

[2] https://thedailyblog.co.nz/2021/05/31/middle-class-militant-cyclist-activism-with-a-selection-of-soft-cheeses/

[3] https://thespinoff.co.nz/auckland/23–11–2016/on-cycle-lanes-ethnicity-and-class-why-nothing-screams-missing-the-point-quite-like-slamming-safer-cycling/; https://www.bikeauckland.org.nz/they-call-me-mr-t-bike-champ-teau-aiturau/

[4] See for example Twitter thread beginning at https://twitter.com/mikeythenurse/status/1399572177221873664

[5] See my previous article on this topic: https://fightback.org.nz/2017/03/20/economic-apartheid-the-ongoing-ethnic-cleansing-of-central-auckland/

Jacinda Ardern’s housing policy: Appear to be doing something, but don’t scare investors

By Ani White.

Written for Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on housing. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

In 2017, Jacinda Ardern led the New Zealand Labour Party to a surprise victory, with promises to address the housing crisis as a key plank of the new government’s mandate. In its fourth year of government, the party continues in its failure to substantively deliver on its promises. It seems the main aims of the government’s housing policy are: appear to be doing something to help renters and first-home buyers, but don’t scare capital or investors. However, the goals of helping renters and helping landlords are mutually incompatible. Therefore, Labour has consistently watered down its own proposals.

To set the scene, Aotearoa/New Zealand has a ridiculously inflated housing market, against a backdrop of steep inequality. New Zealand ranks number two in the international house price growth ranks, increasing 22.1% in the year to March 2021, while global house prices rose 7.3%. In contrast, New Zealand wage rates increased 1.6% in the year to March 2021. Rents increased 3% over the year ending April 2021. Stories such as the Upper Hutt pensioner whose rent was increased by $135 at once, from a starting point of $410 a week, are rife. The increase, to keep the flat in line with market rates, which did not violate recent regulations. In short, house prices and rents continue to surge, while incomes do not keep up. Homelessness is also the highest in the OECD, and 48% of housing applicants are Māori compared to 16.5% of the general population, on land that was appropriated from Māori by Pākehā (European-descended/non-Māori) capitalists.

The Ardern government’s first measure to address the housing crisis was to ban most foreign buyers, who made up only about 3% of homes bought nationwide. This was a symbolic populist measure by a party that had scapegoated foreign buyers during its period in opposition. A content analysis by the author found that Labour Party press releases during their time in opposition never identified groups such as ‘investors’, ‘speculators’, or ‘bankers’ per se as a negative influence, except when negatively coupling these terms with modifiers such as ‘foreign’ or ‘Chinese’. As we argued at the time, this diverts attention from the vast majority of landlords, speculators, and other profiteers who are Pākehā New Zealanders. Banning foreign buyers was also the only flagship housing policy that Labour delivered on. After this symbolic populist gesture, the unwillingness to confront the forces actually driving the housing crisis remained consistent in the ensuing 4 years.

The biggest symbol of the Labour Party’s failure to fulfil promises on housing is KiwiBuild. This was a policy to build 100,000 affordable homes in 10 years, a goal the government quickly fell behind on. The inadequacy of KiwiBuild has been attacked from the right, particularly by the opposition National Party. The hypocrisy here is breathtaking, after National spent its last two terms in office selling off public housing and doing nothing substantive to address supply issues. Yet the fact that Ardern’s government is attacked from the right should not stop us criticising them from the left. Although this big infrastructure project was portrayed by both supporters and critics as a return to social democratic public housing policy, Joel Cosgrove argued in Fightback at the time of the KiwiBuild policy’s launch that it sought to address the supply problem in a fashion compatible with continuing financialisation of housing assets. Instead of expanding public housing, the policy aimed to expand ‘affordable’ private housing in collaboration with the private sector, by a given value of ‘affordable.’ Fightback quoted prominent left-wing commentator John Minto highlighting the problems with this definition of ‘affordable’:

No low-income family will be able to afford $300,000. These families struggle from week to week and will never be able to save a deposit or meet the mortgage repayments required for home ownership. They are caught in the vicious squeeze between high private rental costs and the government’s impossible criteria for eligibility for a state house

This affordability problem has since been highlighted by Salvation Army head Campbell Roberts, who apparently was involved with a discussion the Labour Party based its policy on, but who considered the numbers the Labour Party generated unrealistic:

Those numbers were just not sustainable. There [weren’t] 100,000 people needing housing if you didn’t do anything about making them affordable.

As of February 2020, there were $26 million of unsold KiwiBuild houses on the government’s books. This would not be an issue if the investment was in public housing for those in need, rather than attempting to reconcile supply and demand on the terms of a warped market.

Another, far more modest yet no less controversial, policy the government has failed to deliver is the Capital Gains Tax. This tax on capital gains acquired through selling assets, such as housing, is not particularly radical (Australia and the USA both have CGTs). Yet given the aggressive entitlement of New Zealand’s property-owning class, and their unwillingness to accept even the smallest incursion on their profit margins, opponents of the policy launched a scaremongering campaign. Then-opposition leader Simon Bridges called it an “assault on the Kiwi way of life”. Ardern’s government dropped the policy in early 2019, ignoring the recommendation of the Tax Working Group the government had formed, citing lack of public mandate. Indeed, public opinion was divided – although a Horizon Poll found 44% for capital gains tax and 35% against, a Reid-Research poll found 39.1% for and 49.8% against (a number that was exaggerated by reporters focusing on answers to questions like whether superannuation should be taxed, or whether the policy should be a priority for the government, rather than simply whether people supported a CGT in general). Yet this was not a clear consensus against the policy as it was portrayed by the right, so much as a divided electorate, with polls turning up shifting results at the margins of that division. Moreover, public opinion shouldn’t be viewed outside the context of the sustained scaremongering campaign from the right, without a sustained pushback from supporters of the policy. Ardern’s unwillingness to take clear positions on contentious issues – as also illustrated by her refusal to disclose her vote in the cannabis referendum until both the referendum, and the election, had wrapped up – takes the conservatism of ‘the public’ for granted, and uses that perceived conservatism as an excuse. Yet public opinion does not form in a vacuum, it is formed through a process of contestation and coalition-forming. Every progressive win, however small, must be fought for. Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party is not a fighting party, even when it comes to a tax measure that already exists in many neoliberal policies.

Many have praised the Ardern government’s response to COVID. Indeed the government has shown competence in a crisis, taking decisive action based on expert advice, and communicating its decisions clearly (a key reason for the success of lockdown measures is that they were widely understood and supported). Yet as Bronwen Beechey highlighted in a Fightback article at the time:

Although a reasonable effort was made to house rough sleepers in motels, many families spent the lockdown in overcrowded, cold, damp homes. High rents and decades of neglecting or selling off public housing have created a housing crisis. These conditions help coronavirus and other illnesses to spread.

Additionally, as Jacobin‘s Justine Sachs and economist Bernard Hickey highlighted, the government’s crisis response of lowering mortgage rates and pumping up asset values bailed out property owners and businesses while leaving renters in the cold.

Many have argued that Labour’s 2020 landslide victory gave the party a mandate to take stronger measures (particularly after losing the excuse of having to please conservative coalition partner New Zealand First). However, in a way, this electoral victory gave Ardern’s Labour stronger incentives to back away from any confrontation with investors and property owners. Labour was able to win over much of the traditional right’s base, for example winning 15 seats previously held by National. This was likely a reward for both the party’s competent crisis management, and its lack of radical policy measures on issues like housing and climate change. In her acceptance speech, Ardern underlined her commitment to national unity, to govern for “every New Zealander”, and to avoid polarisation:

[T]o those amongst you who may not have supported Labour before and the results tell me there were a few of you. To you I say thank you. We will not take your support for granted. And I can promise you, we will be a party that governs for every New Zealander. The governing for every New Zealander has never been so important more than it has been now. We are living in an increasingly polarised world, a place where more and more people have lost the ability to see one another’s point of view. I hope that this election, New Zealand has shown that this is not who we are.

These conciliatory words should be taken at face value: this is not a government willing to risk political polarisation, in other words, a deeply centrist government. As in most countries, the traditional right’s base is primarily white and wealthy, also one of the likeliest groups to vote. Winning over a swathe of wealthier voters gives the party even greater incentive to not tax wealth, or take any other measures that may alienate Labour’s new friends. If Labour took meaningful measures to address the crisis, such as directly taxing wealth or controlling rent, they would risk not only capital flight but voter flight. This is not to say that these policies are unpopular per se, but more specifically that they are unpopular with the prized white and wealthy supporters who Labour has managed to attract.

Labour’s March 2021 release of a new housing policy was typically underwhelming. The policy largely consisted of changes to the tax regime, although stopping short of straightforwardly taxing wealth and property, and instead attempting to incentivise behaviour like new builds. In an article for open-access academic website The Conversation, Public Finance Professor Norman Gemmell argued that these changes to tax policy were “incoherent”, and failed to address the supply problem head on:

If there are better alternatives, they do not lie in even more ad hoc fiddling with a coherent tax regime.

Instead, like the famous real estate mantra of “location, location, location”, the mantra for New Zealand housing policy should be “supply, supply, supply”

Ironically, reader responses to a Guardian callout for NZ readers’ takes on the policy tended to divide into either renters saying this would do nothing to help them, or investors/owners saying it might cut into their margins but was a reasonable compromise. Granted, this is representative of Guardian readers, a group predisposed toward leftish-liberalism, yet the class divide between investors accepting the policy and renters questioning its impact illustrates the compromised nature of the policy. In contrast, economists from major banks such as ANZ and Westpac warned of the impact on higher rent, showing an uncharacteristic concern for the plight of renters. Rent and property prices are already rising astronomically, so this warning seems both disingenuous and to simply suggest that the status quo will continue. Yet this convoluted tax policy is also a clear consequence of Labour backing away from blunter measures like taxing wealth and property in general.

In summary, New Zealand’s Labour government remains constitutionally unwilling to confront the forces driving the housing crisis. Instead, Labour seeks to square the circle of appearing to do something for renters and first-home buyers, but not scaring investors, property owners, and ‘middle voters’ with measures perceived as radical (such as directly taxing wealth, controlling prices, and substantially investing in public housing). As these imperatives cannot be reconciled, Labour has stepped back from substantive measures in favour of “ad hoc fiddling.”