Seattle Can Become an Anti-Sexist City

Women need to be placed at the heart of the city. On the streets of our major metropolises, feminism and urbanism must intersect.

Friday, December 21st, 2018 marks the winter solstice — the shortest day of the year, with the least daylight, when able-bodied men should be acutely aware of the everyday privileges we enjoy on dimly-lit streets at the darkest time of the year.

As a black male, I often have the experience of feeling unsafe in Seattle’s all-but-gated, rich residential neighborhoods; as I’m running to represent the area where Charleena Lyles was murdered in Sandpoint in 2017, the threat of police violence looms large. But on walks through the scenic I-5 promenade near my home in Eastlake, or on a long run through the University District in the waning light of a winter afternoon, I usually don’t have to watch my back.

For too many women and members of the LGBTQIA+ community this sense of security is not shared. Cities are largely constructed by and for cisgender White men, to the detriment of those who are not.

Urban planning is the field where we articulate what makes our cities function and tick. It is a field dominated by men, which makes no sense, since the single most influential urban theorist of all time is Jane Jacobs; a visionary woman whose writings provided a blueprint for safe, vibrant, holistic cities. Jacobs wrote soaringly of the intersections between street traffic, neighborhood safety, transit and independently-owned commercial storefronts. She observed that when there are more affordable housing options and more street traffic — more “eyes on the street,” as she famously put it — residents feel safer and rates of crime decline.

Suddenly, we have less need for police patrolling isolated enclaves of private property, and citizens see themselves as part of the interconnected fabric that makes us want to congregate in cities in the first place.

Men in power have had over a half-century to internalize and implement Jacobs’ insights, dispensing them as she did in the seminal texts The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), The Economy of Cities (1969), and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984). Still, few of the lawmakers, legislators, police chiefs and politicians who determine the direction of cities like Seattle have heeded her words. At a time when Seattle leads the nation in cases of missing and murdered indigenous women, and women report staying with domestically abusive partners because of the lack of affordable housing options, the concerns of women need to be placed at the heart of the city. On the streets of our major metropolises, feminism and urbanism must intersect.

The United Nations’ Economic and Social Council has called this process “gender mainstreaming”; the practice of assessing how the implementation of any and all policy decisions will impact women. The city of Vienna has embraced the ethic to great effect, creating a “City Women’s Office” in the 1990s that stewarded a series of urban alterations to protect the right of women to the city; everything from installing additional lighting on streets walked by working women at night, to widening sidewalks for families with strollers, to making bidders for construction contracts explain the gendered impact their projects will have on the community.

From afar, these measures are more than inspiring.

As a city councilmember from Seattle’s District 4, here are some concrete plans I would pursue to make our city one where women and LBTQIA+ folx are better supported by city government.

  • In the same way that Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative is a lens we use to analyze the racial impact of civic decisions in housing and the arts, we could live in a city with a gender fairness bureaus that function like Vienna’s City’s Women Office. The Seattle Women’s Commission (SWC) is a great start, and its scope should be expanded to include oversight on city projects and more decision-making power, particularly in matters of housing and infrastructure. If, as I’ve called for on this campaign, we succeed in securing more funds for public and deeply-affordable housing from the city’s bonding capacity, the SWC should have the opportunity to help guide the planning and design of that housing.
  • We should legally require employers in Seattle to invite folx to share their gender pronouns, and require the city (and all businesses in it) to provide non-binary, genderfluid, and agender identity options on all job applications.
  • Seattle should make public restrooms at transit hubs mandatory, and choose to enforce all-gender restroom laws, particularly in all city buildings and public institutions, like libraries and parks. These public restrooms could be designed in such a way as to increase safety, in the mold of an open-source architectural prototype debuted at the AIA Conference on Architecture early this year.
  • While apps like “Next Door” and “Find It, Fix It” are too often a wellspring of regressive politics, we could use technology to bolster inclusivity. The city could partner with independent tech developers to create and promote a city-specific app (similar to Hollaback!) that reports and logs incidents of sexual harassment and alerts the city to areas with a lack of street-lighting. The data should be publically available and used, at the very least, to guide Seattle City Light’s current campaign to replace fading LED lights that were installed earlier in the decade.
Cluster lights installed in Pioneer Square in the early 20th century.
  • We should exempt menstrual products from our regressive sales tax.
  • What’s more, we should search for progressive revenue streams at the city, regional, and state-levels — perhaps a “Pink Tax” on all big businesses who contribute to the gender pay gap — to revive a little-known universal basic income pilot: from 1971 to 1982, Seattle was one of four cities that paid 4,800 Seattleites an average of $28,000 per year. A happy side-effect of this policy was that it stimulated rates of divorce among womxn who no longer had to be chained to relationships they didn’t want to be in because of the financial security they provided. In the future, rather than distribute those funds to the population at large, they could be reserved exclusively for working and expecting mothers instead.

But what good is addressing pocketbook issues if our most vulnerable citizens still feel they have to clutch those pocketbooks while walking down unsafe, dimly-lit streets? Too often, American cities have sought to use the criminal justice system to address the anxieties of women and LGBTQIA+ folx with respect to neighborhood safety, street harassment, and stalking. As relayed in Ava Duvernay’s masterful movies Middle of Nowhere (2012) and 13th (2016), these carceral solutions have disproportionately impacted women of color, incarcerating them at even higher rates than their male counterparts, and leaving them to repair families shattered by the police state.

Though it’s a county-level project, as a Seattle city councilmember I will oppose the construction of any youth carceral facility, such as the one currently being mulled by King County legislators, which ensnares children into the prison-industrial-complex. Youth mentorship programs like the My Brothers’ Keeper Initiative that I participate in as a mentor at Washington Middle School are a path to keeping kids out of the carceral state’s reach.

But if we absolutely have to mobilize the criminal justice system — that is, if city initiatives for sex education and restorative justice fail — it should be to bring the most powerful to justice, not to surveil and badger the dispossessed. Because they are crimes that are overwhelmingly committed against women and LGBTQIA+ folks — groups designated as “protected classes” by Seattle city law — local city attorneys like Seattle’s own Pete Holmes should classify sexual harassment, sexual assault, and domestic violence as “Hate and Bias Crimes.” Such a measure would dignify victims — in their deepest moments of vulnerability — to know that the pain of gender injustice will not be tolerated by the cities they call home.

Culturally, we have not made much space in our collective imagination for representations of women roaming free in “liberal” cities. This lack of representational latitude has become our reality, leaving us with the sense that we can’t do much to make women feel safe in cities to fully explore complicated inner and outer lives. The spontaneous lifestyle of Lauren Elkin’s 2016 travel memoir Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London is for many a distant dream, with economic stressors, physical constraints, and the shadow of male maleficence stalking their freedom and mental health.

Things don’t have to be this way. We could live in anti-sexist cities, where the reality of progressivity lives up to its hollow representation. “Why have we been written out of the history of cities?,” asks Elkins in Flâneuse. “It’s up to us to paint ourselves back into the picture, in ways we can live with.”