What Are The Politics Of Our Built Environments?

By Thérèse d’Auria Ryley

It’s not every day that we consider the politics of our built environments. What is a building that — short of being an actual phallus, a la The Washington Monument — connotes utter masculinity? Or safety? How do materials, designs, colors, and shapes inform our experience of a building or public space? Do some places better serve people of color? The trans community? Why do some buildings feel unforgiving and cold, while others feel like the warm embrace of a bosom? Are all the answers to these questions subjective, or can we actually design to serve the Community, writ large?

Black urbanist Kristen E. Jeffers and urban anthropologist Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman are addressing these very questions — and more! — with a brand-new podcast, Third Wave Urbanism. Jeffers, author of A Black Urbanist, brings her personal exploration of her experience as a black urbanist in a profession dominated by white men, while Johnston-Zimmerman of THINK.urban — who’s dedicated to researching behavior in public space — focuses on how to create spaces that serve our physical and mental needs as a species.

The launch of Third Wave Urbanism comes just off the cuff of what would be the 100th anniversary of Jane Jacobs, renowned urbanist and seminal author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities; Jacobs continues to be studied and celebrated for her dogged activism and poignant critiques of urban planning.

The launch of Third Wave Urbanism also celebrates the recent death of famed Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid in March, as well as the announcement that Interactive Design Architects and IDEA will design Obama’s Presidential library, marking another landmark moment for women of color in urbanism, as it is the first presidential library to be led by women principals.

Women like Johnston-Zimmerman and Jeffers are standing on shoulders and following footsteps, championing a fundamental shift not only in the discourse surrounding our built environments, but in how this discourse will shape the very world we’re actually building.

So, what exactly is Third Wave Urbanism?

It denotes the effort to improve urban spaces for all inhabitants. Third Wave Urbanism engages the third wave of feminist discourse, wherein the voices of WOC and the LGBTQ community are integral steps in the stride toward social justice. Urbanist movements are concerned with achieving more “liveable” cities, fighting against limitations like isolated urban planning where cars are necessary for effective navigation of a community.

Instead, urbanists are keen on developing urban spaces easily accessible by foot and bicycle; adequate and affordable public transportation options are now understood as important elements in liveability.

Second wave feminism has been criticized for the ways in which it excluded intersectionality almost entirely, obscuring or ignoring the complicated socio-economic ecosystem which governs power, including class, race, ethnicity and nationality, sexual orientation, and ability; the third wave of feminism is pushing to correct these historic and problematic exclusions. Likewise, the third wave of urbanism recognizes the necessity of including all voices in achieving goals in the built environment.

“If we’re talking about this, then everybody needs to be there,” Jeffers explains. “We have all kinds of people in our world, but in our practice there has not been enough integration outside of the few women, who were generally white, even now.”

Johnston-Zimmerman echoes these sentiments, highlighting the importance of these inclusions ceasing to be anomalies and becoming the standard. “Similar to the third wave feminism concept is a third wave of individuals who are changing cities for the better in ways that are expected, normalizing certain things,” she says, adding:

“We know more about liveability. The third wave is this new normal of global cities where people are always going to want to live in places where they can walk, [have access to] good transit, bikeability, environmental quality, and quality of life scaled-building. And from the female perspective: that is the element that needs to be injected into it today, and that is being injected into it in many of these fields. From where we’re standing, the female angle ties into safety and equity as far as liveability is concerned.”

The historic lack of diversity in urbanism has resulted in urban policy, designs, and built environments that are skewed — sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly — to favor the cis white male experience at the expense of that of women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals.

Slanted urban policy and city planning compromise minority groups’ ability to safely and efficiently navigate urban spaces, access standard housing, and inhabit thriving neighborhoods. Jeffer’s explains that efforts to improve urban spaces are important, but we need to go a step further. The question is not just how we use land, but who gets to use it. The legacy of inequality embedded in urbanist professions has resulted in a failure to address this question.

In the recent episode “Women in Transport,” Jeffers and Johnston-Zimmerman — alongside Project For Public Places associate Nidhi Gulati — discuss the ways in which using public transportation is a gendered experience that often times leaves women vulnerable to unsolicited attention, for example.

Bursting The White Male Bubble

Interest in the spatial layout of roads and towns was instilled in Jeffers from an early age, fostered by her father, who taught her as a young child to read maps. Jeffers says she suddenly realized how desperate she needed to see herself in the world of urbanism while studying in graduate school:

“I was learning about redlining and gentrification. And I was like, you know, people are writing about me, but they’re using all these terms and it’s almost as if I only exist as an abstraction. In some of these texts, black folks only exist as to where they live and they only live in public housing and the only thing they ever did was be displaced from their houses, which is not my story at all. And again, I’m a writer, and I was like, I need to tell this story. This blog needs to be blatantly clear as to who as I am and what I’m doing and that I exist is not an oxymoron.”

Jeffers promptly situated herself as a game changer with her 2010 viral piece in Grist, “Does urbanism have to be black and white?” She intentionally refers to herself as “A” instead of “The” black urbanist because she acknowledges those who have come before her and hopes that many more will follow.

Johnston-Zimmerman explains that as an undergraduate in the city of Phoenix, notorious for its sprawl and subsequent need to possess a car in order to live and navigate the city, she grew profoundly frustrated as a non-driver by choice. She began questioning the urban planning that surrounded her and realized the problem ran much deeper than a mere absence of convenience:

“Phoenix was really eye-opening in a lot of ways because not very many people would walk at all, so in that sense being a non-driver was very alienating. Obviously the heat was a factor. But there was inequality too; what if somebody can’t drive, and they’re stuck out in the heat? What are we doing to some of the people in this city, and why aren’t we thinking of them? Why are buses being cancelled, why isn’t the frequency higher, why aren’t there bus shelters at every single stop in a place where the temperature often reaches 110° Fahrenheit?”

Questions about city layouts and their navigability drove Johnston-Zimmerman to explore them as an urban anthropologist in graduate school, but still the question persisted as to how to actually apply her research in the real world.

“I thought about . . . not just research and academics but really, how to apply this, and what exists in the working world to apply this.” She subsequently moved on to graduate school in Portland, where she was influential in the start of that city’s liveability efforts.

Despite notable influencers, urbanism is a long way from boasting diverse leadership representative of those served by built environments. The lack of representation of women specifically is the topic of a recent book by Despina Stratigakos, Where are the Women Architects?, released earlier this year, and major events in the field have been called into question due to their blatant exclusion of voices other than those of white males.

The opening panel at the 2016 Venice Biennale in May was intended to be forward thinking, yet was comprised entirely of white male architects, again excluding even vague nods toward intersectionality. Architecture blog Die Architecktin recently published an article — “Reporting From Which Front? Aravena’s Sexist Panel,” — that took aim at the panel’s utter myopia:

“That the opening is celebrated by an all male panel, and one of established males reveal how little does the curatorial team cares for real issues and where the real front is. That there are no women, no people of color, no youth on this panel unveils the true colors of the call. One claims to be radical but is conservative, claims to be provocative but is reactionary, claims moral righteousness but is corporate, and claims to be social but is really financed by corporations.”

Third Wave Urbanism is answering a much-needed call by providing a platform for women, people of color, and other underrepresented urbanists to engage with the topics and issues they deal with as professionals and — maybe even more importantly — as community members.

Jeffers and Johnston-Zimmerman explain that accessibility to a broad audience beyond urbanist professionals and architectural experts is intentional and by design, not simply to create good will. Johnston-Zimmerman explains, Third Wave Urbanism is “not just top-down, it is bottom-up.”

Input from community members who might not identify or qualify as “experts,” but who have insights that experts often miss, is one crucial need. To that end, Jeffers and Johnston-Zimmerman both stress that “urbanist” is a term that now extends beyond the familiar professions like architecture and urban planning. New efforts in urbanism require participatory models that incorporate community members, local activists, and in guiding the future of their communities both in physical form and civic engagement.

Technology has served as a unifying platform for Jeffers and Johnston-Zimmerman; they laugh that they’ve never actually met in person, but have fostered an interest in one another’s work through social media. They hope that others will reach out to participate in the podcast as well; they’re aiming to engage with individuals who have salient observations, ideas, and experiences from across the globe.

To achieve goals for better, safer, urban spaces both nationally and globally,“it’s going to take all of us,” Johnston-Zimmerman explains:

“There’s a constant need for observations of urban space, especially considering changing technologies, changing dynamics of populations in [urban] spaces whether it’s multicultural or whether it’s gender, and thinking of public space as the great equalizer. For me, that’s one of the greatest impacts you can have on a city, is creating that space for people to mingle together, create that community, even if it’s just weak social ties.”

Listen to an episode below!

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