Meet Me at the Corner of You St and Also You St: Intersectionality and Urban Spaces
When I first read Teen Girls Need Better Public Spaces to Hang Out by Alexandra Lange, I quickly connected messages in the article to concepts of intersectionality. I read the post because I was interested to learn about gaps in placemaking and where I could focus my efforts as a planner passionate about social equity. While I encourage everyone to read the post, the TLDR version is that not only are there not enough public spaces for teen girls to hang out in, but the ones that exist are predominantly catered to specific types of masculinity — a sentiment that echoes Caroline Criado-Perez’s assumption that the world has been designed for the “default man” and everyone else is an outlier in Invisible Women. Invisible Women is a series of stories that highlight how most decision-making is based on data that excludes women, therefore, we are missing the experiences and knowledge of an important and diverse population group.
Indeed, in planning for the broader public interest, urban planning hasn’t always been able to create urban spaces that capture the complex nature of social identity. For far too long, planning has failed to explicitly consider intersectionality leading to an inequitable, possibly discriminatory, system of policies, rules, and laws synonymous with a one-size-fits-all approach.
Wait — what is intersectionality? First coined by African American scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s, intersectionality is a model rooted in social justice and feminist theory. It aims to understand how overlapping social identities — such as age, gender, race, class, ability, immigrant status, and sexual orientation among others — intersect to affect one’s experience in society. Often, these identities are subject to unjust social power hierarchies that contribute to unique experiences of oppression. Because no social identity takes primacy, people live in multiple social realities that are neither stable nor homogenous across social groups. In short, intersectionality explains that people have more than just one definition of identity.
But why does intersectionality matter in urban planning?
Consider, for example, how differently a low-income, Eastern European, recent immigrant woman might experience travelling on public transit in Toronto than a low-income, Chinese, longtime resident woman would. Both individuals are women, and both are low-income, but the former might feel greater anxiety navigating transit routes in a different language whereas the Chinese individual might focus on whether she’ll be racially profiled during her trip, particularly during the era of the Covid-19 pandemic. In this situation, it appears that identifying as a woman or as a low-income individual doesn’t matter as much as the other social identities do.
Now what happens when we consider these women’s experiences at different times of day? Would both feel uncomfortable taking public transit alone at night? What if these women also had visual impairments? What if they wore articles of clothing symbolic of their faith? What if either of these women were also part of the LGBTQ2S+ community and were travelling with their partner? Would their experiences vary across different city corners? Would they feel more comfortable around the Church-Wellesley area in Toronto — a mecca and haven of LGBTQ2S+-friendly restaurants and shops — or are other areas tolerable enough that one’s sexual identity doesn’t influence how safe they feel on transit? How does age factor into these experiences — specifically, how would these women feel as youth? How would you feel in these same circumstances?
Not only do our identities render our experience of urban spaces unique; urban spaces shape and foster our identities. Moreover, urban spaces affect both our freedom and choice to express our identities. As Jay Pitter — award-winning place-maker and author — wrote in an open letter to Canadian urbanists in 2020, urban design is not neutral, and extant policies and practices may create invisible barriers for many residents. While it’d be naïve to assume that a city utopia where total and uninterrupted harmony between social groups is possible, “best fit” solutions are merely those with the least number of impediments. What we really need is to plan for places that intentionally dismantle these barriers and carefully consider how urban spaces can be enjoyed by different people in many ways over time.
Knowing this, what are our next steps as planners? Perhaps the onus is to apply what we know about intersectionality from fields that have long used it in their work, like public health. We need to incorporate intersectionality as both a way of thinking and a set of practical and multidisciplinary solutions.
As a theory, intersectionality might be the next progression in planning perspectives, closely following advocacy, equity, and humanist models. In my own thesis for my MES in Planning, I argued that while no one planning theory is a substitute for another, each progression leads to more profound analyses of socio-spatial issues. As a framework, intersectionality is closely aligned to achieving just city and soft city outcomes. Just cities are ones where equity, democracy, and diversity are important considerations, and soft cities are ones where “layers” of diversity are merged to foster relationship-building across social groups across urban spaces. These cities celebrate all kinds of identities and reflect these differences in urban design. We also need to stand against defensive urbanism, which is hostile or exclusive urban design that restrict certain behaviours in urban spaces and seriously impede on the wellbeing of the most vulnerable members of our communities.
As a profession, we need networks that are “accessible, supportive, accommodating and understanding of the unique barriers they [BIPOC planners] experience…[and] workplaces that value their [BIPOC planners] whole selves and interests, and foster their excellence” (Ahsan, 2020). We also need greater diversity in community engagement and question why not every identity group is encouraged, or given a platform, to participate in civic matters. Finally, we have to acknowledge limitations in intersectionality, such as that there is no strict consensus between social identity groups (as mentioned above). Therefore, the experiences of one do not equate to the experiences of all, and so we need to constantly adjust our approach to intersectional thinking and practice to truly uphold intersectionality in our work.
In recent years, cities and organizations across Canada, like the City of Vancouver, have held roundtable discussions with private sector firms, advocacy groups, not-for-profit service organizations, and city departments to better understand how using an intersectionality lens changes how we approach public policy and how we can create more inclusive urban spaces. In Montreal, there’s a push to become a feminist city, and recommendations include updating the Guide d’aménagement pour un environnement urbain sécuritaire to use an intersectional perspective to address women’s safety in public spaces. We can also use gender-based analysis+ (GBA+) to guide research and policy development in this regard, which is a course open to all and offered for free by the Government of Canada.
At Urban Minds, we believe that youth shape inclusive communities reflective of intersectionality. In our Cities for Youth Toolkit, we encourage planners to leverage youths’ hyper-awareness and progressive values on social change when designing urban spaces. Planners can also account for intersectionality by crafting programming that is diverse and flexible in its format, medium and outcomes, and accommodating for intersecting abilities, interests, and identities. On the other side, we often lead youth in an empathy mapping exercise, which is a visualization tool that prompts you to identify the thoughts and feelings of a particular group and/or person on a particular issue, knowing it leads to intersectional thinking.
While this is not to negate the progress that has been made by brilliant and tireless individuals, organizations, and city officials, intersectionality needs to be more prominent in planning circles and planners need to push for this change across all Canadian cities.
Patrycia Menko is a Project Coordinator of Urban Minds.