Revisioning the city: perspectives from an urban planner


In our continuing series about revisioning, I asked urban planner Jessica Chen (陳婉瑜), founder of Wabi Sabi Planning Laboratories to answer a few questions about revisioning a city from a feminist perspective.

How conscious are you of gendered spaces in your work as an urban planner?
Gendered places might not have been the particular lens I used usually, but inclusivity and diversity have been the key issues that I contemplate about throughout my planning career, especially during my tenure as a city planner with the City of Vancouver. I was a senior planner working with the Downtown Eastside neighbourhoods (DTES) from 2000-2010. As Vancouver’s first neighbourhoods, DTES is a very diverse community. It is diverse ethnically, culturally and social-economically, with incredible urban heritage and community activism. However, the community was also faced with many challenges, including poverty, drug and crime issues and constant gentrification pressure with the rising land value from the real estate boom of the city, which made the large low-income population in the community vulnerable to displacement. And I think women, children and seniors living in the area who are impacted by these issues are particularly vulnerable and require special consideration.

On a more personal note, I am an Asian woman and the planning team I led at the time was a majority women team – we were young, female and ethnically diverse. It also happened that a number of my senior managers during that period of time, including the city manager of Vancouver, were women. It was an interesting time. So the issue of gender is probably quite integrated in our day to day thinking and planning.

Do you think the way the city is laid out influences our thinking and behaviours?

Yes, I believe a city’s lay-out influences the way we think or behave. In fact, not just the lay-out of a city, but also the scale and the forms of development that take place in the city’s neighbourhoods really have an impact on how we use the space and identify ourselves with the place. For example, a high-density neighbourhood of mostly mid-rise developments or an equally high-density neighbourhood with mostly tall towers can really influence the way we interact with our neighbours and the places we deem as public gathering places.

I will use my own experience as an example: I used to live in a condominium in a tower-form development in downtown Vancouver where various issues related to the building were dealt with through either the strata council or the concierge of the building. I did not really interact with my neighbours very much. However, I did walk or bike along the seawall (a key public amenity with parks, bike lanes, walkways along waterfronts of Vancouver downtown) almost everyday and that was the main places where I interact with people living in my neighbourhood.

I moved to Montreal four years ago and I have been living in an apartment in an old three-story heritage building in the Plateau. I know all my neighbours – in fact we often have neighbourly gatherings within the building. There is no strata council or concierge. Neighbours need to sort things out if there are any common issues in the building. The neighbourhood is also very high-density but the way density is distributed is different from the tall tower buildings. Cafes in my quartier and Parc Lafontaine become the areas where I frequent to meet and greet with the broader community.

What do you think the shape and layout of a city says about power?
I think it says a lot about who is planning the city for whom. The history of how Vancouver community successfully fought against the city’s freeway proposal in the 1960s is a very telling example of how the shape and layout of a city tells the shift of power in that city at the time. A freeway proposal was announced in 1967 as part of the Vancouver’s urban renewal plan to modernize its road network and revitalize its inner city neighbourhoods. The proposal would have leveled neighbourhoods like Chinatown and Strathcona with LA-style elevated highway. The community organized itself, fought back and successfully overturned the proposal. The shape and layout of the modern-day Vancouver has a lot to do with the fact that it does not have a freeway running through its downtown like many of the North American cities. And it says a lot about the power of community activism in this case. In addition, the shape and layout of a city is often the result of the way a city distributes its resources and the process it uses for its city planning decision-making. I believe the way a city plans and finances the various public amenity that a city usually requires could provide some insight to the question of “who has the power in the city.” Planning for public urban amenity like parks, schools, affordable housing, public transport, heritage assets, and other social and cultural amenities, indicates how democratic and accessible the city is to the diverse population in its city.

What might a feminist revision of a city look like?
To me, a feminist revision of a city would be an inclusive and democratic one. It would be a city that takes equal consideration of different user groups’ needs throughout its various steps of a planning process.

Is there a city that you know of that shows a more feminist view point?
I came across the Gender Streaming program championed by the City of Vienna in Austria which I think is probably one of the most interesting examples to look at right now. In their program, “gender” actually refers to a broader definition:

In this, “gender” refers to a person’s social gender rather than just the biological differences between women and men and also includes the respective person’s upbringing according to gender roles, social expectations and (behavioural) norms for women/girls and men/boys. These norms are mutable and vary both within and between cultures. Mainstreaming means that the strategy wants to be an integral part of all political and planning decisions. – the City of Vienna

The City of Vienna started their work of gender streaming in 2000 and published a manual for gender streaming in urban planning and urban development in 2013. Basically it is a process-oriented strategy to ensure that gender-sensitive planning perspective informs the entire planning process.

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