Women Transforming Cities, the conference (part 1)

Last Thursday, May 30, the first Women Transforming Cities (WTC) conference was held in downtown Vancouver, hosted by Simon Fraser University. It was a remarkable event: the culmination of a year (plus) of planning and organizing, and one of the rare instances with a structured forum for discussion among elected officials, planners, academics, activists, NGO leaders, students, and others (none of these groups being necessarily mutually exclusive, of course). Moreover, it was one of the few opportunities in a conference setting to participate in a focused conversation about how the full diversity of women are and are not being served by and within their municipalities. And the conference was unique in its emphasis on outcome: alongside the keynote speeches, there were six break-out sessions whose goal was, in part, to identify and develop best practices and recommendations to address the barriers that women face in their everyday lives. The intent is for these best practices and recommendations to be passed onto municipal leaders through a series of (not currently coordinated) efforts:

  • the advocacy of the electeds in attendance, who would raise the profile of the issues both in their home venues (wards/ constituencies/ etc.) and with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) conference, which the WTC conference preceded;
  • the advocacy of the FCM, from its leaders and from the organization, ideally;
  • by WTC and its ability to maintain the profile of these issues through its web/social media presence, through ongoing events, and through coalition building, and this may lead to:
  • the involvement of other NGOs, artists, funding agencies, and others to develop their own leadership role in generating change for a full diversity of women and girls in cities.
Note taker during break-out session. Photo credit: Ellen Woodsworth

Note taker during break-out session. Photo credit: Ellen Woodsworth

I served as both an organizer and keynote speaker at the conference, having become part of WTC through my position as Junior RWW Chair at SFU. I will write more about the content of my keynote in an upcoming post, but here I want to revel in the opportunity the conference provided to hear from leaders in so many different fields, all of whose work is making a tremendous contribution to making cities work for women, girls, and marginalized communities more broadly. The following are just a few of the highlights that I had the chance to see:

  • Lillian Howard, Co-Chair of the City of Vancouver’s Urban Aboriginal Peoples Advisory Committee, provided greetings and offered a blessing. In her address, she relayed that the Urban Aboriginal Peoples Advisory succeeded in one of its key recommendations: to encourage the City to designate a Year of Reconciliation in Vancouver. The Year of Reconciliation will begin on June 21, 2013. For me, Howard’s message highlighted the important movements that can begin out of institutionalized opportunities for under-represented groups to become involved in municipal politics and city building.
  • Kristyn Wong-Tam, Councillor for the City of Toronto, emphasized the need to attend to city financing when addressing equity in cities. Whereas participatory budgeting is picking up steam in cities around the world, gender budgeting is not. This means two things: first, attention needs to be given to how city budgets address the needs of women, girls, and marginalized communities; and second (my addition), participatory budgeting is insufficient if it too is not fully inclusive. In short, it matters who participates. Wong-Tam is also the first elected I’ve heard talking about public banks, which I’m now excited to learn more about.
  • Caroline Andrew, Director of the Centre for Governance at the University of Ottawa and President of Women in Cities International (among other activities), provided lessons for developing and maintaining partnerships to transform cities. Two of the most significant take-away points for me were: a) partners may not have shared aims at the outset of a project, but those shared aims can/must develop over time; and b) establishing trust between partners is often not a short term investment. As such, workable partnerships that are grounded in trust often sit in tension with funding cycles. Consider, for example, one-year project funding: this time frame likely encourages NGOs to seek out others with whom they have already worked (which may be to their benefit, and it may have the (unintended) consequence of reducing the field of possible players involved). As I have written about previously, the vagaries of funding -and the ways that funding drives social change activism- are an interest of mine. After hearing this conference address, I’m adding trust between partners to my list of the many invisible elements that are implicated in the relationship between funding and change activism.
  • Angela Marie MacDougall, Executive Director of the Battered Women’s Support Services, described in clear terms the sacrifice zones inhabited by many women in the Downtown Eastside. One of the most striking moments of MacDougall’s talk for me was the following question, which was recorded in the Vancouver Observer by fellow panellist Linda Solomon: “How can it really be that we could create a climate in the city that would create apathy when members of our community were dying?” In retrospect, I wish that MacDougall had forced a pause following that question, long enough for the audience to become uncomfortable. Because it should make us uncomfortable. And it should make us enraged. And it should compel us into action.


Angela Marie MacDougall. Photo credit: Ellen Woodsworth

Angela Marie MacDougall. Photo credit: Ellen Woodsworth

The next post will feature another instalment on the conference, including additional highlights from the speakers and sessions. Stay tuned for Thursday!

technocratic tendencies

sennett tweetLoath as I am to squash the dreams of the young and impressionable (or the wise and not-impressionable, for that matter), Richard Sennett’s recent piece in The Guardian compels me to address a common misapprehension about urban planning: that is, urban planning is less “sidewalk ballet” and more “instruction manual”. Those who come to urban planning via Jane Jacobs’ idealistic descriptions of Greenwich Village, or by way of the smart writing about Canadian cities in Spacing, may be surprised to find that the work of planners is often dominated by bureaucratic concerns, such as negotiating zoning policies that have longer staying power than any sitting city council.

Indeed, urban planning’s technocratic tendencies are caused in part by its function: that is, planning as a strategy to govern space. The very origins of urban planning can be located in the division of land into “appropriate” uses – and users. Thus, it should be no surprise that urban planning is at its base focused on the procedural elements of municipal policy (in particular, how to operationalize policy within a context of a) competing interests and b) bureaucratic disincentives to change).

Yet, there remains a tension between the romantic ideals that are ascribed to planning – as in, the ability to create vibrant communities through urban design – and the functional purpose of planning. This is the tension that I aimed to draw out in my snarky tweet about Sennett’s article: “What? A GPS won’t provide a sense of community?!”

Don’t get me wrong: interesting, dynamic, well-used public spaces are often the product of good planning, just as poor planning can inhibit the use of urban space. But, as Sennett identifies, planning is best when it responds to and reflects the “complex tissues of local life”. Planning that is only prescriptive in its attempt to shape the urban experience is planning at its worst.

The thing that strikes me most about Sennett’s argument is that he even needs to make it. The fact that he needs to specify that “efficient” urban living may be attainable but is not desirable should serve as a reminder that urban planning must actively confront its masculinist drive to retain top-down control over the spaces that fall under the purview of a master plan. (I’m using masculinist in Cartesian terms here; it refers to an expectation that mind – and men, literally – can control matter.) Top-down control, as Sennett points out, creates passive urban consumers rather than citizens who take ownership over urban spaces to carve out their own sense of place.

“Smart cities” are simply the most recent iteration of the technocratic tendency in urban planning. Given that smart cities can be read to combine a functional definition of efficiency with a clearly defined centre for command and control, I find it entirely unsurprising that they entice planners who subscribe to a Le Corbusier ethic of urban life. However, urban life should not always be efficient (or perhaps efficient needs to be re-defined in a way that accounts for its long-term implications). (On “inefficient” urban life, take a look at this story about learning to look at one’s neighbourhood.) Moreover, many of the most vibrant urban spaces – the spaces that people want to live in and travel to and experience – are those that are defined and developed by their users.