Sept 26-Claiming Space and Finding Voice in the City


For those who would like to write a Reading Response for Sept 26, here are four questions that you may consider to prompt your writing:

  1. How do these articles elicit the myriad ways that power works in women’s daily lives? You might think about how unequal power relations become apparent in structural terms (e.g., how policies have differential effects on people: the lack of childcare provisioning that Gurstein & Vilches discuss, or the lack of access to affordable housing that Walks points to). Likewise, you may consider how unequal power relations become apparent through normative social relations, as Waite & Conn illustrate.
  2. How do these texts detail the ways that women claim voice/ empowerment/ agency within societies that are rife with social inequalities? Look at Waite & Conn, Gurstein & Vilches, and the WICI report, for instance.
  3. How can a thoughtful and collaborative research process empower people and facilitate social change? Consider Waite & Conn and the WICI report in particular.
  4. The WICI report presents a variety of safety audits done by members of four different women’s groups across Canada. Reflect on this reading after conducting your own small safety audit of your neighbourhood. Take an account of your neighbourhood: if possible, walk a few block radius around your apartment or house. Take note of the elements of the block: for example, is there adequate street lighting? Is there heavy traffic? Is there street art or graffiti? Do you know your neighbours? Are there open lots? Is the street well-traversed by walkers or is it designed to be less pedestrian? (Don’t feel limited to these examples.) As you take notes, think about whether you feel safe in one or another area of your neighbourhood. What makes you feel safe or feel less safe?

Lecture overview.

This week, we dig deeper into the specifics of what it means to analyze cities through the lens of feminist geographies, which will help us to think and talk about what it means to create feminist urban futures.

Together, the readings demonstrate that the intimate politics of the body – in the form of feeding and housing oneself and one’s family, for example – are inextricable from the structural forces at work in cities, including the availability of affordable food and housing. As I noted in class, choices are not made in a vacuum. The opportunities (“choices”) available to any of us are shaped by innumerable forces, not least of these being the government policies that inform the scope of public services. Here, I would argue that Gurstein & Vilches’ point that “marginalized people operate in a milieu of constrained choices” (p. 421) should be expanded. In fact, everyone operates in a milieu of constrained choices. The very nature of being marginalized, though, means that urban life must be navigated with fewer resources (or simply with a different set of resources, including resources that the state deems unsafe or illegal).

Here is one place where the neoliberal context becomes relevant. Last week, we briefly discussed the three tenets typically associated with neoliberal policy: disinvestment, deregulation, and privatization. We will cover this in more detail this week, as understanding this model of political economy is central to appreciating the debates over urban futures. In simple terms, neoliberal political economy redefines the relationship of the state to its citizens (and to those who are, for whatever reason, situated outside of the boundaries of citizenship). The state’s reduced investment in public provision (e.g., health care, childcare, public transit services) means that citizens are expected to look elsewhere for services (e.g., rely on family to provide care for elderly parents and children). (This is not to suggest that public provision was ideal or even existed in years past, but rather to identify that the dominant model for public services in Canada and elsewhere is currently characterized by retrenchment, or revanchism, to use Neil Smith’s term.)

One of Gurstein & Vilches’ interventions, then, is to “challenge urban theorizing to engage with the ways in which governance re-creates the public-private divide” (p. 422). A neoliberal model of governance asserts a (false) division between public and private life: as feminist activism and research has long shown, “private” life is embedded in and inextricable from “public” life. Responsibility for childcare, household labour, control over one’s reproductive health…all of these “private” issues are shaped by and in the context of the labour market, normative social roles, accessibility of public services, and many other “public” factors.

Social reproduction thus comes to the fore in the Gurstein & Vilches article. These authors point to Meg Luxton’s work (top of p. 422) to define social reproduction: briefly, this is the practices that “re-create the fabric of society.” In class, I will draw on Marilyn Waring’s work to talk about the kinds of work that are necessary to maintain a labour force. Waring’s work not only identifies the value of unpaid labour, it showcases the value system upon which war-time economic systems were based. Waring’s findings [watch Who’s Counting for a summary] matter because these economic logics formed the basis for subsequent economic models and organizations that regulate state economies, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Waring’s work is also central to challenges to these dominant logics, which take the form of gender budgets and the re-visioning of economic measurement systems. (See the Wellington Progress Index for an example.)

In sum, Gurstein & Vilches highlight the disconnect between, on the one hand, social reproduction in a political-economic context that favours public disinvestment and, on the other hand, models (like Susan Fainstein’s “just city” model) of urban life that advocate for equity, diversity, participation, and sustainability. This disconnect works in part, they argue, because of structural injustices that are grounded in a politics of difference (see Gurstein & Vilches’ use of Iris Marion Young’s work on page 428). We will talk about how this plays out using the specific examples that the authors walk through: access to adequate and affordable housing, access to food, and childcare provisioning.

Gurstein & Vilches’ argument about municipal policy is complemented by Walks’ policy brief about changes in the landscape of social housing in Toronto. Walks helps us to understand how municipal policy (and disinvestment on the part of provincial and federal governments) both informs the daily lives of people trying to find affordable housing in Toronto, and influences the very shape of income inequality in the city. Social housing policy is just one of the reasons that there are now three cities within Toronto: the urban core, where those who can afford to live near amenities, surrounded by the neighbourhoods to which those with lower incomes have been displaced.


These images (including the post header) are a public engagement element of the Neighbourhood Change research: they were taken in the lobby of Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto during the run of Clybourne Park. Clybourne Park is playing at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage in Vancouver until October 7. (Check out for more visuals.)

Yet, municipal policies are not the only elements that give cities their shape and feel. The WICI document on safety audits conducted by Aboriginal women in Regina, elderly women in Gatineau, immigrant and visible minority women in Peel, and women with disabilities in Montreal offer us a window on how people make positive changes and claim a voice in their communities.

The last point we will address this week is how collaborative research can facilitate social change and empower marginalized communities. Waite & Conn speak most directly to this point, showing how participatory video drama can be developed in collaboration with youth participants to meet the specific needs of those who are under-served by existing public health initiatives. However, the WICI document offers another great example of collaborative research that has effects in both the built environment (e.g., the addition of accessible sidewalks, more street lights) and in participants’ ability to develop a sense of safety and solidarity while actively claiming space in their cities.