Sept 5: “Means, Not Ends”

Welcome. Today’s post provides a short introduction to the course.

Readings for this week

Unfortunately, not all of the readings are open access, but many of the policy briefs and working papers are. Weblinks to open access texts will be included whenever possible. (Many journal articles can be found using DOIs, or the digital object identifier associated with the text. If there is a DOI without a link, go to and paste the DOI number into the search box labeled “Resolve a DOI name”.)

  • Toronto Women’s City Alliance (2010) Communities in which Women Count:

  • Monk & Hanson, Chapter 1 in Feminisms in Geography, Moss & Falconer Al-Hindi (pp. 33-48)

  • Hanson & Monk, Chapter 3 in Feminisms in Geography, Moss & Falconer Al-Hindi (pp. 60-67)

  • Curran & Breitbach (2010) Notes on women in the global city: Chicago, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 17, pp. 393-399

    DOI: 10.1080/09663691003737678  SFU library users: click here to access this journal.

Space, to paraphrase Doreen Massey, is the simultaneity of stories happening so far. In a panel presentation on The Forum (BBC World Service: listen to the archived program here), Massey talks about cities that are, in effect, all kinds of stories happening at once. She states, “If you think of time being the dimension in which things change, the dimension of succession, then space is the dimension in which things coexist in the same moment.” Moreover, this coexistence of things makes room for tremendous possibility.

Massey’s framing of space and cities as coexisting stories full of potential -potential which may exceed our imaginations- strikes me as a great entry point for our semester-long conversation about social inclusion and equity in cities. Cities are themselves stories; our explanations and theorisations of urban life are certain kinds of stories; as are the policies we create to “improve roads for drivers” (eg, Mayor Ford in Toronto) or increase access to mobility for seniors (eg, lengthy cross-walk signals in cities with large senior populations)… all of these are, in one way or another, stories that we tell about cities. The other compelling point that Massey made on The Forum (and elsewhere: read For Space and Space, Place and Gender) that must be drawn out here is about the potential that exists in cities. Contrary to other theorists who imply that cities are “end products” of histories, economic flows, and political decisions, Massey reminds us that cities are end products only insofar as we are unable to see the myriad phenomena and events and contingent relations shifting and unfolding. Cities, according to Massey, are open-ended processes. Cities do not become some pre-given form; there is no necessary shape that they will take. They are constantly becoming, to loosely borrow concepts developed by French theorists Deleuze and Guattari (whose ideas we will talk about next week).

In this class, we will talk about, learn about, and create stories of cities with an aim to investigate equity and social inclusion. We will look at how and for whom the city works; how it is felt and experienced; and what kinds of efforts have been and are being made to make cities more just and equitable places for women, for youth, for seniors…for everyone. Take a look at one small example: the StreetFilms interview with Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotà, Colombia who made revolutionary changes to urban infrastructure by restricting car use, dramatically improving public transit and bicycle networks, and investing in public spaces. On the surface, this example looks like it falls exclusively into the realm of transportation planning. In fact, as Peñalosa shows us, transportation infrastructure has a profound relationship to social integration: bringing people of diverse backgrounds together, and demonstrating, as Peñalosa observes, that the person on the $30 bicycle is as important as the person in the $30,000 car.

Our investigation, then, will be interdisciplinary. We will read and discuss feminist geographic theory; policy briefs; NGO working papers [like the backgrounder for today’s class published by Toronto Women’s City Alliance]; creative writing; and oral history projects. We will consider art and creative work such as the Feminist Art Gallery and the Mammalian Diving Reflex, and discuss artistic contributions that comment on equity and social difference. And we will do fieldwork to understand, investigate, and create our own visions of “feminist urban futures”, a phrase that I discuss more below.

Let me qualify here: just as the authors of one course text [Feminisms in Geography] maintain about their anti-anthology, I want to assert at the outset that this course is wilfully incomplete. It is one means to grapple with equity in cities; the course could be taken in many different directions and taught many different ways, all of them eliciting their own important lessons about social inclusion and bringing more just cities into being. The format and reading list I have chosen does not engage substantively with urban design, architecture, queer theory, political ecology, discussions of sustainability or human-environment relations, political theory, or communications. Lectures will draw from many of these areas of activist and scholarly work, and those references will be made available so that you may take this content in directions that excite you. In sum, this course should be a beginning rather than an end or a concluding point.

So, what do I mean by “feminist urban futures”? (First, a nod to the 2012 NWSA conference, whose theme I adopted for my own ends!) Simply put, I want this term to provoke discussion about equity and social inclusion in cities, and encourage conversation about how to make cities serve and function for all urban dwellers, rather than for an exclusive few.  Mobility, freedom from harassment and violence, easy access to services, participation in governance (from neighbourhood planning to City Council and all other sites of decision-making)… all of these elements of urban life (and many, many more) need to be available to all, regardless of wealth or age or educational status or gender performance or because of being racialised in particular ways (this list could go on, of course). My hope is that conversations happening within and outside of this course will engage people in defining “feminist urban futures” in ways that are meaningful to them.

This is a good place to insert a note about my use of feminist. I acknowledge that there is an uneven embrace of the term feminism, sometimes for quite compelling reasons. Some do not feel welcomed by feminist social movements and thus steer clear of them and the term. I acknowledge this experience and hold feminism (and feminists, myself included) accountable for its own exclusionary practices. For me, however, a feminist framework is the most comprehensive way to examine equity. Feminist analysis demands an intersectional analysis, which means thinking about how power and privilege operate in our daily lives in multiple, intersecting, and often contradictory ways. (We will talk more about this, and why space must be incorporated into an intersectional analysis, later in the semester.) Feminist analysis asks, most basically, in the day-to-day of urban life, who wins, and at what cost? Who is excluded and how does this happen? Whose voices are silenced from dominant discourses, and what are the effects of this silencing? Who or what are we raised to think of as exterior or “out of place” to our sense of “normal”? How are these logics maintained and supported, and how are they resisted and changed?

For me, then, feminist is a term worth holding onto, with the hopes of proving its worth to those who have felt excluded by it. As a framework for thinking about equity in cities, feminist analysis can focus equally on women and gender; on colonial legacies and ongoing colonial practices; on anti-racist activism; and on interrogating complicity in inherently unjust systems. Likewise feminist analysis and activism focuses on finding ways to intervene in and change these systems (see Sisters in Spirit, RebELLEs, and the Raging Grannies for some excellent examples).

To bring feminist urban futures into being, and to build upon already existing practices that seek to make cities more just for all, involves appreciating that this drive, just like this course and like any policy aimed at creating socially inclusive cities, are means, not ends. For just as cities are open-ended processes, so too are the measures that we take to make cities more equitable. There will never be, for lack of a better phrase, a magic bullet.

That goes some way toward explaining the title of this week’s lecture. But I’d like to provide a bit more explanation in order to offer some additional context for the philosophy behind this course. The title is taken from a chapter of the Moss & Falconer-Al Hindi textbook (that we will read for next week) written by Richa Nagar, a feminist geographer in the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota. Discussing what it means to collaboratively produce writing, political activism, and -ultimately- knowledge, Professor Nagar writes:

“Like collaborative writing, formulation of political ideas and intellectual concepts in a collective with open membership is a constantly evolving process. It is only by making space and nurturing this dynamism (which includes the risk of moving backward at times) that we can appreciate the knowledge as being produced in both place and time, drawing upon diverse sources of experience and expertise, in ways that the fields of the academy and NGOs can become means not ends (Bender, 1998, p. 27)” (Nagar in Moss & Falconer Al-Hindi, 2008, p. 126-127).

Professor Nagar’s comments get to the heart of my investments in the content we will cover in this course. These can be summarised in four bullet points:

  • Knowledge production emerging from diverse sources of experience and expertise. Cities are complex and open processes, as I pointed to above. Understanding cities and improving urban life thus requires a somewhat complex and interdisciplinary engagement. By putting diverse sources of experience and expertise (policy, planning, theory, art, urban activism, and other fields) into conversation, this course offers one entry point into a more holistic model for understanding the efforts made to create (and practice) more just cities.
  • Context-specific knowledge. I am a feminist urban geographer, so it is hopefully unsurprising that I find place and the social location from which one speaks (writes/ researches/ produces policy, etc.) enormously significant. The distinctiveness of place is of particular importance when it comes to, say, policy development. What appears to work in one place may fail miserably in another; this is often attributable to an inadequate grasp of local context or how social relations such as gender function in local contexts  (see Ogra, 2008 and Nightingale, 2006 for examples).
  • More process, less product. During my circuitous route to the PhD, I completed a Master’s degree in Public Policy. I probably could not have elected a worse fit for myself, but I learned a lot about the logic employed by policymakers. Deliverables reign, I learned, and those deliverables need to be easily evaluated (and it’s best -read: most efficient- when this can happen with tick-boxes). I struggle with this model for social change (and it is often understood as such) for a number of reasons, not least of which is that there is little room to ask bigger questions, like on whose terms are we defining social inclusion? Or, what assumptions do participatory processes take for granted about whose voices and expertise are valuable? (See Sandercock, 1998 and Reed & Mitchell, 2003 for examples.) In this course, we will sit with the tension between the dominant model of policy development and the academic urgency of constant and continuous theorisation. We will also undertake fieldwork activities to try to work a compromise between these modes: one that focuses, perhaps, on process as product.
  • Striving for more socially just cities. While Professor Nagar doesn’t articulate this point explicitly, her work as a scholar and mentor (and I’m sure as a mum and colleague, etc.) exudes a commitment to social justice. I was fortunate to have Richa Nagar as a teacher and mentor during graduate school, and she continues to have a profound influence over not just the work I do but how I go about conducting that work. Thus, striving for more socially just cities means generating collaborative projects, working to help people identify and vocalise their own needs (their own definitions of “feminist urban futures”), and retaining the humility to always revise the tools and strategies that we develop to work toward just cities. The most productive focus, then, is not on the achievement that may be garnered somewhere down the line (and will likely contain its own power imbalances– we will return to this point next week when we discuss hierarchies within feminist geography). Rather, striving for equitable cities means developing -and retaining and constantly revising- equitable means to reach that goal.