'The Promises of Pleasure, Freedom, Excitement, Opportunity, and Encounter': An Interview with Leslie Kern

The author of Feminist City on intersectional urban planning, care work, and feminist geography. 

Monica Heisey is a writer and comedian from Toronto. Her book, I Can't Believe It's Not Better, is out now in Canada and the U.S.

Photo Credit: Mitchel Raphael

Turns out, snow plows are sexist. 

Not the machines themselves, per se, but the way our cities go about using them. See also: our bus schedules, street lights, or that urban classic, “a disgusting basement bathroom down a treacherous flight of stairs.” All are examined in Leslie Kern’s Feminist City (Verso Books), a work of feminist geography exploring the ways gender and other identity valences complicate the experience of living and working in the modern city. The book examines the city’s paradoxical ability to oppress and emancipate—how an environment teeming with gendered inconvenience, racial discrimination, and sexual violence can also be a locus of queer independence, community care, and emancipatory feminist world-making. Heavily researched but accessibly written, Kern cites Baudelaire on one page and extols the virtues of a teenage day at the mall on the next. The book is a dynamic mix of high and low, facts and feelings, research and reality. Reading it, I spent a lot of time grumbling, “god, that too?” as more and more daily inconveniences were revealed, not as flaws in the place I pay $1800 per month to live, but signs it is functioning as planned.

Kern, an associate professor and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University, grounds her book in “the geography closest in”—that is, her own experience. Traversing a childhood in Toronto, family trips to New York City, new motherhood in London, and an academic career in Sackville, New Brunswick, Kern examines times she has encountered the city as, to borrow a phrase from feminist geographer Jane Darke, “patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete.” Aware that these experiences are necessarily limited in scope and directed by her various privileges, Kern visits other cities and perspectives through case studies and the work of other critics, writers, and activists.

She’s also refreshingly realistic about the extent to which academic discussions of issues like gentrification or the housing crisis can help, looking often to the practical work being done to solve these problems by everyday women, people of colour, queer and non-binary communities. Giving equal space to formal urban policy and improvised methods of community care, Kern’s work acknowledges that studies and statistics don’t guarantee institutional change, and that privileging the well-being of marginalized people is a responsibility of citizens at every level.  

From our homes in two very different shutdown cities (London, UK, and Sackville, New Brunswick) Kern and I corresponded about feminist-worldbuilding, what COVID-19 can teach us about community, and whether my “Golden Girls commune” retirement fantasy is problematic.

Monica Heisey: Let’s start with the city. What, historically, have been some of the promises of the urban environment?

Leslie Kern: The promises of the urban environment—and whether they’re kept or not—depend a lot on factors like gender, class, and race, but for most people, the promises would probably fall mainly into the categories of work, finding community, and accessing the public realm. By “public realm” I mean everything from the world of politics to the basic public infrastructures of education, health care, and social services. Less tangibly, the promises of pleasure, freedom, excitement, opportunity, and encounter run through narratives of the city historically and today.  

The city promises anonymity in ways that small town life can’t, which should open up a lot more possibilities for women to live their lives in ways that don’t conform to strict social norms. Paradoxically, though, women also experience a sort of hypervisibility in public space. You don’t feel very anonymous when you’re being cat-called on the street or groped on the subway. Perhaps the greatest paradox is that whatever freedoms the city does offer depend a lot on women being more like men in terms of their roles and lifestyles. As soon as you “fall” into the traditional roles of mother, caregiver, wife, the city is much less supportive of your needs.

For me personally, my first inkling that sexism might have a relationship to the built environment came from my experience of motherhood, of trying to navigate cities—London and Toronto—with a baby. The former seamless mobility of the city for me as an able-bodied person, punctuated by the occasional bout of sexist harassment, was suddenly a maze of barriers that made it very clear that the city wasn’t set up for me.

One of the heartening takeaways from your book is that solutions for one demographic—say, new mothers—often benefit others. Accommodating a stroller can make the subway easier to navigate for people with walkers or wheelchairs, for example.

There are lots of ways that improvements for one group can benefit others; the converse is also true, though, and that’s where an intersectional analysis is crucial. Policies that, on their face, are supposed to contribute to women’s safety, might actually just be ways to expand policing, extend the reach of the criminal justice system, and justify the harassment and surveillance of poor people, homeless people, queer and trans folks, and people of colour. If “taking back the night” makes the city less safe for people like sex workers, drug users, and homeless people, then there’s nothing particularly feminist about it. If efforts to increase access and safety for public restrooms reproduce a regressive and strict gender binary, making them unsafe for trans, gender fluid, or non-binary people, or anyone not fitting into a narrow box of gender presentation, then those efforts also aren’t feminist, in my opinion. So, for me, the idea of feminist city has to be germinated out of the experiences of those who struggle the most to find a place in the city. 

Feminist geography is a relatively new field. Can you explain a bit about what your work involves, and what it means to envision a “feminist city?”

In many cases, we’re still struggling just to add women and non-men to the picture, for example by gathering gender sensitive data, as Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women details so well. Then there’s the level where we’re trying to figure out how gendered and other identities are constructed in relation to place. We’re also concerned with how power circulates and gets built into the human-made environment. Envisioning a feminist city means thinking about all the ways the spaces of the city and their social norms uphold gender inequalities, and doing it intersectionally, so it doesn’t just reflect the needs of, for example, relatively privileged middle-class white women. I’d also note that even though feminist geography is relatively new, women have been proposing their own designs for homes, neighbourhoods, and cities since the 19th century. They recognized that the organization of these spaces contributed to women’s inequality, and that movement toward women’s education and financial independence would require new spatial arrangements.

While reading your book I was struck by urban planners’ insistent failure to understand the needs of their own demographics. You write that cities are designed for a “typical citizen” who’s white, straight, male, able bodied, works a 9-5 job, etc. Surely every census would make clear that the “typical citizen” as he’s been imagined for so long is anything but; cities have access to so much data about their residents! What’s going on here?

Part of the answer might be that planning—along with associated professions like architecture, urban design, and even urban politics—is still a male-dominated field. The range of perspectives that are at the table is much narrower than the range of identities that make up the modern city. There’s also the paradox that planners, while thinking ahead to the needs of tomorrow, are very much working with the built environment of the past; buildings are durable, they last long after the social norms that produced them in many cases. And planners are also steeped in social norms, which are not as progressive as many of us would like to imagine. After all, there’s still stigma attached to being child free, single after thirty, divorced, a single parent, polyamorous, living with multiple generations in one home, renting, being queer, etc., even though taken together we are likely a majority in most places.  

What’s behind this urge to detach the social world from the built environment? 

Well, the social world is messy, isn’t it? It’s complicated, it involves bodies and feelings and all kinds of “irrational” behaviors, driven by fear and love and desire and greed and compassion in unpredictable and confounding ways. Planning is, by its nature, forward thinking: you’re planning for something, and in order to do that you need the world to seem ordered, predictable, and rational. Too many variables make the map too complicated. But it’s also about priorities. For many cities, economic development, expanding tax bases, and growth have been the highest planning priorities. Next to these goals, social concerns are secondary.

The book returns a number of times to co-op community models, and, in the female friendship chapter, to Golden Girls-style retirement communities. I really related—my friends and I imagine this often. Why do we all reserve this fantasy for retirement?

Because men have shorter life spans? I jest. Let’s face it, friendship is pretty much forced to take a backseat to romantic relationships and parenthood for a good chunk of many peoples’ adult lives. It’s maybe only at retirement that we can imagine a time when the kinds of friendships we had in our teens and twenties can truly re-emerge. Maybe for women, this is when we start to imagine—or hope?—that some of our endless caregiving responsibilities will let up and we can have more time for ourselves and the relationships that energize us.

So many of the potential solutions outlined in your book are about accommodating increased demand on women for care work; is getting men to carry more of this burden an option? How do we get them, like... interested in that?

If I knew, I would’ve written that book and made a million dollars. Thinking about it makes me tired in my bones. There might be some things we can do in our individual households. In my first marriage I stopped picking up after my husband or washing his clothes. Effective, but we did get divorced. Ultimately, we have to build a society where it’s impossible for men not to do their share of care work, and that is totally revolutionary. It would mean eliminating the wage gap, so households don’t default to men’s work being more important. It would mean that care work wasn’t looked down upon and devalued. It would mean setting up our cities in ways that didn’t make it seem easier for women to stay home or work from home. It would mean that there is no economic punishment for doing care work—women are supposed to, and do, accept this; men never would.

Another group the book doesn’t have much faith in is government. You return often to the reality that we can’t rely on state or urban policy intervention; what can we do to make our cities more liveable for everyone in them?

It’s fair to say that I wouldn’t put all my eggs in the urban policy basket. Over the last several decades, cities all over the world have embraced neoliberal agendas designed to put profits over the needs of people, resulting in crises of affordability, privatization of services, and the militarization of public space. How’s that working out for us? Not so great, as this crisis has shown. What’s remarkable is that under this intense pressure, nations and cities have miraculously been able to find ways to fund certain kinds of social services. Imagine! So, while I definitely look to more community-based efforts in general, this crisis reminds me, and maybe all of us, that the state is not powerless to act to redress inequalities. Let’s have a long-term freeze on rent increases. Let’s pay everyone a living wage. We can do it.

A favourite passage of mine: Feminist visions of the city have been here all along. Some were never fully realized, and some are in the past, but there are examples of both practices and ideals that are being lived right now, under our noses. What might exist as pockets of resistance or simply alternative ways of organizing care, work, food, and more are sites of possibility for a broader, more transformative vision. It’s empowering to remember that so much of this work is going on already, whether or not it’s formally recognized, and that anyone can decide to be a part of it.

Although I would love to see gender truly taken seriously at the urban policy level, I don’t think we have to wait for that shift before we start our feminist world-making projects in our own backyards. For example, artist OlaRonke Akinmowo created the Free Black Women’s Library, a mobile pop-up trading library of books by Black women, especially feminists, that circulates through Brooklyn and beyond. People come to trade books, talk, ask questions, and socialize at the library, which embodies a feminist, anti-capitalist ethos. Another example is the work of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, which serves an extremely marginalized community that includes sex workers, recent immigrants, Indigenous women, homeless women, women escaping violence, and women with addictions. They’re located at one of the geographic centers of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis. Their recent Red Woman Rising report centered Indigenous women survivors in a compelling call to action on gendered colonial violence and a life-affirming focus on healing. These two very different examples both highlight intersectionality and embody a grassroots, women-centred approach to making women’s urban lives more liveable. 

“The non-sexist city” often sounds like a bunch of connected but independent supportive communities. Is it possible that we just need to re-envision the city as a cluster of small towns?

Yeah, it’s very tempting to see all of this as a problem of scale. But for many, the city is an escape from the confines and problems of small town life. There are things that people really value about the city—anonymity, diversity, a productive clash of cultures—that aren’t readily available in most small towns or communities. Any community, no matter its size, reproduces inclusions and exclusions of various sorts. But it’s true that within the city, people do create smaller scale communities that include face-to-face relationships and networks of care. It might not always be possible to scale those up, but I do think we as a society could find ways to better support and value those networks.

I relocated to London recently, in part because I was feeling disillusioned with Toronto. It sort of seems like the benefits of living in a big city aren’t reliably accessible there, while the negatives are multiplying by the day. My friends and I talk fondly about moving to the countryside or a small town, and in London at least, the movement of young creatives out of town to places like Margate is already happening. Do you think that’s going to continue? But also, is this just a kind of new twist on the gentrification impulse? Basically: am I part of the problem?

Well, yes. But focusing on you or me or our friends doesn’t actually get us very far in our analysis of the problem. My love of avocados is not responsible for Toronto’s condo boom any more than your romanticization of Margate is responsible for the outrageous levels of property speculation in London that have left the city with a tiny vacancy rate and the “opportunity” to rent someone’s walk-in closet for two hundred quid a week. The things that have left you disillusioned aren’t merely matters of taste; they’re serious problems that affect how you and many others live, work, care, and survive in cities. Many people simply can’t afford to do it anymore. Now, perhaps you have a little more choice in terms of when and where you might go, and that might entail some responsibility to think about what you’re bringing to a new community, how you’ll prioritize the needs and knowledges of locals, etc. But overall, we have to worry less about individual choices and more about the structures that drive displacement.

Okay, this is sort of a COVID bonus round: is this pandemic an interesting time to be an urban geographer? What do you hope to learn from this global lockdown?

At the moment I’m a little removed from the direct urban experience, but the question of what “we” have learned is so interesting because it really depends on who the “we” is. Broadly speaking, “we” have learned what feminists and people from marginalized communities have been shouting ourselves hoarse about for decades: that care work, broadly defined, both paid and unpaid, is literally what allows all of THIS to work, and when it’s disrupted, a crisis can become a catastrophe. So, the organization of this work in terms of both who does it, and where it is done, becomes really important to acknowledge and reconsider. Have we set our cities and social safety nets up to sustain us when crisis hits? Clearly not. So now we have to figure out what we must do going forward into the next pandemic, and into that other crisis that’s already here, climate change.

I started self-isolating sort of excited at the possibility that this would involve a major social restructuring. These days, I’m not so sure. Do you think the pandemic will alter the way we think about “key workers,” and maybe force policymakers to prioritize—or at least accommodate—their needs?

I’d also like to think that we won’t immediately forget people like grocery store workers and cleaners as we move beyond the immediate crisis. A lot of how we value work, though, depends on who does it and how we see those people and their contributions to the economy and to society. So, if that work is done by women, people of colour, immigrants, youth, and older people and in general we devalue their contributions, then we might not see a major shift. This could also be a moment where some places actively roll back gains; we’re seeing opportunistic right wing states and nations take hold of the crisis as a chance to limit abortion access and LGBTQ+ rights. I think it’s too soon to say whether we’re barrelling towards the Handmaid future or something else, but you know, the discourse matters. The fact that we can talk about universal basic income without the idea being laughed out the room instantly is a good sign.

Monica Heisey is a writer and comedian from Toronto. Her book, I Can't Believe It's Not Better, is out now in Canada and the U.S.