Building Feminist Cities

By Professor Leslie Kern

Kern is an associate professor of geography and environment and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University. She is the author of Sex and the Revitalized City: Gender, Condominium Development, and Urban Citizenship.

The Covid-19 pandemic shattered any illusions we might have held about reaching gender equality at home and work. From spikes in calls to domestic violence hotlines to millions of women leaving the paid workforce, the pandemic blew apart the fragile web allowing many women to manage the contradictions embedded in the nuclear family, the workplace, and urban life. It’s clear that the way we’ve organized care work, socially and spatially, has failed to create more equitable societies. Care work includes all of the labor performed to look after one another and our environments, including childcare, housework, assisting elderly, sick, or disabled people, and tending to one another’s emotional, physical, and mental health. The privatization of care work has perpetuated long-standing forms of gendered exploitation and generated new inequalities across race, citizenship, and class.

Globally, it appears that women have shouldered an unfair set of harms from the pandemic in just about every area, except for actual mortality rates from the virus. Female-dominated occupations in the service sector have been decimated by the pandemic. Women have been pulled out of the workforce by the impossible tasks of caring for children, and supervising virtual school while trying to work. Rates of domestic violence against women have risen while the pandemic makes leaving a violent partner even more difficult. Racialized and immigrant women working in low paying yet “essential” sectors have been exposed to the virus at higher rates while their communities have struggled to access vaccines.

The expectation that women continue to shoulder these huge burdens isn’t sustainable, and not just because it’s unfair to women. The paid and unpaid care work that has been so poorly supported is foundational not only to the economy, but to life itself. Unfortunately, we haven’t designed our social systems or our cities around this reality. The assumption has always been that women, in the private space of the home or the underpaid service sector, will pick up the slack. The time has come to say, “no more.” As we move into a post-Covid world, what principles, plans, and priorities can guide cities toward a feminist future?

The single-family home and the narrow set of relationships it’s designed to contain are major barriers to a feminist city. As Diana Lind points out, the single-family home is a relatively new, and globally rare, form of housing but it’s the one that dominates most western cities.[i] The pandemic was a reminder for many that the home isn’t a safe space for everyone. In fact, it’s the site where women and children are most likely to experience violence. It’s also a space that hides, privatizes, and individualizes care labor.

The good news is we aren’t required to live like this. Co-housing movements are growing in popularity, especially for seniors, for whom the communal spaces for cooking, socializing, and gardening help mitigate both isolation and an increased need for assistance. In New York, the Citizens Housing Planning Council has developed a Feminist Housing Plan which recognizes the gendered impacts of decreased housing affordability in terms of violence, homelessness, and displacement. They’re advocating for gender equity-informed analyses of affordability that consider, for example, the expenses of single parenthood and childcare, the gender wage gap, safety issues, and the need for proximity to transit, schools, and employment.

Proximity to transportation, education, and economic opportunity are central to the 15-Minute City concept. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has proposed that all residents should have access to home, work, school, green space, and daily needs within a fifteen-minute radius by foot or bike. Feminist urbanists have long advocated for mixed-use urban environments with close, efficient connectivity between the spaces of both care work and paid work. Paris’ plan recognizes that each neighborhood should include access to care-centered services like childcare, schools, and health services. Gender equity is one rationale behind the plan, as is environmental sustainability. Cities like Madrid, Milan, Ottawa, and Seattle have declared intentions to follow Paris’ lead.

In order for people to benefit from all the services a city can offer, the built environment itself has to be physically accessible to as many people as possible. There’s perhaps an assumption that disabled people are a small fraction of the population and that accessibility is therefore a niche issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. The CDC notes that over a quarter of American adults have a disability; the WHO reports that fifteen percent of the global population is disabled. Most global north countries have significantly aging populations, with people 65 and over becoming the largest demographic. Of course, everyone benefits from accessibility: parents pushing strollers, delivery people, anyone with a cart of groceries or laundry. In Singapore, recognition of the challenges of mobility for an aging population has sparked large-scale efforts to make public transit fully accessible and to incorporate universal design principles into new construction.

Greater equity in mobility is also critical for a feminist city. Care work isn’t well-supported by most mobility planning. Public transit is typically organized to bring people through the central city rather than to connect residential neighborhoods. In many major cities, snowplow schedules prioritize freeways over sidewalks, residential roads, and public transit. Systems are designed to take people on linear journeys between home and work at rush hour. All of these issues make it even more difficult for women to navigate through a city. For example, in Latin America, some 17 million domestic workers, almost all of whom are women, need to commute between residential areas for their work, but public transit is designed to take them to the central city. Domestic workers’ commutes were almost twice as long as the average female commuters. In São Paolo, new metro lines between low- and high-income residential neighborhoods reduced women’s commuting times significantly.

Inclusive cities must also re-humanize public space. During the pandemic, people trying to socialize outdoors found it difficult to find places to sit, get water, find shelter, and use public bathrooms. For decades, cities have hollowed out the public realm in deference to fears about homelessness, drug use, sex work, and crime. Of course, hostile architecture, like ledges with spikes and benches with dividers or uncomfortable seating angles, does nothing to actually address those issues, and arguably creates an even more dangerous public realm because no one wants to be there. Good social policy can be used to address poverty and addictions, and good design can also enable bringing people into public space. In cities like Toronto, the pandemic has brought renewed attention to issues of toilet access, including calls to winterize, make accessible, and maintain public restrooms.

The changes discussed so far can contribute to building an infrastructure for care work, one that helps to pull care work out of the private space of the home and off of individual women’s shoulders. President Biden’s recent infrastructure bill included $400 billion in spending for at-home care for the elderly and disabled, with money expected for family leave and childcare in a second package. This was a bold move in that infrastructure is usually only imagined as roads, bridges, and pipelines. Cities can help push this agenda forward by putting care work at the front of their social and physical planning processes.

Some of these changes are already happening. Gender-sensitive city budget and planning processes have been adopted by Vienna, Barcelona, Lyon, Stockholm, and San Francisco. Grassroots feminist activism and organizing is tackling a range of issues including safety and rights of sex workers, street harassment, and food security. In fact, wherever there’s a problem or a need, someone (likely a woman) is already working to address it. Cities would do well to look to local knowledge-holders and their expertise in order to build back feminist.


[i] Diana Lind, 2020, Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing, Bold Type Books.




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