GUEST BLOG - Lilit Houlder is an urban planner working with a consulting firm in Edmonton, Canada. She is the most recent member of the SafeGrowth team and in this blog she reviews the book Feminist City: A Field Guide.
In Leslie Kern’s 2019 book Feminist City: A Field Guide, readers discover the contemporary female experience of urban space. Kern is an associate professor of geography and environment and the director of women’s studies at Mount Allison University.
Her research is mainly focused on gender and cities, gentrification, and feminist urban theory, which is often reflected in the book. I blogged previously about diversity with a focus on indigenous inclusionary practices and this book looks at similar issues using the concept of “intersectionality” as one lens.
Kern’s personal stories from growing up in Toronto shed light on struggles and uncomfortable situations women deal with in public spaces. She addresses her privilege of being a white, cisgender, middle-class female and admits that her feminist perspective on fear and safety is only one of many. Intersectionality is reinforced and brought up often in the book, bringing up the notion that women of colour, single mothers, non-binary people, and other marginalized groups may experience fear and crime in the city differently from one another.
DEFENSIBLE SPACE - ONLY PART OF THE SOLUTION
Her approach was refreshing to read since the subject of contemporary feminist geography tends to focus on privileged women and fails to emphasize issues of age, family, sexuality, and race. Kern claims that fear is contoured by these wider issues - an admirable admission that should be discussed more often as part of safe urban environments.
Using Oscar Newman’s defensible space, Kern declares that physical environments are only a part of the solution to reduce fear and crime in an urban space. Social and political change plays an equally important part, mimicking 2nd Generation CPTED principles of social cohesion, community, and culture - a point made over a decade ago by DeKeseredy and Schwartz in their study on Gendered Second-Generation CPTED and Woman Abuse.
While Kern does a great job eliciting a sense of empathy from her audience, the book leaves the reader with more questions about how we can close the gap between feminism and white feminism – for example, how to avoid divisiveness, acknowledge differences, and discover how to work together.
Kern mentions that making cities safer for privileged women often comes at a cost to marginalized groups. Consider urban revitalization projects. A gentrified neighbourhood can bring a new sense of security for white, middle-class females, but at the same time drive other marginalized groups to the urban periphery.
As Kern puts it, “safety becomes a private commodity.”
Immigrants and people of colour are often subliminally associated with danger and criminal activity, causing victimization of these groups. A study in Malmo in 2008 found that public violence against veiled Muslim women was mainly committed by older, white, Swedish women.
This reflects back to actor Emma Watson’s call for solidarity and her famous acknowledgment of her blind spots around race. Says Watson, "Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women” when criticized by other feminists on various issues.
Reading Kern’s book is tense as you navigate through the political space of women vilifying one another - white feminism is seen as an exclusionary movement. Practicing separatism and divisiveness rather than solidarity (from either side) is not beneficial for anyone. Kern’s book certainly leaves room to see what this solidarity could look like.