Commentary: A City That Works for Everyone — Reflections on the Necessity of an Intersectional Urbanism
This guest commentary is by Robin Mazumder, a Canadian urban neuroscientist, speaker, and writer. He is currently completing his doctorate in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, where he is studying the psychological impacts of urban design. Robin’s research is funded by the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, Canada’s most prestigious doctoral award. Robin will be in Denver on Monday, Feb. 10 to deliver keynote remarks at the Moving People Forward conference. A version of this post originally appeared on www.robinmazumder.com.
In recent years, people have been discussing the issue of diversity in urbanism. At the Council for Canadian Urbanism’s 2017 CanU conference, there was an all-white all-male panel that got people talking. What happened at CanU isn’t uncommon; many urbanist conferences often have a lack of gender and racial diversity in their speaker and panel rosters. So, I was quite happy to see this issue come to the forefront. I appreciate and commend CanU for quickly acknowledging the issue and directly responding to it. If we want to be effective in addressing diversity and inclusion, in any arena, we can’t keep sweeping these issues under the rug.
Diversity and representation is something I think about quite often, particularly when it comes to cities. When I speak out about urban issues, it is from my perspective as someone who experiences marginalization in some aspects of my identity as much as it is from my perspective as someone who has privilege. I try to be cognizant of how these elements shape how I see the world and determine the positions I take.
As someone who lives with a progressive degenerative neuromuscular disease, I am constantly examining accessibility in cities and trying my best to advocate for universal design. The course of this disease is unpredictable and there’s a chance I can one day end up requiring mobility devices to travel around my city. My perspective on universal design is also informed by the work I did as an occupational therapist, where I supported people living with physical and mental illnesses, where much of the services I offered revolved around adapting spaces to better meet their needs.
As a person of colour, I reflect on how racism influences my experience of the city. I wrote a blog post about how a racist encounter made clear to me how urban infrastructure impacts my feelings of safety in the city. I was using a trail that, at roadways, gives drivers the right of way, putting the onus on trail users to “look both ways” before crossing the road. I ventured out to cross a road and had someone speed around me, almost hitting me with their car and yelling out “go back to your country!”. I felt that, had there been appropriate crossing infrastructure, I may have avoided such an interaction. Interestingly, there has been research that demonstrates that drivers yield less frequently to people of colour waiting at crosswalks. It appears that people of colour can’t rely on the benevolence of drivers to yield for them.
I’m also aware of where I experience privilege. A few months ago, a woman who uses her bike as her sole means of transportation told me about how men would try to reach out of cars to touch her. I was taken aback. My male privilege sheltered me from that reality. I wasn’t naive to the misogyny present in our society – I just wasn’t aware it manifested in this way. She went on to tell me that separated bike lanes would be useful in that regard – to place a physical barrier between her and potential assaulters. It gave me much to reflect on. In my previous blog post, I wrote about how separated bike lanes would put a physical barrier between me and racists who could potentially use their cars in a violent manner, but I had never really thought about the implications separated bike lanes could have on sexual assault. I am always learning.
And, I can’t deny how my socio-economic status (SES) impacts how I am treated in a city. I haven’t been told to vacate public squares or not to loiter in parks. The homeless (for the lack of a better term) are bullied and told quite clearly by municipalities they are not welcome or desired in public spaces. Cities are employing defensive architecture, also referred to as hostile architecture. Some have gone as far as to install “homeless spikes” to stop people from sitting or sleeping in public spaces. But, it can be as subtle as benches that are designed to be uncomfortable to sleep or sit on. The next time you go for a walk in your city, take a look at the benches and I’m sure you’ll see what I am talking about. And, pay attention to the diversity of who’s riding bikes and how it intersects with SES.
Locally, there’s been an ongoing debate around cycling infrastructure. A radio host whose newspaper columns have been central to this debate decided to ride a bike for a week to better understand what it was like for people who cycle in my city. He made this public and tweeted daily updates. He wrote a piece about his experience where he shared he had no negative encounters with drivers. Taking what I saw as a prescriptive approach, he concluded that to be safe as a cyclist, “all it takes is the right attitude” and stated “I’d be lying if I said I was ever scared on the road.” I engaged with him on social media and raised the possibility that his public declaration of his week of cycling to work in concert with his recognizability as a local celebrity may have played a role in how he was treated. More importantly, I tried to communicate that his experience as a white male on a bike should not be generalized to the whole population. That not everyone can rely on “having a good attitude” to get around their city safely on a bike. I asked that he reflect on that and was met with resistance. Which is fine. I shouldn’t expect everyone to agree with me.
This troublesome exchange was a reminder (to me at least) that our cities have, for far too long, been designed with the experience of the white, financially secure, able-bodied man in mind. That their needs have been prioritized. And, that everyone else has had to adapt to the standards established by, and for, them.
All is not bleak, however. I should say that it’s been uplifting to see a growing interest in promoting diversity and an increasing recognition of the experiences of marginalized peoples in mainstream discourse. However, based on recent events, it’s quite clear we still have a ways to go in our cities when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Over the years, I’ve been grateful to learn about intersectionality. I’m not the first to suggest this, but we all stand to benefit from applying this framework to urbanism.
To me, intersectional urbanism is an urbanism that (1) recognizes the diversity of experiences in a city, (2) acknowledges the oppression experienced by the marginalized and (3) endeavours towards building a city that meets the needs of everyone who lives in it.
There is obviously much more to intersectional urbanism. But, for the time being I thought I would distill it to three distinct, but related points that stood out to me through my own process of reflection. More to come on this in future blog posts. In the meantime, here is something to meditate on when it comes to the cities we dream of living in:
If your dream only includes you, it’s too small.
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) February 27, 2015