‘When I teach this material… my geography students get really discouraged or really annoyed. They were so hopeful thinking about environmental and design solutions. And then they realize that no amount of lighting is going to abolish the patriarchy. “So, what are the answers?” they sulk…’
I have to admit to sulking. I began this book seeking design inspiration, but ended disappointed. Kern is a feminist geographer and this is a geography text, so I was under no illusion that it was a design sourcebook. Nevertheless, I hoped it may offer design insights. In fact, despite Kern’s assertion about her students, she does fleetingly touch on some interesting real world examples that, if not design solutions per se, certainly have design implications. Some of these sounded very intriguing and left me wanting to know more (such as the gender equal snow ploughing strategy in Stockholm).
Sulking aside, what I enjoyed was the mix of personal experience interspersed with references to other studies and academic work on urban geographies. Kern places herself at the centre of the book as 'the geography closest in’, reflecting on her lived experiences in London, Toronto and other cities, and framing issues faced by women via a series of themes (city of men, moms, friendship, being alone, protest, fear). Sometimes she is a little too discursive (notably the chapter on protest), but overall these chapters provide a good introduction to reading the city from a feminist perspective.
The final chapter, City of Possibility, concludes that we need to recognise that cities of the Global North are planned and designed to maintain a white, straight, cisgendered, male way of social organisation. Kern rightly asserts that to truly deliver a city that works for women, women must be more present and involved in city design and decision-making (I say bring on the matriarchy!). She also references various movements (Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15 campaign, Focus E15 Campaign) that are in some way enabling the feminist city by challenging patriarchal social organisations. Nevertheless, this chapter felt like a missed opportunity to present a call to arms for a truly feminist urbanism. It would have been great to hear her thoughts, even if formative, for positive change, maybe not the design solutions that I was (wrongly) seeking, but some steps towards the city of possibility