I have a secret to tell you about my city,” she says. “It has to do with what Eve Ensler calls the feminine cell.”
It was the autumn of 2016. I’d met her in Quito, Ecuador, at the United Nations’ Habitat III, the biggest global urban development conference in two decades. After a week spent pondering cities, we found ourselves talking to each other like strangers often do in the tired, busy evenings that follow a day’s hustle.
“What’s the feminine cell?” I ask.
“It’s empathy. It’s respect for the human experience. It’s being aware of the space you take up in the world and how that relates to the commons.”1
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Outside the colors of Quito were drenched in rain as the bars filled with eager conference attendees and locals alike. In the second year of a post-doc studying energy footprint reduction in cities, I was just about beginning to see the connections between social justice, the urban experience, and what makes a city “tick.”
“My city is always looking for solutions,” she continued. “There is no ‘place’ in my city. There are only points and routes that connect those points.”
America is having a bit of a moment right now. Powerful men long considered beyond retribution are being called out for their transgressions. Behavior long tolerated in a culture where female objectification is in the very air we breathe is being re-examined.
It reminds me of the conversation I had in Quito two years ago.
As we look again at our culture, why stop with behavior? It is also time to re-examine the hardware of our societies. The very infrastructure that we have built—roads, buildings, public spaces, steel, dirt, and concrete—encodes a set of values too. Are these the values we aspire to as a society and civilization?
The cities we’ve built don’t provide perfectly equal access to everyone. An obvious case in point: wheelchair ramps, or lack thereof. But even healthy, active residents of all genders may not consider all of a city accessible to them. Men, for instance, typically don’t consider a dimly lit street lined by bars or clubs an unsafe or inaccessible part of town. For women, braving the same street past midnight has completely different connotations. Like video game players who have been leveled up, men can simply access a much larger part of a city or town at a wider variety of times. One Europe-wide survey found that 30 percent of all physical violence and 16 percent of sexual violence against women happens in bars, clubs, discos and other public places2—something that women are very much aware of and which influences how they move around a city.
Like the physical boundaries it draws between commercial and residential zones, sprawl enforces the boundaries set by our roles in society.
Then there are cars. The American urban landscape is pockmarked by sprawling suburbs that can be entirely devoid of pedestrian traffic. In many metros it is actually impossible to safely access certain parts of the city without a car. If you don’t have a car in Houston or Phoenix it can be difficult to buy bread without having to cross a road that has no marked pedestrian crossing—many streets don’t even have sidewalks. This car-centric design puts women at a double disadvantage: Not only are they at greater risk while traveling through some of these areas, but gender disparity in incomes means it can be harder for them to buy and maintain an automobile, making what James Howard Kunstler calls “the national automobile slum” even more inaccessible for them.
Finally, there is the design of the city itself. The suburbs that define many sprawling cities, including most American cities, are not well suited to healthy social interactions. Pre World War II city design started from the laying of bricks at the human scale. Post WWII American suburbs, on the other hand, are a unique accident in history and designed at much larger scales. The “developer city,” as the famed urbanist Nikos Salingaros calls it, is not “biophilic”—it pays less attention to the human scale and to what people can see, touch, or feel at their own level.3 The suburban house is a collection of rooms, each with its own TV set, its inhabitants fully entitled to their privacy. Is it really a family that lives there? The suburb or small town is a collection of points joined together by roads. The mall (RIP) is not a communal space, it’s a commercial enterprise. City halls are office buildings, not meeting places. The absence of genuine public space drives an absence of genuine community. At each level of organization, the city’s aesthetics first tells us that we are socially alone, then its physical structure makes sure that we stay alone…