Conference discussed making cities work for women and girls

WEB-WTC Conference-Geoff Webb

The event discussed whether gender and equity are in the community planning process 

By Leah Bjornson
Photos by Geoff Webb

Esteemed women in our community are challenging how cities function by claiming that municipalities create ineffective policy when they fail to address issues through a gender and equity lens.

On May 30, SFU hosted the Women Transforming Cities (WTC) Conference: Designing An Ideal City For Women And Girls. The Conference was designed to bring together elected officials, academics, urban designers and planners, and others interested in transforming our cities into places where women are more involved and where the municipalities keep minorities’ needs in mind when designing policy.

The Conference was strategically held before the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Annual Conference and Trade Show, which took place last week from May 30 to June 3. The event allows community members to come together to discuss the planning and infrastructure of their cities and towns.

At issue at the WTC event was the need to make cities work for women and girls, regarding all the things that cities provide (housing, safe streets, transit, and more). However, creating change is complicated by the difficulty of coming up with recommendations on which municipalities can be held accountable.

“Unless there is a specific strategy in place, there is no incentive for municipal governments or corporate governance to think about how their policies, their budgets, these kind of things affect women and girls and marginalized communities,” said Dr. Tiffany Muller Myrdahl, Ruth Wynn Woodward Junior Chair in SFU’s Gender and Urban Studies Department for the 2012-2013 academic year, and an organizer of the event.

The purpose of the conference was to create implementable recommendations, bring forward and raise the profile of various issues, and look at questions like sustainability through a gender lens. A gender or equity lens is a tool that organizations can use in their regular operations to attempt to view an issue from someone else’s perspective, be it of a specific gender, race, or social group.

According to Myrdahl, using a gender lens means thinking critically about how the city works and asking questions such as who is it working for, who is participating, and how responsive are municipal leaders to marginalized communities. By way of illustration, one could look at Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan and analyse how this initiative affects the household.

“When you look at, for example, composting and doing more recycling . . . that relies on the unpaid labour of the household,” said Muller Myrdahl. “Part of doing a gender lens is asking, What kind of extra work are we putting on the household, and who is going to do that work? . . . What kinds of support do the people in the household need to make this policy actually work on the ground? That’s the kind of question that is often left out of those large scale action plans.”

In her keynote speech, Muller Myrdahl brought further focus to the need for both individuals and municipalities to change how they think about policy. Entitled “Interventions for Feminist Urban Futures,” the speech considered how we frame the stories we tell about cities.

To demonstrate her point, Muller Myrdahl brought up the example of Little Nest, a Vancouver haven for foodies and families alike. The breakfast and lunch beacon, which is nestled just off Commercial Drive, is facing closure because of a 50 per cent rent increase. Instead of challenging why these policies exist, which Muller Myrdahl hopes to have them do, the press has mainly been telling sob stories of the small cafe.

“When I hear about situations like that, what it tells me is that we’re taught to frame our municipal politics and the way cities work around finite resources that we have to fight over, and in terms of the commercial landlords, cities presume that there is very little way to intervene in private interests, private property,” said Muller Myrdahl. “My point is, well, that’s just one way of thinking about how the different stakeholders in our cities can come together.”

She continued, “It’s not just about profit margin; if we’re serious about retaining neighbourhood culture and listening to the folks in the neighbourhood, listening to the residents and the business owners and all these different stakeholders, then policy needs to reflect the role that commercial landlords have in shaping the culture of neighbourhoods.”

However, such policy change does not come easy. “There are fantastic consultation processes for getting people involved, but if they have no teeth and if the cities do not have any incentive to follow what people are saying, then what’s the point?” asked Muller Myrdahl. “Then you’re just disenfranchising people who already feel like they’re powerless.”

To illustrate the importance of engagement, Muller Mydahl referenced a recent event which might alarm involved citizens. On May 16, the City held an Open House on Vancouver’s Regional Context Statement-Official Development Plan (RCS-ODP) to plan legislation governing urban development in Vancouver. Only 22 people participated in the Open House, and this event will not be held again for another 30 years.

Muller Myrdahl lamented the city’s failure to engage the public, concluding, “Apparently the city is moving away from that strategy [of participatory engagement] and is looking toward a much more top-down set of processes . . . it’s very concerning. The focus needs to be on process, not just product.”