Vicky Mochama: The voice of Metro News.
To build better cities, men need to listen when women speak: Mochama
At the highest ranks of laying out what our cities will look and feel like, the decisions are being made by men. It's not the worst thing but it is definitely a problem.
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Our cities are being designed by men. It's not the worst thing — dresses without pockets are — but it is definitely a problem.
In an essay for Curbed, Alissa Walker wrote, "It turns out that the absence of women from the conversation about how cities have been made, and remade, over the last 50 years has directly fed their wealth disparity and urban displacement."
Of the 22 mayors who make up the Federation of Canadian Municipalities' Big City Mayors' Caucus, four are women. The departure of Jennifer Keesmaat from Toronto's top planning job has left few women in top planning jobs in the country's largest cities. At the highest ranks of laying out what our cities will look and feel like, the decisions are being made by men.
What we lose in that is nuance. Walker cites Lisa Schweitzer, an urbanist and professor of urban planning, who says the many male voices drown out identity- and equity-minded women. This, she finds, is the reason for "the emergence of a very strong pro-density contingent which has dominated the conversation in many cities."
I thought of this when it was recently revealed that a group of wealthy Torontonians, including Margaret Atwood, an Eaton heiress and Galen Weston Jr., were advocating against the construction of a condominium building in their Annex neighbourhood. Much of the aftermath focused on Atwood who, to be fair, reacted combatively on Twitter when asked about it.
Column after column focused on Atwood herself. The complaints against her were much the same as Walker highlights for female planners face when they push back: she's not credible, development and density is good, and really, truly, how dare she?
Atwood's specific complaints were rarely considered although they are entirely worthy. In her letter to Toronto and East York Community Council, she cites concerns about privacy, local trees and what allowing this particular development will mean for the rest of the city. These are hardly the NIMBYist complaints of her husband, Graeme Gibson, who wrote to say that permitting the condo "hover[s] close to a brutal and arrogant assault on a community that has been here since the 19th century.”
It seemed to me that a disproportionate number of people were very passionate about telling a woman to shut up about her neighbourhood. Now, Atwood may be in the wrong — and with the Orwellian use of "unrich," it seems likely that she is — but the focus on her shows who is permitted to speak in city spaces. Spaces are constructed by whose voices we value. And when it comes to cities, women aren't just unseen but also unheard.
To build better, more fair and healthier cities, the men are going to have to listen when women speak.