How To Build A Feminist City: A Blueprint In Three Parts

As Canada attempts to turn the she-cession into a she-covery, building safe, livable spaces that accommodate women and children—and everyone else—is more important than ever.

An illustration of a city with a women's symbol built into it

(Illustration: Kathleen Fu)

Poorly lit laneways, unreliable public transit and a lack of public space. Systemic racism, severe housing shortages and unaffordable child care. This set of very modern problems is rooted in an outdated and sexist approach to building cities, which creates barriers to wealth, health and safety. It also makes city living hard for women—and everybody else.

Historically, women have been something of a side note in urban planning, which has long revolved around men with cars who work nine-to-five jobs. Cities are home to roughly seven out of 10 Canadians, yet our biggest urban centres aren’t safe or accessible for women and many others—sidewalks that are inhospitable to strollers don’t serve seniors or people with mobility challenges, either. Transit that doesn’t work for women—who make up more than 50 percent of riders across Canada—also doesn’t work for low-wage and essential workers, who also need affordable places to live. And, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, haphazard child and elder care is hardest on women, but it echoes through society.

Neglecting “the caring economy,” as economist Armine Yalnizyan calls it, also means neglecting the people who do those jobs, who tend to be women themselves. Yalnizyan says that work in this sector—which includes child care, education, senior care and health care—accounted for one in five jobs and 12 percent of Canada’s gross domestic product prior to COVID-19. Those workers allow the rest of the country to function, she says, yet as the pandemic has shown again and again, their jobs are often not stable, safe or as well-paid as they deserve to be.

Overall, some 2.8 million women were either out of work or had their hours cut in half as of the first pandemic lockdown in March 2020, according to a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Released in March 2021, it notes that “Black, racialized and Indigenous women working in hard-hit sectors and occupations bore the brunt of the first wave of employment losses,” and that by July 2020, racialized women reported unemployment rates of about 17 percent, compared with about nine percent for white women.

The pandemic has pushed many Canadians to the brink, and the long climb to economic recovery will be especially hard for women. But planners and community organizers also see an opportunity to go beyond recovering to rebuilding, a chance to transform cities through inclusive conversations around housing, safer streets, parks and transit, winterization, access to care, information and education.

Those visions need to be matched by political will. So far, concrete commitments are scarce. City councils in Toronto, Ottawa, Lethbridge, Alta., Halifax, and Vancouver have discussed what an equitable approach to planning would look like. In Ontario, where women were hit with a nearly five percent loss in paid jobs due to COVID-19 (compared with the just over three percent lost by men), the government has pledged to “ensure inclusive economic growth.” But it’s hard to believe when its refusal to mandate paid sick days throughout most of the pandemic forced many low-wage workers, including part-time staff in long-term care homes, to choose between
personal safety and paying rent.

Federally, there’s the new Task Force on Women in the Economy, co-chaired by Mona Fortier, the minister of middle-class prosperity, and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is also the minister of finance. Its mandate is to “advance gender equity and address systemic barriers and inequities faced by women,” and to that end, the Liberals’ 2021 budget included up to $30 billion over five years for child care and early learning. To their credit, they’ve finally put a dollar figure on a promise governments have made for decades. It could actually make a difference.

“We are literally leaving money on the table if we don’t fix how we take care of the people who are too old, too young and too sick to work,” says Yalnizyan, who coined the term “she-cession.” A member of the federal task force, she considers this an “opportunity to do fiscal policy differently.” That means significant public investments in child care, education, elder care and decent work, says Yalnizyan, to help not only women but also the economy as a whole move forward.

Failing to consider women, people with disabilities, low-income earners, members of racialized communities, children and seniors is a fiscal risk the country can no longer afford to take. And so, it’s time to build feminist cities: places where the urban design integrates equity from day one.

To map out what this could look and feel like, we spoke with leading planners, economists, organizers, architects, designers. Follow the links below to hear all of their ideas about building cities designed with women in mind, and how they could benefit the country as a whole.

Make it safe

A photo of Julie S. Lalonde.

(Photo: Taylor Hermiston)

Read about how to move away from authoritarian law enforcement, and towards communities of people that look out for each other.

Make it inclusive

A photo of Amina Yasin
Read about how to build a city that truly welcomes everyone, in part by making sure they all have safe and healthy homes.

Make it accessible

A photo of Nancy MacDonald
Read about how to build cities that make it easy for everyone to get around, including through Canadian winters.

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