How To Build A Feminist City: Make It Accessible

In this section of our three-part series, we look at what accessibility really means, including through Canadian winters.
By Emily Mathieu
An illustration of a city with a women's symbol at the centre. (Illustration: Kathleen Fu)

This is one part of a three-part series on what a feminist city would look like. Read about the idea and find the other sections here.

A photo of Nancy MacDonald


Get ready for winter

Nancy MacDonald, urban planning lead for Canada, Stantec, Edmonton

“In Canada, the winter context is an enormous challenge,” says MacDonald. “Especially if you’ve got kids, and if you’re trying to get to your job after dropping off your kids.” But while winter weather can severely limit the ways that women navigate cities, MacDonald believes that those barriers to equity can be remedied by urban planning.

Stantec, the design firm where she works, was among the contributors to the WinterCity Strategy, which aims to winterize Edmonton in a way that makes public space and public services safer and more accessible year-round. Items on the list include designing buildings to minimize wind tunnels, as well as improving the quantity and quality of light in public spaces and creating “sun traps,” or spaces exposed to direct light, to generate warmth.

The strategy is also focused on increasing reliable and affordable ways to get to, from and across the city without a car. Public transit is the bridge between the suburbs and the urban core and must remain a priority, says MacDonald, but city planners can’t overlook the value of making cycling a year-round option, through properly separated and maintained lanes.

All of these changes would help women who aren’t in vehicles feel both protected from the elements and less isolated as they move through the city.


Every planning decision that makes things better for women, says MacDonald, spreads to the broader community and cannot be undervalued. “We are really a nation of small businesses,” she says, and COVID-19 has reinforced that helping people get outside safely in any season is key to the survival of existing businesses. It could even create an entirely new winter economy.

A photo of Andrea Gunraj

Make it accessible

Andrea Gunraj, Co-host, Alright, Now What?, Toronto

The pandemic has forced people to use space differently, says Gunraj, and lockdown and isolation pose unique threats to women and vulnerable people. The vice-president of public engagement at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Gunraj helped launch a new podcast, Alright, Now What?, in July 2020 to make sure that complicated conversations about equity weren’t ignored during the public health emergency.

Hosted by Gunraj and her foundation colleague Kate Hawkins, the show has emphasized that city leaders need to find new ways to ensure public space is safe and accessible. The second season kicked off in December and delves into the connection between stay-at-home orders and rising risks of gendered violence and what cities can do to address it immediately—ideas that range from more emergency support for women to fast changes to lighting and structural design that open up public space and allow for increased visibility.

“People [might] feel a little bit more isolated when they’re outside, it might make them feel unsafe outside in lots of different ways,” says Gunraj.

Some abusers will always target women because of skin colour; religious expression, such as wearing a hijab; visible disability; or gender nonconformity, she says, but designing with their safety in mind will result in an improved urban experience for everybody.


A photo of Kristyn Wong Tam

Get it in writing

Kristyn Wong Tam, City councillor, Toronto

Smart cities cater to their residents, says Wong-Tam, who has represented her dense downtown Toronto ward since 2010. Cis women, trans women and nonbinary people make up more than half of the city’s population, yet are often shut out of civic discourse because of a lack of services like affordable child care or reliable transit.

Wong-Tam believes that in order for cities to thrive, the “interests of women and girls” must be embedded within policy development, in every step, from idea to program development to service delivery. That means fighting for inclusion until municipalities officially sign off on practical steps.

Her most recent success was to have funding for a Gender Equity Office included in Toronto’s 2021 operating budget. It opened in March and is now developing a gender equity strategy. Future budgets will be analyzed with women, girls and community in mind: One potential outcome could be changing the sign-up procedure for city recreational programs, which currently favours those with free time and high-speed internet access.

Her next push is to collect disaggregated data on city services, tracking how factors like gender, sexuality, race, income and immigrant status impact access to health care, transit and housing. “When you know who is being left behind, who has access, it allows you to then modify your services and programs to ensure that you can actually capture those individuals whose needs are not being met,” she says.


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