A brief on feminism in planning and the ‘Lean In’ concept


Balancing Act.

Balancing Act.

Literature on feminism in planning sequentially proceeds from talking about the lack of female presence in planning (be it in terms of women being the subjects of plans, or agents and stakeholders in the actions and processes that go into making and executing plans), the resulting process of integration of feminist ideologies into the field, and the consequences of this integration on the theoretical framework of urban planning.


Incorporating Feminism in Planning

Planning literature acknowledges the pivotal role feminism, feminist theories, and women as agents/stakeholders, have had on planning theory and planning practice. In my brief reading on the subject, I have found three ‘categories’ of influence: women as subjects, women as stakeholders, and feminist ideologies as they relate to Marxism and postmodernism. The lines between these categories are often blurred.


Gender Mainstreaming

Austrian planning has been bringing in ‘gender mainstreaming’ into urban planning over two decades (see this article by Claire Foran). From this article, this seems to have mostly occurred in the redesign of a variety of different public spaces, and the underlying facts that defined the change the urban design ethic has undergone: (1) women tend to have many different uses for public spaces, and (2) they tend to use many different spaces for the same propose(s), as opposed to the men who seem to not flinch from their routine use of the same spaces and public amenities (like transport). This resonates with the postmodernist ideology that experiences are contextual and variegated (i.e non-universal). Secondly, it delivers the idea that control of spaces does not necessarily stem from the whether or not planning agencies have chosen to ‘develop’ the space(s) or not. Rather, the emphasis is on taking temperature of the social flows in the space(s) being planned for, and gauging how best to facilitate these flows. This can occur in two ways. One, an abstract design ideology implemented in a public space can breed social flows where none exist- consider the Viennese examples of city parks and barrier-free staircase in Vienna’s ninth district. Two, this design ideology can regulate social flows within a limited space, like the halting of vehicular traffic at Times Square and the ongoing design proposals to better distribute the foot traffic. Lastly, it is illustrative of the long-term communicative planning strategy adopted by Viennese planners.


Feminism & Postmodernism

The non-universality of ideologies signifies the need to look at multiple solutions and case dependencies. The lack of clear authority over public spaces signifies that planning hierarchies have expanded horizontally over the decades, and top-down implementation has decreased. And the transition to a communicative action planning strategy signifies that user groups are major stakeholders, and by virtue of that alone their opinions determine planning outcomes. Thus, the Viennese examples are very indicative of postmodernism. But, these examples also indicate how women have been the subjects of plans (with the city parks, design of the Women-Work-City project, and design of the barrier-free staircase), in turn making it significant to seek out their opinions (like the example of the Viennese survey of public transport use), and thus make them stakeholders in the planning process. Therefore, in the case of Viennese planning since 20 years, incorporating (gender) differences in experiences into plans, redefining control of public space, and implementing communicative planning seems like a product of both feminism and postmodernism.

But given the proclivity to meta-narratives in both feminism and postmodernism, the incorporation of feminism in planning is incomplete without a more thorough integration via incorporation in planning theory, and not just in planning practice (as illustrated with the Viennese examples). According to Lengermann & Niebrugge, the overarching sentiment across all variations of feminist theory is: ‘What about women? Why is it the way it is? What are the differences between women?’

A case on developing theory for insurgent planning using an example from social instigation in Toronto (see REFERENCE below) is illustrative of this theoretical exploration of planning strategies that stem from feminist ideologies. In response to rising crimes against women in certain neighbourhoods, there was a concerted effort by women and feminist groups to improve conditions for security for women in public spaces, that while initially unacknowledged, became a furore, and then transitioned into one of the most comprehensive communicative planning strategies aimed at improving safety for women in public spaces, coordinated across various municipal agencies in the massive city. In using this example of gender insurgence after a safety scare for Torontonian women in the early 1980s, Werkerle talks about how “oppositional movements stake their claim” in the running/execution of municipal functions. The “municipality [was used] as a space for political freedom” (Warren Magnusson), and Werkerle emphasized the relevance of the local scale in reevaluating and redefining the cityscape using the perspectives of women from various situational and personal backgrounds who were all unanimously concerned about their safety. The key learning was that urban social movements bring to the fore multiple perspectives that instigate critical self-examination of the way planning is executed on ground, and that situations create a political space for interaction and skill development for these “insurgent citizens”, making them heavily participant in the goings-on in their cities. Woman as subject (“What about women?”), woman as stakeholder, woman as planner even (“Why is it the way it is?”); and this case was a significant study in developing insurgent planning theory.


Feminism & Marxism

Besides postmodernism, feminism in planning shares much with Marxism as well. Firstly, Marxists also assert that people shape the city as opposed to physical spaces influencing interactions between people. So if feminists were opposed to the idea of say, planners’ focus on “spaces of development” like Central Business Districts, they would do so based on the argument that they use the urban landscape extensively, unlike men who use it in a largely routine fashion as illustrated in the Viennese example, meaning that the disparate development of CBDs or core-satellite growth models would not serve their purposes as women (assuming their preferences and roles are universal across all women). And Marxists would oppose it based on their focus on agency and not space as the shaping force of urban areas.

Secondly, Lengermann & Niebrugge spoke about suburbanization as a physical means of entrenching women in their traditional roles; that resonates with the concept of social reproduction inherent in the ulterior motive of accumulation by capitalists, which expects a constant stream of (cheap?) labour to continue by subjecting the existing labour class to the conditions that perpetuate their roles rather than giving them alternatives in life. As an extension, it is worthwhile to mention that a lot of development literature talks about the feminization of poverty, wherein when the authorities fail to provide local or public services, the responsibility falls solely upon women and not men.

Lastly, there is the issue of what has economic ‘value’. In discussions encompassing the themes of ecosystem services, privatization of natural resources, labor theory of value, etcetera, the focus is on the ‘value’ accorded to intangibles. Money or property would be a tangible. Ecosystem services on that piece of property are intangible. Infrastructure services that lead people toward the property and render it a value are intangible. Between Marxists and environmental economists, these intangibles deserve value, much like feminist theories have spoken about the economic value of women (for instance, in their traditional roles as homemakers). Marxists and feminists speak about the “material”/ “economic”/ “structural” recognition of these roles, as opposed to just “identity” recognition; tangible over the intangible.

In my opinion, feminism and Marxism share three very deep ideologies: one, people influence space; two, physical constructs that entrench social roles are oppressive and not ‘modern’; and last, in the current scheme of things there exist intangibles like ‘value systems’, and roles that do not get their economic due, and that this is a major disadvantage to their recognition as determinants in plans. I think that much of the conflicts under Marxism and feminism fall under the umbrella of these three ideologies.


The Paradox of Incorporating Feminism in Planning

In defining women’s place as subject when building plans, and as stakeholder in the planning process, it is important to avoid the pitfall of assuming their preferences, capabilities, expectations, and roles. As Fainstein asserts, this is counterproductive to the feminist goal of egalitarianism. If the example of Viennese planning was taken as writ in stone, one would assume that all (or even most) women use space far more extensively than men, which may not be true anymore. It depends on the role(s) women play. There are still those that are homemakers, or those who manage both work and home, or those who focus mostly on work. Women’s roles are no longer universally the same, and this is relevant (Lengermann & Niebrugge: “What are the differences between women?”), and thus gender mainstreaming in urban planning is perhaps obsolete? Fifteen years after the study was conducted, one would have to rephrase the learning from the Viennese planning example. It is no longer about women using space differently, but rather people with different routines using spaces differently. If you have a 9-to-5 routine five days a week, you are unlikely to explore alternate routes of getting to and from work during most of your lifetime; that is a given. If you have a 9-to-5 routine five days a week, it is no longer given that you are a man. Therefore, even though the lesson on use of public spaces is still relevant, the distinction is no longer a matter of gender.

Or is it? That depends on the physical location. The issue of feminization of poverty is still very much evident in rural and urban communities across dozens of countries in the world. So the existing variants of feminist theory have a role to play in these communities: to give women a choice, to render them tangible assets, to make their specific needs apparent so they can be addressed. An example that comes to mind is that of gender differences in primary school enrolment in rural and peri-urban India. One of the most significant findings of the data was that enrolment of girls was significantly lower than boys due to a few reasons, the most influential one being that the need of privacy in sanitation facilities for girls was completely ignored- an issue not of relevance to boys who could run out into the fields.


The role of feminism in forcing ‘authority’ to include women in plans and affix women and men as contemporaries is indisputable. And given that several communities/societies the world over have not arrived at this juncture yet, these theories of feminism (gender difference-gender inequality-gender oppression-structural oppression) will continue to play the roles they have played. For societies that have arrived at this point already however, my question is: what new variant of feminist theory can incorporate this paradox (if at all such a general theory is possible)? Or is gender mainstreaming in urban planning obsolete?


Pop-Culture Feminism

Three issues from the assigned readings overlap with the recent spate of pop-culture debates inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: (1) gender roles, (2) gender-derived preferences, capabilities and expectations, and (3) justice and egalitarianism.

The Lean In ‘theory’ identifies certain attributes of women that are debilitating to the advancement of their careers. That these attributes are indicative of a biologically and/or cultural remnant of the role(s) that reeked of subjugation/submissiveness, and that now manifests itself as a woman’s hesitance in making demands (for everything from pay raises to paid maternity leave) at the workplace, relative to her male colleagues. This resonates with all the feminist theories discussed: gender difference, gender inequality, gender oppression, structural oppression. And again, the nuances of Sandberg’s thesis, her assumptions of women universally retreating into their shells of submission in the workplace, are fated the same question I posed earlier: I have my doubts that gender mainstreaming is still an issue within the specific culture Sandberg that has based her work.

Hats off to her though, for coining the term ‘Lean In’. I can’t get it out of my mind, let alone my vocabulary.


REFERENCE: Wekerle, Gerda R. (1999). Gender Planning as Insurgent Citizenship: Stories from Toronto. Plurimondi, 1(2): 105-126.


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