Written by Melissa Bruntlett
Throughout the past year, while focused on writing the Dutch cycling story, we’ve carried on with our usual day-to-day in Vancouver, travelling around our city using whichever mode makes the most sense. We’ve watched a continual evolution of our streets, with a focus on better public space, and the grid of bike lanes slowly spreading across the city – even if our home patch of Commercial Drive awaits a long-overdue upgrade. We also did our best to keep promoting the many great things happening in the urbanist world on social media, and challenging the status quo to reach beyond our existing echo chambers.
During this period, we began noticing a common thread among those inclined to engage with our online content. Mainly, they were male, white, and able-bodied. While the dialogue was largely constructive, we – or more specifically, I – didn’t feel welcome in these discussions, and I saw many other women back away from engaging, after being talked “at" rather than “to”. As an equal partner in creating and sharing our content, this stood out as a problem; one to which Chris and I have struggled to find a solution, without alienating a demographic that – for better or worse – still makes up the loudest voices in the urbanist world.
One of the benefits of taking a hiatus from our blog has been an opportunity to give this issue space to breathe, allowing time to reflect how best to address a concern I am not alone in feeling. It since dawned on me the answer is exactly that – to make space for diversity in our online dialogue, at conferences, in committees, advocacy groups and in regular conversation. To keep improving the efforts we have been so feverishly working at to make our communities better, we need to ensure all voices are welcome to share their opinions and perspectives, and be willing to recognize where we are falling short.
Gender Equality… Because it’s 2016… 2017… 2018
My personal experience as a woman in the urbanist world has not been without uncomfortable situations and challenging conversations. The reason I started the Women in Urbanism (WIU) series because I was tired of feeling like the only woman in the room, and was certain there were plenty of talented women in these circles that deserved a spotlight, an endeavour I’m excited to revisit later this month with my friend Laura Jane.
Even as some truly amazing women have risen to prominence in the industry – namely Janette Sadik-Kahn and Jen Keesmaat – a predominant gender imbalance still exists. Aside from these two, how many of us can honestly name other ladies with loud voices in transportation advocacy with the same notoriety as, say, Mikael Colville-Andersen, Jeff Speck, and Jarrett Walker?
But it’s more than just making space for female voices. It’s about recognizing the glaring bias that still exists. My recent experience at a local bike shop to get a flat repaired is a prime example. The mechanic found it vital to “mansplain” to me that carrying items in my front basket would make my handlebars harder to control, and my bicycle less stable, and that I really should be riding with a backpack. Let’s look past the ways in which that statement is absurd – I’d hate to show him all those photos of the Dutch carrying things “wrong” – and recognize how condescending it is – no better than the car salesmen who assumed women were uninformed and “needed a man” to make their decisions. I’d like to think we’ve moved passed that, but apparently there is still much work to be done.
What if I was new to cycling – not that it should matter – and my basket made things easier? I now have an “expert” telling me I’m wrong, and if I’m incorrect about that, how much more am I missing? Maybe I start questioning everything I’ve been doing, changing my habits to something less compatible with my needs. Or worse, I stop riding altogether.
We cannot point to an increase in the women advocating and working in the industry, without also addressing how they’re welcomed into the conversation and made to feel equal. With women making up 34% of Canadian bike commuters, a growth of 5% in ten years, there’s still a long way to go, and that is achieved by making space for us to share our challenges, recognizing the value of our perspectives, and involving us in shaping solutions.
If Everyone Looks Like You, There’s a Problem
Any discussion about diversity would be useless without recognizing the pale complexions within the urbanist community. I am acknowledging and checking my privilege here as a white, middle class woman with a nuclear family; and the means to address many of my concerns without prejudice or discrimination. I understand that while I still have trials and tribulations, my lived experience is starkly different from that of a person of colour.
It is imperative that space exists for the numerous demographics that exist outside the Caucasian bubble. This is in part why I’ve ensured to get diverse voices featured in the WIU series, but it’s about more than just storytelling. People don’t feel welcome in a space they can’t see themselves in, and while visuals and stories help, all demographics need to be represented at the table if building better cities is what we want to actually accomplish. If you look around the room at an advocacy or planning meeting, or a conference, and you don’t see a broad representation of demographics around you – meaning people that don’t look like you – then it’s time to re-evaluate how effective the work you’re doing actually is.
It seems fitting that at this point I highlight some people that I think are doing some pretty amazing things in the urbanist world and deserve the spotlight. Robin Mazumder, who we had the pleasure meeting at the 2016 Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place Conference, has spent years advocating for accessible cities, and is currently a doctoral candidate in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, where he is studying the psychological impacts of urban design, as well as challenging the car-first paradigm in our hometown of Kitchener.
This commentary of diversity in urbanism would be incomplete without highlighting Kristen Jeffers. She is providing an honest commentary of the realities in working class neighbourhoods and her platform, The Black Urbanist, is “the premier platform for issues and ideas facing the African Diaspora in urban development and planning”.
Not Everyone Moves Like You
Finally, but no less important, is bringing accessibility front and centre in the urban planning conversation. Often, in council meetings and online, so much focus is given to building more bike lanes, better public spaces, and more frequent transit. But is the same gravity given to making accessibility a part the design process? Separated bike facilities are imperative to building safer streets, but is that minimum standard of two metres a comfortable enough space to navigate on a trike, cargo bike, or adaptive bike?
I recently had a coffee with my friend and local advocate (and upcoming WIU subject) Lisa Corriveau, who brought to light her own challenges with the design of our streets, and how her arthritis makes some trips an absolute challenge. Small or no curb cuts make lifting her cargo bike, complete with 90-lbs of children in the bucket, an impossible task, and highlight how a seemingly small design flaw is – in fact – a major, and unnecessary, inconvenience.
It’s hard to see the world in accessible terms without understanding what it feels like to navigate a city as someone with a disability, so they must be included in the dialogue and better represented. It reminds me of a photograph from our trip to Groningen, of two women riding side-by-side, one on a trike and another on two wheels (see lead image). They had plenty of space to ride abreast, without either feeling like their needs posed a challenge to their mobility. What a wonderful thing it would be to see similar images on our streets, with ample space and consideration for the needs of all citizens, not just the fit and brave.
“We’re All Humans. We All Have Mobility Needs.”
Making space in the urbanist world for diversity is not a simple or easy task, but it definitely starts with the loudest voices taking a step back, and allowing others to take up the mantle. Since we started on this path in 2010, we have met so many incredibly intelligent, talented, and diverse people, who have broadened our perspectives to see the world outside our personal bubbles. They challenge not just our own thinking, but the broader status quo, much for the better. We will continue to use our platform to amplify and shine a light on these underrepresented people. I’m not saying the louder voices need to go away – they are still relevant and important – but they must acknowledge that indispensable expertise exists outside the viewpoints of the pale, stale, and male.
One of my favourite quotes while conducting the interviews for our book came from Angela van der Kloof, and I think it so succinctly identifies why we need to be making space for diversity in our conversations: our often-overlooked commonalities. “We’re all humans. We all have mobility needs. The fact that you’re a Muslim [or a woman, or disabled] doesn’t say anything about your transportation habits or choices.” But including them in the discussion of our shared experience says a lot about the kinds of cities we want to – and must – be.