Confronting Male Dominance in the Urban Planning Debate

Photo:  CityLab via the Urban Land Institute
Photo: CityLab via the Urban Land Institute

Why are conversations about urban planning issues — especially online — so dominated by men?

Alissa Walker at Curbed recently explored that topic in a lengthy and well-worth-reading-in-full article, “Mansplaining the City.” After reading four books about gentrification, Walker writes, it struck her that they were all written by men.

In her work as an urbanist writer, Walker says she’s often found herself as the sole female voice:

It’s disheartening that the public dialogue about our cities is largely unchanged since Jacobs’s era, when her adversary Robert Moses dismissed the group of mostly female activists working to save Washington Square Park as “a bunch of mothers.” Today, these activists may finally be coming out from behind the scenes to take on leadership positions, but you can’t hear them over the relentless mansplaining in Twitter replies and at public events.

She interviewed USC professor Lisa Schweitzer, who wrote about her encounters with “mansplaining” in a post last year, The Smartest Urbanist Boy in the Room. Walker writes:

Schweitzer has a few theories on why women are getting drowned out by Smartest Boy Urbanists. Women often want to engage in a conversation that centers around identity, which in an urban context means building cities that are more equitable for all residents. When women do raise questions as part of this identity dialogue, Schweitzer says they routinely get called out for their dissenting positions — a phenomenon she has eloquently named “Shut up, bitch” urban politics.

Having worked in the field for about seven years, I gotta say, some of those complaints resonate with me. The condescending mansplaining is particularly apparent when I write something critical of transportation engineers.

Before anyone gets defensive, please consider these women’s perspectives and examine your own behavior. Not every man is guilty of dominating women in discussion or belittling their perspectives, of course. But even those who may never behave that way can work to be cognizant of when it is happening around them and try to correct that. It’s on all of us to consider how we can make more space for women’s voices in the urban transportation sphere because ultimately that will lead to better outcomes.

More recommended reading today: ASLA’s the Dirt blog takes a closer look at how a recent Trump executive order will affect climate change resilience and the federal environmental review process for infrastructure projects. And Alon Levy at Pedestrian Observations considers the transit needs and challenges that come with being a mature city — specifically, New York.

  • chad frederick

    Even if 80% of the cyclists in your city *are* white men (and your word is not data), wouldn’t that be a clear indicator that your city’s infrastructure needs to support more diversity?

    I’ll assume you’ll say “no.” I think it does. Welcome to our pluralistic society. Will you be staying long?

  • chad frederick

    A good way to fight sexism would be to not mansplain.

  • cjstephens

    Also, it’s not that I expect everyone to agree with me – that’s not how the world works. It’s just that I was hoping that those who disagree with me would be able to state their case in a way that doesn’t devolve into snark and name calling.

  • chad frederick

    You think not wanting to live in a world shaped by you is the same as hating you? How does that work?

  • bolwerk

    Yes, I’m sure you have “stats” on this.

  • bolwerk

    No, they don’t have every opportunity to attend. They’re poorer and busier, have work and family to attend to, etc.. By and large community board meetings and similar planning activities are the province of minor power brokers who are some combination of economically better off, childless, empty nesters, or able to afford care for children.

  • bolwerk

    Oh, I’m sorry, I ducked a question I don’t have an answer for that that related to absolutely nothing I said? Oops, silly me.

    And you have the affirmative action backwards, if anything. Males, specifically white males who often don’t even live in the communities impacted by these decisions, are getting priority in the decisionmaking.

    What many people, including many women, would like is to be represented in decisions that impact them. You can probably imagine countless ways to do that without “quotas.” Nobody is suggesting a quota of black women from Harlem for transportation committees in a community of Nebraskan white nationalist monastic gay Amish frontiersmen.

  • bolwerk

    What the hell are you talking about? You mention bike lane planning, but out of nowhere you blather about forcing people to use bike lanes, something it might be safe to say nobody in the entire history of the universe ever seriously suggested, and some nonsequitur about a political ideology I don’t like or participate in.

  • bolwerk

    Not every one, but certainly “every little girl gets a pony.”

  • cmu

    Way to go, sarcasm! Yes, it’s called “observation,” from attending probably 100+ meetings over the last 10+ years.

  • bolwerk

    Haha. Observation. Do you observe the phenomena that lead people not to attend too?

  • cjstephens

    If you think people like me, people you find, oh, what’s the word, deplorable?, should have no say in how the world around them should look, maybe it’s not hate, but it’s something awfully close.

  • chad frederick

    Other people besides white men have a right to an equal say in how the world is shaped.

    Why do you think that is the same as hating you (or something awfully close)?

  • cjstephens

    Because the way I read what you wrote, it sounded like you thought I should have zero say in the way the world is shaped. Which is pretty hateful. As I wrote above, I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, nor do I expect everyone to do things my way. But when so often the response to what I think are reasonably considered and politely expressed opinions is “shut up, fascist!”, it gets tiresome.

  • chad frederick

    Right, let me rephrase that… “They just don’t want to live in a world shaped by you (alone).”

    So, I take it then that you understand Lisa Schweitzer’s problem with being dismissed in a similar manner?

  • cjstephens

    Thanks for the clarification. I don’t think my situation is the same as Prof. Schweitzer, and, no, not because I’m special and I think she’s wrong, but because the contexts and the problems are very different.

  • neroden

    Green Line Extension is legally required by law, and has been for 20 years. It must be built, or criminal penalties will be imposed. It’s also extremely badly needed. Cambridge and Somerville are denser than Boston.

  • neroden

    I’m highly sensitive to personal security, having been assaulted repeatedly when I was younger. Sure, it might statitstically be more common for women to be more sensitive about this, but some of us small men are pretty sensitive about this.

  • neroden

    Unfortunately, most of the times I’ve seen this dynamic, it’s been people who oppose passenger rail projects and oppose sidewalks and oppose housing and support parking lots claiming that that they’re somehow being “oppressed” by male activists. This strikes me as phony.

    The discussion of abusive police behavior is a real one. At this point, everyone needs to address the question of abusive police behavior, and dismissing it is just wrong. It’s a cancer on our society. I don’t think it’s helpful to frame that as identity politics, especially now that killer cops are murdering affluent people, white women, and white men with impunity. I think it’s counterproductive to treat this as identity politics. Out-of-control criminal police are a dangerous threat to democracy and the rule of law. It has been for decades but finally white men are noticing.

    But apart from discussions of whether the police can be trusted (they can’t) most of the “I’m being shouted down” which I’ve actually been *seeing* is garden-variety NIMBYism pretending to be identity politics. 😛 And frankly I see nothing wrong with shouting down NIMBYism.

    If you want to convincingly claim that your voices are being unfairly suppressed, you have to say something which isn’t pure NIMBYist bullshit.

    “Anti-gentrification” is, frankly, bullshit. There is only one way to stop gentrification: make sure your neighborhood stays poor and nasty. If your neighborhood is attractive or popular, it *will* increase in value and it *will* “gentrify”, and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it, except to actively sabotage the neighbood. If money comes into the neighborhood, it *will* become attractive and popular. Gentrification is *unavoidable*.

    And here’s the kicker: nobody minds gentrification if *they’re* the ones getting richer.

    Most people who say they’re complaining about gentrification are really complaining about inequality. They’re all in favor of gentrification as long as they get to be the gentry. And I’m totally sympathetic with this view: it’s bad if the existing residents remain poor and are driven out while rich outsiders move in.

    But the problem here is basically one of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Restore the 1970s income tax rates, establish single-payer health care, you might make a difference. You can’t solve this with zoning; with zoning, the only thing you can to do stop gentrification is to turn your neighborhood into a ghetto.

    It means we have to promote progressive and redistributionary taxation, equal access to public services, etc…. we have to promote local hiring and so on…. but it sure doesn’t mean we should suppress housing construction or prevent passenger rail from being built. That’s actively counterproductive unless you’re trying for the “make my neighborhood worse” solution to the gentrification “problem”.

    As a result of seeing the wave of bogus anti-gentrification activists — who are really NIMBYS — I am suspicious when I hear this sort of argument. By all means, bring on more female urban planners and activists like Angie Schmitt. But I have little patience for Sahra Suleiman’s “Rip out the Rails” activism. Although she’s certainly a great and highly talented writer, I don’t think she’s actually in favor of urbanism.

  • neroden

    The big problem is that we have deeply criminal police departments in much of the US. What the hell are we going to do about that?

    The only thing I’ve come up with is electing DAs (most are elected) on a specific platform of throwing the criminal cops into prison.

  • neroden

    Well, I don’t know what to say — I see white men advocating that every neighborhood including the poorest and most non-white get a shiny new streetcar, and I see Sahra Sulaiman advocating that rail lines earmarked for passenger rail be ripped out to put in walking paths.

    Everything is connected, yes, but, um,… what’s actually going on here?

  • neroden

    White supremacy is a thing. It explains what’s going on in the state governments of Georgia and Mississippi, to make a very very obvious statement. It’s actually a useful and accurate term, if used carefully.

    While there is an accurate definition of “mansplaining” — basically a man talking condescendingly to a woman who blatantly has more subject matter expertise than he does — it’s not being used correctly here. Honestly, nobody has very much subject matter expertise in urban planning: it’s a highly contested field. It’s not like college undergrads talking down to a professor of chemistry.

  • neroden

    The difference between planning and “transportation engineering” is huge.

    Worse, “transportation engineers” are mostly actually “highway engineers” and don’t know the first thing about how to estimate ridership or thorughput on a subway or streetcar line.

  • neroden

    So, it’s well known that the best way to allow *busy* people to attend such planning meetings is to hold them in the evenings and on weekends; and to have online feedback opportunities which mean people can comment at a time of their choosing.

    So, as far as I can tell, EVERY SINGLE TRANSIT AGENCY ALREADY DOES THIS.

    I don’t think there’s much more which *can* be done.

  • neroden

    I’m going to give a nasty example of why we shouldn’t mindlessly accept the claims of activists to represent “diversity”. From Chicago.

    “Community representation” led to Reverend Arthur Brazier being treated as a representative of the local community in Englewood. He wasn’t — he was a cult leader of a small and unrepresentative subgroup. He proceeded to bus in members of his church who didn’t live in Englewood in order to pack planning meetings, for his personal project to rip out the end of the Green Line. And make no doubt, he used every single line about “representing the community”. He didn’t, but he claimed to. He got the Green Line ripped out.

    https://chicago.curbed.com/2011/12/2/10419932/the-biggest-urban-renewal-flubs-jackson-park-l

    Read the comments.

    I judge activists by what they advocate for. If a black activist is campaigning to prevent housing construction, build parking lots, rip out rail lines, and so forth, I become highly suspicious that he’s not actually an urbanist activist, but an anti-urbanist activist.

    Sometimes the “local community organizations” are evil. The Woodlawn Organization is a great example. Urbanists must certainly dismiss, shout down, and fight such phony, cult-like organizations.

  • bolwerk

    And for the people who are busy weekends and evenings? In the case of bus route panels in NYC, I always imagine the local drivers showing up to community panels voting down the improvements while the people who could benefit from attending the panel are stuck on a bus somewhere.

    I think the solution is (1) stop making those things political. They shouldn’t make or decide policy. (2) Treat them as academic affairs, opportunities to develop perspective. (3) Let the public ask questions. These guys’ briefs are bunching over affirmative action, but what could make these kinds of panels interesting is actually including a diverse range of specialties and stakeholders including insiders and outsiders. There needs to be some demographic diversity too, but that doesn’t need to be the overarching concern.

    The political stuff should be decided by elected politicians. Panels have become a way for them to diffuse responsibility away from themselves.

  • bolwerk

    Both urban planner circles and the consultant class each are decidedly white and male. I don’t think activist circles are anywhere near so uniformly white and male, so it’s a bit hard to argue that other groups aren’t interested.

  • Jennifer

    Yup and yup. I suspect Massachusetts Gov Baker is going to clean house. The f-ups keep piling up. Both unqualified men and women will be shown the door. A small dose of equality

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