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.

  • Exactly. No one has attacked white men simply for existing, simply for being white men. What is being appropriately attacked is the failure to acknowledge the existence of the privilege of having whiteness and maleness considered to be the default conditions, and, even worse, the failure to understand the toxic nature of these privileges in every part of the public discourse, including policy planning.

  • MikeS

    What I find to be toxic is the assumption that, say, a black woman is perfectly incapable of understanding what white males think and want, yet a white male is supposedly incapable of understanding what a black woman wants. Seems to me that is a very skewed and biased perspective.

    Your underlying premise seems to be based on dislike and distrust of people because of their gender or race – the ultimate in irony.

    I realize these cliches drop from the mouths of well-meaning liberals a little too easily. Too bad I don’t see any evidence that black women want a different design of bike lane to white men.

  • MikeS

    In my city we have bike lanes in all parts of the city, except where there is no documented demand. Such decisions are made by those appointed by the voters who, in very many cases, are majority non-white. And white males are a minority of voters in every US city.

    And anyway, which is the “female part of town” that is under-served with bike lanes?

  • MikeS

    Then you bet wrong, and your bet tells readers more about your structural biases than it does about any city in the US that I know of.

  • MikeS

    Again, in my city meetings are deliberately scheduled for a variety of time, such as daytimes during the week, evenings during the week, week-ends etc. And input can be submitted by phone, email and post.

    You speculate a lot but provide evidence for very little. And your last sentence indicates the intolerance of those who claim to be open to diversity.

  • jarendt

    I think MikeS might be trolling by insulting folks who disagree with him, so the discussion has documentation of the exact problem.

  • cmu

    Jesus, it’s a perfectly clear expression. Get a grip. Not every phrase containing the word ‘girl’ is misogynistic or a put-down.

  • cmu

    Thank you thank you. That ridiculous neologism needs to be banned.

  • cmu

    And for the record, when I was at Pratt Brooklyn doing my masters in Plannning, about 40% of the students were women, and a significant proportion POC.

  • cmu

    GIve it up, MIke, you’ll never convince anyone who uses that term.

  • cmu

    >many of them want to be
    But stats prove you wrong. Just take a gander at an average meeting on a community issue (not in an area predominantly POC) and you’ll rarely see a non-white person (in my area, for example, Park Slope/Prospect Heights, I attended many many meetings on the Atlantic Yards issue, and less than 5% of the attendees were non-white.) We had a discussion once about ‘atttracting a more diverse group,’ and my feeling was it’s an open forum, anyone can attend.

  • cmu

    No. Every Atlantic Yards & other community meeting I went to started at 6:30 or later. Maybe you mean city council meetings?

  • Joe R.

    I’m not a minority but even I can relate to the whole “infrastructure is unwelcome” mentality. It’s not because good infrastructure doesn’t make cycling better. It certainly does, although a lot of bike infrastructure in this country doesn’t even qualify as mediocre, let alone good.

    Rather, the problem with more bike infrastructure, whether good or bad, is that it suddenly puts bikes on everyone’s radar, including law enforcement. For decades in NYC you could pretty much do whatever you wanted on a bike, even in front of cops, and not worry about being ticketed. Unless you hit a cop or a police car, you pretty much were immune from tickets. Once we started building bike lanes, cops suddenly started enforcing laws against bikes which had been ignored from before I was born. And the city made lots of new laws, like prohibiting riding on sidewalks (that law was passed early in Guiliani’s administration but not heavily enforced until we started building lots of bike lanes).

    Coming from the point of view of minorities, and even people like me, if the price for having (mostly) mediocre bike infrastructure is radically stepped up enforcement against cyclists then you can keep it. Remember prior to the infrastructure people like me, and many minorities, still rode bikes. Bike lanes weren’t and aren’t a prerequisite. If the street was too dangerous, then we just rode on the sidewalk (and didn’t need to worry about getting tickets for it). So ironically things are often worse with bike lanes than without them. A dangerous street where you used to ride on the sidewalk might now have door zone bike lanes, or in many cases none because we’ve ignored large swaths of the outer boroughs. That would be OK except for the fact you can no longer ride on the sidewalk without worries about getting a ticket. End result, cycling is no longer an option for many of these minorities.

    Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. A far better approach would be to build bike lanes but either tell police to not enforce laws against cyclists, or change those laws to allow sidewalk cycling and yielding at red lights or stop signs. Unfortunately, few bicycle advocacy groups want to take on this fight.

  • MikeS

    Is the first thing you notice in a room peoples’ race and gender?

    I find that to be very sad.

  • MikeS

    Sounds like you don’t want laws enforced selectively based on your own personal patterns of behavior.

    Newsflash – we all do.

  • MikeS

    Not at all. I want improved infrastructure. It’s just that not only do I see that as being race and gender neutral, I think that squabbling over identity politics issues actually makes it harder to get things done.

  • MikeS

    I don’t think that phrase is racist. Merely unhelpful.

    An undue focus on race can be indicative of racism, but not in all cases.

  • MikeS

    Agreed, and in fact they have every opportunity to attend. The presumption has to be that they are more interested in other issues.

    The idea that every meeting has to exactly represent the demographic of that neighborhood strikes me as borderline anal-retentive and controlling.

  • Joe R.

    No, I don’t want laws enforced if they:

    1) Don’t make sense (and applying motor vehicle laws strictly to bicycles makes no sense)

    2) Enforcing them doesn’t serve a valid public safety purpose ( 99+% of people killed in NYC are killed by motor vehicles but in some precincts fully half the moving violations are against cyclists).

    The fact is we didn’t enforce laws against cyclists for decades and the sky didn’t fall down. I’d rather the laws be changed so the common things cyclists are ticketed for aren’t illegal but in the absence of that I’ll settle for just not enforcing existing laws, except when the cyclist really is endangering others.

  • Joe R.

    Pretty much the same here except I might support higher taxes if I knew the money would go for something worthwhile, like infrastructure, and not more useless foreign wars, or paying people to have babies. I don’t much sympathize with those complaining we’re finally enforcing immigration laws, either. I don’t know what these things have to do with transportation policy and I really don’t care to hear about these topics on Streetsblog. If I want to discuss them there are plenty of political sites to go to.

    Sometimes it’s better if an advocacy organization just sticks to its core mission. If you want to tackle related missions, then there are already other groups for that. The danger of diversifying is losing the support of your core group who might not support the other things. There’s also the danger of spreading your talent too thing. Someone involved in bicycle advocacy might be horrible at advocating some of these other issues even if they sympathize with them.

  • Bevto

    This is a issue, but you can’t just plug unqualified women into these positions. Take for example my homestate of Massachusetts. Our transportation secretary, Stephanie Pollack, doesn’t have a lick of transportation, urban design, or planning experience. She’s the Betsy DeVos of Massachusetts. Her rich family got her the gig, and now she’s taking money from every highway and transit pot for her pet project: a novelty 4 billion 4 mile extension of the state’s Green Line trolley through the suburbs. False diversity can cause more harm in the long run

  • RalphUNC

    The Supreme Court can make bad rulings, and even when they don’t, they’re typically not weighing down on whether a policy was beneficial or effective – but whether it was constitutional in their view. I don’t think quota systems are categorically bad, nor do I think there’s evidence to back that up. Quotas can aslo be used in a variety of ways. Some countries require large public companies put a certain percent of women on corporate boards (say 40%) or if they don’t – they simply need to explain to their shareholders why they haven’t. (The fear of explaining to shareholders why they exclude or largely exclude women from the board is often enough to prompt action).

    You presume that quotas mean the best people won’t get selected – yet ignore that often current systems that discriminate in favor of men lead to incompetent men being picked rather than competent women. Going back to the board of directors, evidence shows that having more women on a board is connected to a better bottom line for the company, yet many companies refuse to put qualified women on their board. The policy I mentioned as an example of a very soft quota, but it’s been effective in reducing the gender gap on corporate boards and possibly improving bottom lines of public companies.

  • RalphUNC

    Who is suggesting putting unqualified women into positions? And why worry about such a tiny number of where unqualified women get appointed, compared to the enormous number of unqualified and incompetent men that get hired, appointed, selected, etc over qualified women?

  • RalphUNC

    I think if you’ve fallen back on the slippery slope logical fallacy as the crux of your argument, you’ve run out of any substantive disagreement to raise

  • MikeS

    Here’s the thing with debating. You don’t just get to announce or decide that the other guy is wrong, illogical, biased or stupid. You have to prove it.

    And if you fail to do so, as you just did, then it appears to readers that it is you who is “illogical” and desperate.

  • MikeS

    Anything that interferes with the ability to pick the very best runs the risk you lower the quality.

    I like the way you think you get to decide whether SCOTUS gets a decision right or wrong. But in reality if the best nine justices were black lesbians, I’d have no problem with that. Would you?

  • RalphUNC

    “Anything that interferes with the ability to pick the very best runs the risk you lower the quality.”

    That would include racism, sexism, and other forms of conscious and unconscious bias, yes? And if yes, how do you reduce or mitigate those biases?

    “I like the way you think you get to decide whether SCOTUS gets a decision right or wrong. But in reality if the best nine justices were black lesbians, I’d have no problem with that. Would you?”

    Well, that’s how personal opinions work, I get to decide what I think is best on any host of issues. Do you think the nine humans that make up SCOTUS are infallibe oracles on how divinely and 100% accurately interpret what we call the US Constitution? I don’t – I think sometimes they make bad choices and bad decisions, just like any group of human beings. As to your comment about who comprises the justices – it indicates you think we have the best 9 people available and it’s a pure meritocracy – and you’d support whoever ended up there (please correct me if I’m wrong). If so, when did this meritocracy begin? Why do you think we’ve had so many men, particularly white men, on the SCOTUS – is it because they were disproportionately the wisest people in America in 1810, 1850, 1900, 1950, 1985, 2017? Or has our system to appoint judges perhaps not been a pure meritocracy?

  • RalphUNC

    If you’re saying my logic is bad, what next? Will you say everyone in this comment section’s logic is bad? Then say everyone in the world is using poor logic? I think that’s a slippery slope.

    (Did you find that type of argument persuasive? No? Me neither.)

  • MikeS

    No, my point was that I addressed the issue and you did not. You merely announced that I was illogical. That looks to most readers that you want me to be wrong but that you cannot demonstrate that.

  • MikeS

    My point remains – candidates for any position should be selected based on merit. And not on which demographic we do not currently have enough of.

    There is currently no one-legged transexual on SCOTUS. Is that a problem for you?

  • RalphUNC

    I was saying your argument relied on poor logic – and I pointed to your use of the slippery slope argument. I didn’t elaborate because I believe most people already understand the slippery slope is a classic example of a fallacious and non-substantive argument that gets passed off as logic.

    If people think the slippery slope argument is in fact quite persuasive and insightful, they are free to think I’m just too dense to appreciate that argument. In my follow up post, I tried showing why I don’t find it a persuasive form of argument.

  • Jame

    Right, unqualified people get nominated every day for all sorts of high profile roles. Why not complain about all of them?

  • Jame

    It is identity politics to recognize people experience the city and infrastructure in different ways? Why do we even need Streetsblog, always pushing these “cyclist” and “pedestrian” identity politics on everyone. So divisive against drivers. #AllTransportationMatters #AllRoadUsersMatter

  • RalphUNC

    I believe that because no demographic is inherently intellectually or professionally superior to another – we should have leaders that generally represent the entire population. Women were not nominated to join SCOTUS until 1981, and they have never been a majority on the court despite being a slight majority of the population. Why do you think that is? Random chance?

    So again, my question to you, why do you think we’ve had so many men, particularly white men, on the SCOTUS – is it because they were disproportionately the wisest and best people in America in 1810, 1850, 1900, 1950, 1985, 2017? We both agree we should aspire toward a meritocracy, but my question to you is – have the SCOTUS appointments always been based on merit, or have those appointments been influenced and impacted by sexism and racism? If so, does that continue or did it suddenly stop one year?

  • cmu

    WTF? I merely reported a statistic in a thread that’s dealing with diversity? Don’t attack people who are on your side 😉

  • Gerhard W. Mayer

    Well, I feel that this blog is hugely unfair to some white guys. BUT – maybe we now feel like so many people of color and/or women have felt for a long time now. It sucks! Of course, none of that fixes what I think is the right question, namely “how come that urban design discussion is about so many stupid and often irrelevant subjects?” Yes, us white guys proportionally promote those subjects – but not all of us. Like not all women would start a better dialogue, even though I suspect, most women would. It just really sucks being stereotyped as a member of a group, especially of a group I equally despise.

  • Baruch

    So you are arguing for quotas then?

  • RalphUNC

    “Quotas” is a broad term that encompasses a variety of potential policies. I think quotas can be used in effective, positive ways and I think they can also be well-intended but end up doing more harm than good.

    I think you start from asking why virtually no women were leaders of countries in the 19th century, or not a Fortune 500 CEO until the 1970s. I’d say that’s due to a system of intentional exclusion of women from opportunities that men had – you can call it sexism, patriarchy, whatever you like. Does the legacy of that continue to this day? I think it does. That’s why we see women not proportionately represented (or anywhere close to it) in legislatures and board of directors – and if we continue as the snail pace we have been – it may be 50, 100, or more years until we reach proportional representation. I think quotas, when combined with other supports for women’s equality, can play an important role in speeding that process up. Drude Dahlerup has written a lot about this if you’d like more evidence or details for that.

  • Baruch

    So, again, should we impose a mandate that says that 50% of all appointments should be female, regardless?

    Yes or no?

  • RalphUNC

    You write, “So, again, …” – where did you write your question the first time? The only thing I saw you write is “So you are arguing for quotas then?” and I answered your question – explaining that your question was broad and I don’t think quotas are categorically good or bad.

    I never saw you ask me anything about a mandate for 50% of all appointments – did I miss you ask it elsewhere in this thread? (And which appointments are you referring to? To SCOTUS, as we had been talking about?)

  • Baruch

    You are basically arguing for one of two things. Either:

    1) Appoint the best qualified person and let the chips fall as they may. If that means 100% black lesbians then so be it, or

    2) Decide ahead of time what demographic breakdown you want and then appoint accordingly.

    Enough ducking. Which is it?

  • RalphUNC

    You haven’t answered my questions, yet you insist on me answering each of your latest questions, AND claim I’m the one “ducking” despite spilling a lot more ink trying to answer your questions. If that’s how you think this discussion should proceed, I think I’ll pass.

  • Baruch

    OK, so no answer. got it.

  • **

    Good points, TakeFive. That question of personal security is very important in the Lakefront Trail Separation, but doesn’t seem to be on the radar at all. The inevitable solution, unfortunately, is putting in overly bright lighting in. See the mention of upgraded lighting here, for example: http://wgntv.com/2017/08/20/next-phase-of-lakefront-trail-expansion-begins/. If blue-rich LEDs are chosen (as has been done with the Chicago Smart Lighting Project), those lights will not only create issues for plants and wildlife, but are also likely to have a higher negative impact on women: https://theconversation.com/harvard-study-strengthens-link-between-breast-cancer-risk-and-light-exposure-at-night-75171.

  • **

    Absolutely! This is figuring in TOD planning right now. Planners are often forgetting to look at the history of SROS in light of the current aging of the baby boomers. One-time luxury apartment hotels being transformed back into high-amenity “microunit” buildings today were the go-to housing for so many poorer elderly residents for the decades between real estate peaks. Their popularity—both today for younger inhabitants and in the recent past for older people with fewer means—was largely owing to the fact that they were located in transit-rich areas. The issue circles back to the original article on the need for female voices. It’s changing somewhat now but women have historically been caregivers and may have heightened awareness of the shifting generational needs for which everyone should be planning in advance.

  • Utin

    True. I’m surprised Streetsblog hasn’t covered the unfolding Ramirez disaster in Boston yet. I know the MTA has warts, but at least we’re not the rolling trash fire that is MassDOT & the MBTA

  • chad frederick

    If black women’s perspective were the default view, then (because it would be plastered all over every facet of society) white men (living in this black woman’s world) would know more about how black women perceive the world. This is why black women know more about white men than white men know about black women.

  • chad frederick

    Nobody hates you, CJ. They just don’t want to live in a world shaped by you.

  • cjstephens

    So, by that you mean you actually do hate me. Thanks for proving my point.

  • chad frederick

    You see infrastructure as being race and gender neutral? Other’s don’t, and they have (all the) evidence.

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