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.

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