I came across an article this morning called "Mansplaining the City" on Twitter. I find it frustrating being a part of a field where dudes make a whole lot of the choices. I've been to events where every last person including the emcee was a dude. When this happens I always want to ask whether they've could've gone and found one female city hall employee or stakeholder to just read the names and bios of the dudes. That way at least one woman would be there.
When a friend of mine who works for a feminist organization asked me who I'd recommend for a female built environment panel I told her that I couldn't think of anyone in the city. I could probably come up with a better answer now but that moment was a bit sad.
The article blends these traditional concerns about how male dominated the built environment field is with questions about gentrification. I appreciate the comments on the need for some dudettes in the industry. I feel less comfortable with some of the comments about gentrification. The author has her own perspective but she is also dismissive of groups I think are doing good work and the role for middle class individuals caught in a crazy housing market. Walker calls out lots of people and waxes nostalgic for the neighbourhoods of yore. Some of these concerns are valid but I also think they lack nuance.
Gentrification is complicated. It is also not inherently a good or a bad process. It is a process characterized by changes in class. That can be from super duper poor to less poor. It can also be a process that makes even the worst neighbourhoods unaffordable for people with lots of money. A lot of it depends on other factors and how this process unfolds. As Walker notes it originally described an influx of intellectuals, students and artists. This group, which I am a part of, are often initial gentrifiers. They are drawn to places with cheap rents. As the neighbourhood improves the initial wave of gentrifiers are pushed out, too poor to enjoy the changes they have brought about and seeking the next spot where they can afford to pay rent.
While on the one hand I am a gentrifier I also live in poverty. I will likely spend my entire twenties either in poverty or as a student. I am white, my family is upper middle class and I am well-educated — probably over educated. I have more choices than many but I struggle to figure out how to pay rent. I struggle to see where I can go in my city. I have a friend who charges more for a one bedroom condo in a nice inner city neighbourhood that I love and want to be a part of than I earn in a month. There were moments when I lived in Vancouver when I'd buy groceries on my credit card unsure whether or not I'd have enough money to pay for them.
We are all a part of cities that are increasingly unaffordable. We live in a world where even tech workers struggle to afford housing. This is a sign that something is very wrong. Housing in any major Canadian city is a nightmare no matter what class you belong to. The issues of gentrification are tied up in market forces and development processes that treat housing like a bank and an investment rather than a basic necessity. New attitudes towards housing and different ways of building cities are as important as preserving character.
Managing change is one of the most important parts of planning and urban design. You want to keep what is good while still allowing communities to change. You need to find a way to ensure that nice communities are varied and accessible to all, not just people who earn enough to rent my friend's condo. You also want to find ways to have run down neighbourhoods become better. The biggest problem I see in places like Vancouver and Calgary is the market forces that have overrun our cities turning them into places we can no longer afford to live combined with zoning bylaws that prevent the construction of a diverse range of housing.
We are all coming up with our own responses to cities and how they should change. Groups like the YIMBY movement in San Francisco want wealthy homeowners to allow the construction of more housing. They may come from some privilege but I look around me and I see the same problem. We build mostly one thing, it's low density, unsustainable and really unaffordable. Maybe if we built something else we'd have more affordable housing? Maybe if we relied less on the market to provide housing and more on our government like they do in large parts of Europe then gentrification wouldn't be putting such a squeeze on people and housing wouldn't be so unaffordable?