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Review of Verso LIVE: How to Build a Feminist City

Writing by Trisha Mendiratta. Illustration from Verso Books.

How are our lives structured by architecture and the urban? What does a feminist city look like? How can cities be improved to accommodate all? These were some of the intriguing questions discussed in a conversation as part of the Verso LIVE series; a virtual live event series throughout August and September celebrating 50 years of radical publishing. Novelist Shiromi Pinto, having recently published her novel Plastic Emotions inspired by the work and life of Minnette de Silva, Sri Lanka’s first modern architect and a forgotten feminist figure, was in conversation with Academic Leslie Kern, who has brought the field of feminist geography into the public domain via her work Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World.

Pinto admitted early in the conversation that she was unaware of the field of feminist geography prior to the publication of Kern’s book earlier this year, a confession I share. This highlights the lack of consciousness around our physical spaces that motivated Kern to write her book – much of these discussions only take place in small university seminar rooms where radical thought can be a given. Kern agreed she’s fallen into this trap of ignorance, where thought about how the spaces around us affect and reinforce political structures seem obvious. This book, she hoped, was part of changing the limited accessibility of the field. 

The ‘city’ as a notion has various connotations – a physical space that often symbolises freedom and progress. The lived experience in a city, however, can often juxtapose this notion of urban freedom. Lived experiences such as trying to get home safely late at night or carrying a pram through public transport are much more crucial starting off points, Kern and Pinto both recognised, in trying to visualise a feminist city. 

The idea of the body in the city is prevalent in both writers’ recent works. Pinto discussed how De Silva’s acknowledgment of the female body within urban spaces was regarded as a deeply radical thought when considering architectural prototypes in the late 20th century. Kern talked about the body as a reactionary space for the city’s stamps of power – whether that be to violence, shock or recoil out of fear. Over time, the body in the city, Kern argued, becomes intrinsically conditioned through repetition of reactions to the power stamps. Kern is largely discussing a gendered power dynamic in her book, but the intersectional nature of power in the urban is crucial, both writers stressed.

Discussion of bodies within the urban environment segued the conversation into broader questions about which bodies feel natural and which are ‘othered’. The lived experiences, often challenges, mentioned earlier act as constant and subtle tools of othering in the city-space for everyone apart from the architectural prototype – one which too often a is white, cis-gendered, and able-bodied man. This prototype is used for the design for everything from kitchen worktops to crash test dummies. Bodies outside of this narrow model are thought of as obstacles and after-thoughts within the modern city. Quickly this begins to show that the technological ‘progressiveness’ of the city symbol can mask a regressive nature of thought – one that is exclusionary. Kern says in her book that this leads to our spaces being a ‘patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete’.

The fact our built environments reflect our social environments has been a prevalent discussion focused on statues recently, encapsulating narrow narratives written in stone or bronze. Kern and Pinto discussed how they are often argued for as being purely ‘symbolic’, but they act as monuments to power, whether that be male, colonial, or heteronormative – often a combination of these.

As is historically evident, with any such exclusion comes resistance, and this is where radical thought such as the geography of Kern and her influences become crucial. Cities have become places where protest to such institutional injustice has gained momentum. The writers agreed that no rights to marginalised groups have ever been simply handed – change has often begun through protest within the urban space. Kern pointed out that movements such as Occupy Wall Street have a theoretical but also a literal meaning – the physical occupation of a space, such as occupying it, reclaims that space of power. 

Though when fighting against injustice, such as patriarchy, an intersectional approach considering other injustices must be taken. The notion of a ‘master-plan’ popular in modern city-planning was one that De Silva was straying away from, Pinto pointed out. This type of planning is what limits who the city is built for – so in thinking about a vision for a feminist city, we do not want to replace one narrow figure of the city-resident with another one. An intersectional approach would recognise that gender is not the only and not always the first entry point when looking at issues of equity. Kern suggested that a safer entry point is to start from the points of the most marginalised, rather than the most privileged, to try and gain a holistic idea of what the city needs. They both stressed this point – the need for an intersectional lens of lived experience – which speaks to a broader political ideology that they both seemed to subscribe to during this conversation, one that focuses on the diverse plural than the singular.

Similar discussions are carrying on throughout September as part of Verso LIVE, celebrating radical publishing and thought:

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