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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Inequality, Gender, Intersectionality, Gentrification, and the City: An interview with Leslie Kern

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Leslie Kern. Photo courtesy of Mitchel Raphael

Cities are political and economic centers of power. This comes with its fair share of challenges like poverty and inequality. Spacing Vancouver Editor-in-Chief Erick Villagomez had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Leslie Kern—author of Sex and the Revitalized City, Feminist City, and Gentrification is Inevitable and Other Lies—to talk about the structural inequalities that plague our cities and their relationship to gender, gentrification, and intersectionality.

EV_Thank you so much, Leslie, for taking the time to have this chat. I’m excited to pick your brain. But before going down the rabbit hole, can you share a little information about yourself and your background, with those who might not know you and your work?

LK_ I’m a writer and university professor. My work is broadly concerned with questions of power and inequality in cities, with a particular interest in women’s urban lives as well as the issue of gentrification. I have a Ph.D. in women’s studies, and I take the intersectional feminist approaches that I learned in that world into my research and writing on cities. I’m from Toronto, but for the last 14 years, I’ve lived in the small town of Sackville, New Brunswick, where I teach at Mount Allison University.

EV_A wonderfully succinct introduction, thank you…you pretty much touched on all the issues I’d like to dive into more deeply over our chat! [Smile] Let’s start with a couple of definitions as an entry point into the important themes that focus your work. The words “intersectional” and “feminist” are used—and in my experience, abused—by a variety of people within discussions pertaining to cities. Do you mind defining them for our readers?

LK_ Starting with the easy stuff, I see “Intersectional” can be used at two levels. One, you can use it to talk about the fact that, as Audre Lorde put it, we don’t live single-issue lives. We all have many identities, and some of these confer privilege while others put us at a disadvantage. How they intersect shapes our life chances and experiences.

The second level is based on Kimberlé Crenshaw’s original idea: that systems of power intersect, rather than run in parallel. For example, if we look at the shockingly high rates of violence against Indigenous women, we could ask, is this the result of sexism? Racism? Colonialism? But of course, it’s all three, and probably capitalism too, working together. They can’t be separated. Their particular intersection is what produces, maintains, and excuses this violence.

For me, feminism has to be intersectional, and that’s why I don’t simply define feminism as “equality between men and women.” For one thing, that reproduces a simplistic gender binary. And it begs the questions, which women? Which men? By what measure? I prefer to rely on bell hooks’ definition, which is that feminism is the movement to end sexist oppression as it manifests in the context of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

EV_Thanks for the clarifications. And this approach of weaving together many complex issues surrounding cities, power and inequality related to feminism, certainly permeates all your writing. This is particularly clear in the structure of your two most recent books—Feminist City and Gentrification is Inevitable and Other Lies—within which you divide different “perspectives” by chapter. It’s a wonderfully simple approach that, I would say, is quite different from your first book Sex and the Revitalized City, insofar that it allows readers to absorb your larger argument in small bite-sized doses, instead of trying to tackle multiple simultaneously. I found this allowed for a slow building up of the entangled nature of the issues you were writing about. More so, give how well you integrated your own personal life experience into the writing.

The simplicity of the structure does have an important consequence, however, in that—although each chapter is meaningful in its own right—the full impact of your intersectional approach is only truly appreciated after reading all the chapters: after which your message becomes larger than the sum of its parts. Did you consider other ways of structuring these books toward pushing your intersectional feminist narrative? And can you speak to how important was to weave in your own personal experience as a part of these works?

LK_Thanks for those observations. Feminist City and Gentrification Is Inevitable and Other Lies were written with a wide audience in mind, so part of the challenge is to make complexity accessible – not by simplifying it, necessarily, but by presenting it in such a way that people in different fields, from different places, can not only take away the main message but see some part of themselves or their work in the writing. This is also part of the reason why I share personal stories and experiences, which, by the way, doesn’t come naturally to those of us trained as academic writers! Especially with Feminist City, readers have really responded to those stories and then felt welcome to add their own to the bigger-picture conversation that the book is trying to contribute to. The other reason is that there’s a long tradition of starting from the personal in feminist theory. We are still writing women and gender into histories and places where these experiences have been ignored. There’s a lot of value in starting from one’s everyday life and asking, what does this standpoint offer in terms of perspective that is missing from the “mainstream”?

I endeavour to weave an intersectional analysis, i.e. one that addresses the operation of multiple systems of power, through all the chapters. I do so imperfectly, of course. Threads get dropped or don’t get as much emphasis as they could. The good news is that, as you generously point out, by the end of the book the tapestry, to continue the weaving metaphor, does actually form a picture. And I think that’s what any author who decides to take on the task of writing a whole book (or three!) wants to produce for the reader: a sense that while you can learn a lot from any one chapter, the ultimate pay off comes from reading the whole.

EV_Definitely…getting folks to read the whole book is certainly the ‘holy grail’ for authors, these days. It’s tough enough for me to get people to read a short article I’ve written, let alone a full book! [Laugh] Well…as mentioned, I think the tone and structure of your most recent books have really hit the right formula for a popular audience: drawing readers effortlessly through each chapter and making that intersectional message very clear in really tight package.

  And this is a great segue into the content. After an introduction looking at how cities bias men and introducing feminist geography, Feminist City critically dissects and describes the city from the perspective of mothers and caregivers, friendship, personal space, activism, and female fear, respectively, ending with the possibilities inherent to our cities. But it begins and ends in the same place, the body—the “geography closest in” as you state within. Why do you feel this is where we should start questioning the fundamental nature of the city?

LK_The body isn’t the only place to start from, but for me, whether I’m writing a book or teaching urban geography, the body offers a very immediate, visceral entry point. We all have bodies, albeit not the same bodies, but those bodies share needs for water, food, warmth, shelter, rest, varying degrees of assistance from others, and space for personal care such as toilets. These needs, and the spaces—or lack thereof—for attending to them expose fascinating things about power, exclusion, access, norms, and broad moral judgments about who “counts” in society.

Toilets, for example, open up questions about gender binaries; trans people’s access to public space; disability; safety; sex, public sex, and sexuality; caregiving; privatization of public goods; drug use; homelessness; and more. All of these questions lead to even bigger issues like: Who gets to participate in public life? Who do we value in the city?

I also like to start from the body because one could be forgiven for thinking that a lot of planners, architects, designers, engineers, and politicians have forgotten that people have bodies. Many of our urban environments have been hardened and made physically hostile to human bodies. There are few places to rest, not enough shade, few toilets or water fountains, inaccessible trains and buses, nowhere to change a baby, and horrible wind tunnels. Many places actively discourage these things by literally attaching spikes and barriers to make it impossible to sit down. Climate change and extreme weather events are exacerbating the stress on human bodies in cities but this is often seen as secondary to the damage done to buildings and roads. So, who, or what, is the city for?

EV_I’m happy that you brought up the issue of toilets. You dedicate a section of your “City of One” chapter to public bathrooms: a chapter that touches on personal space, the right to be alone in public and related issues. It’s a seemingly mundane topic, but as you point out, it’s connected to a host of critical questions around gender, safety, accessibility, and homelessness, to name just a few. And many cities are really struggling with this.

In fact, in one of the classes I’m currently teaching at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning, we’ve partnered a team of students with a local municipality trying to tackle public bathrooms. It’s a year-long project and has really opened their eyes to the true complexity of the problem. Many municipalities are baffled and seemingly paralyzed in terms of what to do and what actions to take. Do you mind chatting a bit more about the subject?

LK_I love talking about bathrooms! I learned a lot about this issue from Lezlie Lowe’s great book No Place to Go. The politics of public bathrooms show us a lot about the moral panics of a given time: men having sex with men/the AIDS epidemic; child abduction/stranger danger; injection drug use; men allegedly disguising themselves as women; and so on. And it’s very telling to me that instead of addressing the real issues and harms, the “solution” has been to either get rid of public bathrooms or attempt to regulate who uses them. This tells me that we care less about a disease that ravaged the gay male community, actual danger to and violence against women, trans people, and children, and the stigma and suffering of drug use and addiction than we do about perceptions of cleanliness, order, and maintaining heteronormativity and a binary gender divide. The needs of unhoused people are treated the same way. Instead of addressing the causes of, and funding solutions to, homelessness, we take away public bathrooms.
For folks with what Lowe calls “potty privilege,” i.e. the ability to find and gain access to bathrooms pretty easily, either because you look white and middle class and cisgender or because you can afford to pay to use them, the lack of truly publicly accessible bathrooms can be a hidden problem. During the first year or so of the pandemic, more and more people noticed the issue, as we were told to socialize outside, but discovered that there were few facilities to make this possible. If cities genuinely want a vibrant public realm, with lots of different people using urban space, they need to address this and other body-related issues.

EV_I agree completely…truly vibrant public spaces have to truly start dealing with a variety of body-related issues and must include public bathrooms. Now you mention something interesting that I want to pick up on, but before I do—with your permission—a quick and important clarification for readers who might not be familiar with the term cisgender. It’s a term used frequently in your writing and by others interested in the same topics as you and refers to those whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth. By strict definition, it’s the opposite of transgender, referring to those whose gender identity doesn’t correspond to their sex assigned at birth. That said, transgender is also used more broadly to include other gender identities—non-binary, etc.—but again strictly speaking, cisgender and transgender are considered opposites.

Back to my original train of thought: you mentioned how perceptions affect behaviour and attitudes towards people and space and this brought to mind a great book called Behave—perhaps you’ve heard of it—by Robert Sapolsky, a professor at Stanford that discusses the biological and neurological basis of the best and worst human behaviours. Without getting into the weeds, a section of his book talks about how our brains and bodies have difficulty distinguishing between the ‘real’ and the symbolic or metaphorical. So, for example, thinking about a disgusting food and a morally reprehensible, or morally ‘disgusting’, act triggers the same response. Ditto for other things like purity, cleanliness, orderliness, etc. The ‘real’ and symbolic intermix.

Sapolsky then goes on to describe how this affects how humans behave and I think he’d be nodding his head in approval hearing you talk about how morals, perceptions, and the design of physical spaces interact. I think perception is a keyword here. I often tell the students I teach, for example, not to confuse people suffering from economic poverty with having a paucity of morals. Yet we see this confusion all the time and this odd intermixing struck me as one of many important underlying themes in your books. For example, you discuss how historical ideas about ‘purifying’ the urban environment and making it more ‘orderly’ involved getting rid of, or controlling, those perceived to be ‘savages’ or ‘dirty’ morally based on physical appearance—including, but not limit to, Indigenous and Black women and others that do not fit the ‘norm’. This can be extended to more recent statements about ‘revitalizing’, ‘reviving’, or ‘rejuvenating’ areas of the city. I wonder if you can elaborate more on this theme.

LK_Cities are landscapes that express the power relations of the society that builds (and continuously rebuilds) them. For example, cities were and remain clear sites of colonial power as places of administrative, political, financial, religious, educational, and military power, where regimes of private property and forced relocation tore Indigenous peoples away from their lands and consolidated colonial and settler control. In the 19th and 20th centuries, cities had few qualms about making their priorities clear when they razed Black, immigrant, and poor neighbourhoods to build freeways serving white commuter communities or to expropriate land for “economic development” in the form of industrial parks, megaprojects, and the like. These “urban renewal” policies targeted areas that were explicitly labeled as slums or blighted areas on city plans. Typically, the “slum” conditions were blamed on the residents, who were seen as degenerate, immoral, unwilling to lift themselves out of poverty, etc.
More recently, as you note, a whole other set of friendly, euphemistic “r” words has cropped up. Planners and politicians are also more likely to use words like “disadvantaged neighbourhood” rather than “slum”, and to gesture vaguely at social and economic forces rather than directly blame the poor. But depoliticized phrases such as revitalization and regeneration, as well as disadvantaged or underserved, just work to hide and naturalize the role of power in making, taking, and claiming space for some, while displacing or further marginalizing others. Obviously, I have a strong interest in gentrification as one of those power processes that elevate some people, some economic activities, some land uses over others and positions them as inherently more worthy of occupying urban space. Geographers like the late Neil Smith called this a vengeful reclaiming of the city.

EV_You bring up a lot of important, interconnected issues that I’d like to dig into further, and given that, as usual, I feel like I’m talking too much [laugh], I think I’d cover more ground with an interview game of sorts, where I simply give you a small series of quotes from your books in the hopes of prompting you to connect some dots. Sound good?

LK_Sure, throw some quotes at me.

EV_Amazing! Let’s start with one of my favourites: “…there is no ethical housing under capitalism, and certainly not under ongoing colonialism, racialized dispossession, and gendered exploitation in the home.”

LK_Just as there’s no purely ethical consumption under capitalism, there’s no purely ethical housing under capitalism. As settlers, for instance, our interactions with the private property market implicate us in the ongoing consolidation of colonial power and the dispossession of Indigenous people from their land.

In this context, I don’t think there’s an ideologically pure way to consume housing, from a feminist, anti-colonial, anti-racist perspective. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty for owning their own home, for example. In places like Canada and the US, we are structurally and ideologically pushed toward home ownership. The home is not just where we live: it’s an asset that we’re meant to rely on for retirement, that we can borrow against to send our kids to college or cover medical expenses, and that we’re supposed to pass on to the next generation. We’re rewarded for owning and financially punished for renting, so I don’t blame anyone, especially folks from groups that have long been excluded from home ownership or the ability to build wealth, from following this path.

However, this doesn’t mean that we get to be jerks and actively undermine other people’s housing security. You can be a homeowner but you don’t have to do NIMBY politics about social housing, shelters, or apartment complexes in your community. You don’t need to buy up multiple properties as investments or rent them on Airbnb. You don’t have to call your city councillor and complain about an encampment of unhoused people. You can avoid calling the police every time you hear a noise you don’t like. And so on.

EV_Well said. Next…one from Feminist City: “The faces of urban planning, politics, and architecture have to change. A wider range of lived experience needs to be represented among those who make decisions that have enormous effects on people’s everyday lives.”

LK_When I’m speaking to planners, architects, and policymakers, I often like to say that “you can’t solve problems you don’t know exist.” Even if all of those people have the intention to create city spaces and services that are inclusive, accessible, and safe, important things are going to be missed if everyone at the table has similar life experiences. If they’ve never struggled to get a stroller on the subway, frantically looked for an all-gender washroom, or had to wheel themselves around the back of a building to find an “accessible” entrance, then they may have trouble imagining city life outside of an implicit figure: an able-bodied, unencumbered, white, middle-class man on his way to work.

Of course, increasing diversity doesn’t magically solve entrenched problems or transform systems overnight. But if the same people from the same backgrounds continue to dominate city building and city politics, then it’s going to be even harder to move the needle.

EV_People with a diversity of backgrounds and experiences need to be involved in decision-making…such an important insight. Let’s go with a couple more quotes: “Any attempt to sketch out a vision of the feminist city must consider the role of activism.”

LK_Activism, specifically protests, and strikes, was a huge site of learning for me as a young feminist. There was only so much I could learn about movements, politics, and issues in a classroom. Being a part of direct action events, whether they lasted for a few hours or a few weeks, taught me a lot about power, solidarity, community, and conflict. I also learned the importance of the right to protest, something that I think many people either take for granted or feel doesn’t apply to them or really matter that much. You really viscerally feel what state power is when you take to the streets and how difficult it is to counter that might.

So for me, a feminist city or any version of a just city has to centre the right to protest. Further, we have to keep pushing back against narratives that say “protest doesn’t work.” I don’t think any major movements for justice have progressed without protest. And we have to keep using this right, or we will lose it.

EV_Words to live by, certainly. Last quote: one that refers to Deepa Iyer’s great work at the Building Movement Project: “…there are many roles, and they are all integral to the success of any social change project.”

LK_I knew that readers would want to know what, if anything, they could do to help stop or slow gentrification. While I believe the ultimate responsibility lies with our elected leaders and the policies they put in place, all of us can find ways to contribute to an anti-gentrification movement in direct or indirect ways. Deepa Iyer’s “social change ecosystem” with ten different roles that people might play in movements for change really resonated with me. Not all of us can be involved in direct action protests at all times, but that’s not the only way to contribute.

Movements need storytellers, caregivers, healers, and visionaries, among other roles. We can draw on our own strengths, capacities, resources, and networks to figure out how we might advance change. Sometimes that means supporting good work that’s already being done in your community. Other times, it might mean starting something new and taking on a leadership position. You don’t have to rearrange your whole life to do something; find out what local organizations are working on and see if you have the time, money, knowledge, or connections to help them out. It can start that simply.

EV_Any actions, no matter how small, can help. Very true. I really found that Deepa Iyer’s ten roles really resonated with me, as well. Thanks for playing the game, Leslie [Smile]. I think we covered some decent ground across some important themes within both of your books with those responses.

With your permission, I’d like to ask one more question. One of my classes covered the Feminist City this past term and when and when they heard I was going to interview you, they asked me if I could pass along a question [Smile]. They wanted to know if you’ve considered developing the Feminist City content as a more design principle- or action-based initiative: something along the lines of a Feminist City Toolkit that municipalities can use to implement your ideas.

LK_Thanks for the question. Since the book came out, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with so many organizations that are already doing the work of developing and implementing equity-based and feminist design principles, in the realm of city budgeting, mobility planning, social housing, care services, and more. At the moment, I’m happy to support this work as a speaker, consultant, and author. I love the idea of a ToolKit, but I think it would best be done in partnership with people who are already versed in design and immersed in a local context.

EV_Hopefully, a partner will step up sometime in the near future. I think a Feminist City Toolkit would be fantastic and definitely worthwhile. Well, this was as wonderful and provocative as I had hoped it would be. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat. 

LK_Thank you, Erick, for inviting me to this conversation and for your generous questions. It was a pleasure.


Here are a couple more video (interview) resources on Leslie Kern’s work:


Leslie Kern (Ph.D.), is the author of three books about cities, including Gentrification Is Inevitable And Other Lies and Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World. She is an associate professor of geography and environment and women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University, in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. Kern’s research has earned a Fulbright Visiting Scholar Award, a National Housing Studies Achievement Award, and several national multi-year grants. She is also an award-winning teacher. Kern’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vox, Bloomberg CityLab, LitHub, and Refinery29, and in her Substack newsletter, Perfectly Cromulent. She is also an academic career coach, where she helps academics find meaning and joy in their work.

Erick Villagomez is the Editor-in-Chief at Spacing Vancouver. He is also an educator, independent researcher, and designer with personal and professional interests in urban landscapes.