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  • Writer's pictureChristiaan Gey van Pittius

The influence of masculinity on city life

Updated: Dec 10, 2021

“Be it affirmed: The built environment is largely the creation of white, masculine subjectivity. It is neither value-free nor inclusively human. Feminism implies that we fully recognise this environmental inadequacy and proceed to think and act out that recognition”. Leslie Kanes Weisman (Rendell et al, 2000).

Note: This essay was written in early 2021 whilst I was still living in Dublin.

In Dublin, the Irish Government took a hard stance on the COVID pandemic and placed its population under harsh lockdown regulations for an extended period, which was revered as the strictest reaction to the crisis in the world at the time[1]. In contradiction, other countries led mainly by female leaders (Iceland, New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, Norway and Finland) were applauded as the success stories of the global crisis using “humour, care and humanity” manage death rates better than their male counterparts. The correlation of female leadership and lower death rates does not imply its causality, but the mere presence of female leadership might be a sign of more progressive communities where a culture exists that promotes trust in science and governance[2].

The unreasonable Irish isolation did lead to much time to reflect and introspect. It became clear to me why the architectural environment remained hesitant on so many problems, especially action against climate change. Like Taoiseach Martin and his masculine dominated cabinet, our urban design reading list was dominated by men. The penny finally dropped when our module arrived on the doorstep of Feminist Urbanism.

Since moving to Ireland from South Africa, the issue of gender was one of the first problems I was faced with in Dublin. It took me quite some time to understand the nuances of the local community, their beliefs and struggles, which formed the complicated relationship between the masculine and feminine – especially the intolerance of whoever identified in between. This realisation of such difference in a “first-world” country was a wake-up call to hear the loud voices for inclusivity. As we stare down the barrel of the canon that is climate change, it is clear that communities will not find resilience in a divided social environment, and therefore patriarchal societies will potentially falter in the challenges to come.

A gay architect’s journey through urban design theory

In urban design and planning, the struggle for full inclusion of women and feminist issues within the field provides important lessons for making urban planning more aware and inclusive of LGBT+ people and other marginalised communities.

In the USA, the feminist movement’s goal to incorporate women in city planning took a considerable time and happened through unwavering feminist advocacy and protest[4]. The first wave of feminism (1800s–1900s) opposed legal inequalities and the right to vote, and later the second wave (1960s–2000s) addressed the right to work. The feminist movement progressed and evolved through the 1990s up to today by embracing and including other marginal communities in their fight for equality and a good life.

In the western world, few academic planners would claim that urban planning is an entirely technical and (therefore) an unbiased field: Traditional planning has as its principal goal the creation of an ‘orderly’ urban environment, where the ‘order’ envisioned by many planners continue to be heterosexist: seen as favouring the white, the male, and the heterosexual concepts of ‘orderliness’[5]. Therefore I Introduce ‘the man question’, posed more than 20 years ago by Marysia Zalewski[6] (and other feminist scholars). The aim of the question was to reposition the focus from female subjectivities in the first and second feminist movements to the issue of the subjecthood of man. The extremes of masculinity exacerbated by recent political events have pushed masculinity studies to interrogate the relationship between maleness and aggression towards difference. Current gender discourse has reduced the complexity of masculinity within extremist rhetoric to an issue of toxicity[7].

In an interview[8] with Dr Michael Kimmel, he discussed the contemporary study of “toxic masculinity” (behaviours that are toxic to women, children, men, and all other living things). He explains that in his experience, the dichotomy of toxic and healthy masculinity doesn’t resonate for many men as he humorously put it: “Basically we’re asking them to renounce Vin Diesel and embrace Ryan Gosling”. Kimmel found it better to distinguish behaviour according to what it means to be a good man compared to what it means to be a ‘real man’.

A strong belief still remains in the masculine psyche that ‘real’ men need to be tough, strong, never show weakness, win at all costs, suck it up, play through pain, be competitive, get rich, and get laid[9]. These characteristics are arguably self-absorbed or even protective from realities within society. To be a good man is not to be a weak man, but to be a good human. I view a good human as a person who treats other people with respect and dignity, irrelevant to perceptions of control and ‘order’. This essay explores contemporary literature towards understanding good urban planning and design by being good humans.

According to Harry Brod, the goal of women’s studies is to reconstitute knowledge to rectify historical deficiency and to produce a gynocentric rather than androcentric vision in traditional academic fields. Here ‘men’s Studies’ appears as the problem, not the solution, as it aims to emasculate patriarchal ideology, which is masquerading as knowledge[10].

Historically urban design was distorted by the over-generalisation of generic human experience as the masculine experience (“standard person”: height, weight and surface area corresponded to an adult male[11]) at the expense of a universal paradigm in the truly humanitarian experience[12]. In this overgeneralisation of urban design, femininity was connected with chaotic and disorderly space, while logocentric space remained masculine[13].

This logocentric language in cities has created urban barriers[14], invisible to men, according to Leslie Kern (Also referred to by Richard Sennett). These barriers are experienced by women and other non-masculine people as Kern’s proclamation, “the city of men”. Kern referring to misogynistic institutions described as middle-aged white male planners and decision-makers (who would be regarded as toxic masculine institutions today) affects marginalised community’s experience of cities. As Kern describes a woman’s embodied experience[15] in the city, I recognise this as my own experience. She explains how urban experiences are deeply gendered[16] and how women learn a set of embodied habits[17], conscious and unconsciously, shaping women’s lives through threat and fear[18] over time and through repetition of urban interactions: Your posture, how you walk, facial expressions, movements, gestures, eye contact, stance, muscle tension, and more are moulded by navigating the city of men[19].

Through the years, planners made attempts to address the symptoms of unsafe environments by supporting corporate surveillance, militarised policing, and privatisation of public space[20] even though most direct violence towards women happens in private spaces/ rooms and not public spaces. The fear of violence is more debilitating than the act itself. This perception of safe vs unsafe and fearful experience is the true enemy patriarchy have yet to grasp.

Petra Doan goes as far as to describe these issues as a form of tyranny[21]. This tyranny of gendered planning structured urban environments designed to support patriarchal family forms, gender-segregated labour markets, and traditional gender roles where women and other marginalised groups continue to find their existence limited by social norms built into our cities[22]. The ideology of gendered space does not represent the full range of lived experiences and is a problem for feminists as assumptions of the binary hierarchy are continually reproduced[23]. As Jane Dark writes, “Our cities are patriarchy written in stone, brick, glass and concrete[24] it is overwhelming to try and imagine how the status quo could be challenged. In the modern city, the skyscraper has become a monument[25] of masculinity through corporate economic power and capital. How do we fight the skyscrapers?

In Leslie Kern’s book, she quotes Audre Lorde, “Your silence will not protect you”,[26] when discussing her passion for democratic expression through protest. Here she learnt how intersectionality led to the shift in how feminism understood the relationships among various systems of privilege and oppression, including sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and ableism[27]. Here in this bodied experience, she acknowledged feminism’s solidarity and allyship to other social movements. Kern says protesting has always been an electrifying experience for her: “I’d never felt a part of something so big, so collectively energising.”[28]. Kern explains that cities offer the perfect stage to make protest visible and effective; it is a place to be heard, and it is also the place we’re all fighting for!

Brett Story declares that “contact at the margins” in cities will transform the social realisations as it is an act of transgression against aggressive patriarchal forces. He describes a city that belongs to no one as a “city of capital” – this sounds very familiar in the wake of the COVID crisis as many leaders expressed concerns towards the health of their economies in contrast to the health and safety of their populations. This, unfortunately, is the main reason I find myself in a foreign country and ultimately renouncing my home. Story continues to describe the ‘city of capital’ as a place of bland and neutral spaces with a sense of constant danger. Cities where over surveillance and over-policing hold control, causing barriers for ordinary contact and an increasingly anxious urban experience[29] - this is the perfect description of Johannesburg, the city I used to love.

The feminist movement demonstrated the importance of defining the link between urban planning and women’s lives which can inform the contemporary struggle to include LGBT+/ non-masculine issues in mainstream planning[30]. The subsection within contemporary feminist urban theory is known as Queer Planning. Petra Doan writes in her book, Queering Planning: Challenging Heteronormative Assumptions and Reframing Planning Practice, how queer theory calls for a radical questioning of both heteronormative and homonormative identities in cities. She explains how ‘fluid’ (non-normative) communities require planning processes that are adaptive and more openly oriented to lead the discovery of the diverse nature of community needs, instead of planners presenting ideas and plans previously formed from historically masculine norms[31].

Leslie Kern describes the city as the place where women had options open up for them, unheard of in small towns and rural communities. A chance to break free from parochial gender norms; to avoid heterosexual marriage and expected motherhood; to pursue non-traditional careers and even public office; to express unique identities through challenging social and political causes; to developing new personal networks and friendships; to participate in arts, culture, and media[32]. These concepts are voiced loud and clear by non-normative communities in contemporary environments and give cities strong magnetism attracting marginalised youth. It is a dream which would not rely on the heteronormative nuclear family as the default basis for organising their lives.

Part of the magnetism of cities is the sense of community that can be found in LGBT+ neighbourhoods.

In 1969 a police raid on a now-famous gay bar in New York, the Stonewall Inn, which grew into a three-day uprising of LGBT+ citizens of the city, now known as the Stonewall rebellion, was the final invasive act that launched the American movement for LGBT+ rights. The movement encouraged gay men to become more assertive of their rights to exist in urban spaces and ultimately played an essential role in the gentrification of declining inner-city neighbourhoods[33]. These neighbourhoods stand as safe havens for some and a social problem of disorder for others - as previous planning efforts often restricted the development of sexual minority communities in the name of ‘order’ and public ‘safety’. In the US, these neighbourhoods have been trapped in a cycle of gentrification, which leads to the increase of property values and rents, making it difficult for non-normative family structures to afford to stay there. The problem is that the increased desirability of these ‘safe havens’ attract wealthier people who do not identify as LGBT+ and thus resulting in the debate about whether gays and lesbians should assimilate into ‘mainstream’ culture as societal acceptance is gained or do these communities maintain a separate place they found their version of safety in before?[34].

Doan continues to explain even though not all LGBT+ people have sufficient wealth to invest in urban redevelopment[35] current planning policies continue to exploit the “success” of gay neighbourhoods and encourage the large scale commercialisation of those spaces.

Interestingly, Doan discusses the different approaches gay men and lesbian women would take in planning urban environments in her book. It shows how ideologies differ even within the grouping of LGBT+ people and how important it is for community members and users of specific spaces to be included in planning decisions. Contemporary planners who wish to be more inclusive of the LGBT+ population would need to seek ways to engage with this community and its needs more directly[36].

Inclusivity, at its core, strives for egalitarian ideals. In chapter 30 of Gender Space Architecture[37], Dolores Hayden proposes her housing concept: HOMES[38] – Homemakers Organisation for a More Egalitarian Society. This concept is a small, participatory organisation containing members who want to work together to sustain a space for living where co-operative ownership of their housing is essential. She outlines the goals of society, the required spaces and activities, the members required for the different services, and the architectural diagrams and layout designs of her vision. In Chapter 31 Frances Bradshaw from the well-known Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative describes the actions required to involve users in space and urban design. Bradshaw says architects should act as enablers and help future occupants realise their own spatial needs and desires[39].

This raises an exciting issue that I have proposed in my own dissertation where the question is: What is the future role of the architect? In a world of increased social cohesion, environmental concern and push to degrowth, the architect finds themselves a new type of practitioner. Bradshaw suggests that the industry is working towards a more inclusive way of working and the less hierarchical term “built environment” should be used, rather than “architecture”. Bradshaw does refer to an architect historically acting as a monolithic ‘genius’ where patriarchal ego has defined the profession as masculine; this attitude is shared by many authors in the literature reviewed. It could then be argued that the profession is in crisis – which is a hopeful place to be as it eludes to a shift and a progression into something new and inspiring.

Reflection & Conclusion

Leslie Kern describes the feminist city as an aspirational project, one without a “master” plan that resists the urge of architectural control and the perception of mastery. This lesson should be the biggest of all the aspects covered in the review. It is not acceptable practice to continue with business as usual – architects and planners need to face the reality of a world of complexity and messiness.

Therefore community involvement and inclusion is of superior value to the creation and sustaining of contemporary urban environments.

In retrospect, I realise that I found the aspects of housing conceptualised by feminist thinking and queer theory to be the most rewarding and would have enjoyed focusing on this component of the inclusive theory. Dolores Hayden is a loud voice in this field and proclaims that marginalised communities will no longer tolerate housing and cities designed around the principles of another.

We will see what the future brings with the rise of remote working brought on by the COVID crisis. This new way of living might be a facilitator for communal living into the future.

A glancing reflection

Coming from a segregated and divided African country, I realised that this ignorant attitude created by toxic masculine power addiction will never result in any meaningful urban life, and has proved during the COVID crisis that community resilience was non-existent. I find the concept of urban feminism critical to developing future leadership that could capitalise on feminine characteristics of maternal care and empathy to support all kinds of marginalised and non-conforming groups. Let us start creating a more feminine world – for all people to be good humans.

[1] See newspaper article by Cliff Taylor, “The long goodbye to one of the world’s harshest lockdowns,” The Irish Times, March 30, 2021. [2] Also referring to newspaper article by Gillian Tett, “Have countries led by women coped better with COVID-19?,” Financial Times, December 20, 2020. [3] The acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and transgender has been modified many times – but mainly refer to anyone who is non-heterosexual. [4] Doan, P. L. Queerying Planning, Challenging Heteronormative Assumptions and Reframing Planning Practice (New York: Routledge, 2011), Page 19. [5] Doan, P. L. Queerying Planning, Challenging Heteronormative Assumptions and Reframing Planning Practice (New York: Routledge, 2011), Page 18. [6] 20 years after Marysia Zalewski posed the ‘man question’, in 2019 Elizabeth Pearson re-poses the subject to discuss the link between extremism and toxic masculinity. [7] See Pearson, 2019. [8] From ‘Ask a Feminist’ by Lisa Wade (2018). [9] From workshops held by Dr Kimmel in his work. [10] Rendell, et al., Gender Space Architecture (New York: Routledge, 2000), Page 88. [11] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 43. [12] Rendell, et al., Gender Space Architecture (New York: Routledge, 2000), Page 89. [13] Rendell, et al., Gender Space Architecture (New York: Routledge, 2000), Page 107. [14] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 29. [15] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 33. [16] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 33. [17] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 167. [18] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 35. [19] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 168. [20] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 171. [21] Doan, P. L. Queerying Planning, Challenging Heteronormative Assumptions and Reframing Planning Practice (New York: Routledge, 2011), Page 33. [22] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 35. [23] Rendell, et al., Gender Space Architecture (New York: Routledge, 2000), Page 103. [24] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 43. [25] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 44. [26] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 117. [27] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 47. [28] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 116. [29] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 170. [30] Doan, P. L. Queerying Planning, Challenging Heteronormative Assumptions and Reframing Planning Practice (New York: Routledge, 2011), Page 20. [31] Doan, P. L. Queerying Planning, Challenging Heteronormative Assumptions and Reframing Planning Practice (New York: Routledge, 2011), Page 254. [32] Kern, Leslie. Feminist City (Toronto: Verso, 2020), Page 40. [33] Doan, P. L. Queerying Planning, Challenging Heteronormative Assumptions and Reframing Planning Practice (New York: Routledge, 2011), Page 29. [34] Doan, P. L. Queerying Planning, Challenging Heteronormative Assumptions and Reframing Planning Practice (New York: Routledge, 2011), Page 17. [35] Doan, P. L. Queerying Planning, Challenging Heteronormative Assumptions and Reframing Planning Practice (New York: Routledge, 2011), Page 255. [36] Doan, P. L. Queerying Planning, Challenging Heteronormative Assumptions and Reframing Planning Practice (New York: Routledge, 2011), Page 262. [37] Rendell, et al., Gender Space Architecture (New York: Routledge, 2000). [38] By Dolores Hayden from Women and the American City (1981). [39] Rendell, et al., Gender Space Architecture (New York: Routledge, 2000), Page 230.


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