Have You Ever Written a Neighborhood Plan (Young Lady)? Sexism and City Planning

Today I talked to someone who asked me if I had ever worked for a city planning department. Here’s what I said in response: Well,

Number one: I teach students who go on to work for city planning departments.

Number two: I have worked for city planning departments, mostly in the role of a researcher/academic.

Number three: I am mostly engaged and committed to planning that is from the bottom up; my work in city and regional planning has been primarily with not-for-profits as well as local and state government agencies.

And then he said, “Yeah, but don’t you want to be a director of city planning?” Who came up with that?

I started to say: “What parts of numbers 1, 2, and 3 do you not understand?” But I didn’t.

And then he asked me: “Well, where did you go to school?” As if there was something deficient about my planning education.

When I named the schools for him, he said, “Yeah, I know about those schools; they are pretty good.” Like that had anything to do with anything.

And, all the while he was doing this, he was calling me “young lady.” Just for context: he was an older black man; probably about 25 years my senior.

This exchange reminded me of a more recent conversation that I had with a local white planner who was, I suppose, a little perturbed by my critique of his planning presentation. In response to my comments about his presentation, which were not hostile – I just didn’t agree on a method he was proposing (and I proposed another one instead), he asked me, “Well, have you ever written a neighborhood plan?” Just like that. Out of nowhere; who I am, what I said; none of that mattered. Like the man who asked, “had I ever worked for a city planning department.”

Why? Why should I be shocked when I encounter appeals to accomplishment and rank as a means to silence me and my critiques? I received similar receptions in my previous profession (I was a United Methodist clergywoman). When people learned that I was the pastor, the church administrator, the one with the authority to be in charge, they would ask me, “When were you ordained?” Or, “Where did you go to seminary.” By contrast, these were questions that my male counterparts rarely, if ever, had to answer. People just took their word for it that they were who they said they were, the “Reverend So-and-So.” Why should it matter to me that men who are black, white, brown, red, and yellow constantly question my credentials or my “fitness” for the work that I have been doing for years? Why should I be so offended since it happens so frequently? Even today.

Likewise, I have to ask myself, why do I think or want to think that urban planning academicians and professionals who call themselves committed to social justice, advocacy and equity are free from sexism, racism or any other “ism” for that matter? What makes me want to believe that women planning scholars should or could get equal treatment in the classroom, in the conference room, or even when it comes to discussing and implementing urban plans in “the real world of planning?” Where have I seen a good example of gender or racial equity in the urban planning profession, and in the U.S.?

In the classroom, planning scholars and urban historians often make reference to Jane Jacobs, a pioneering white woman who is known for her critique of city and neighborhood planning in the late 1950s. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was written in the in the context of the urban neighborhood in New York City and not long after WWII. As noted by one of my colleagues, this is a book that you can still find on bookstore shelves today (including virtual book shelves). Jacobs is well-known for her critique of one of NYC’s “finest” a/k/a “The Power Broker,” Robert Moses. Of course, there was a lot that Jane Jacobs did not say or do in her important book (i.e., as it concerns matters of race and class), but, one thing is for sure, she was willing to stand up for herself and for her community, and she did this in spite of the sexism exhibited by the city and regional planners and the contemporary thinkers of her time. How did she do it? Indeed, with the power of the pen! And, voila, there is the example!

Well, it is 2016, and half a century later, women planners are still being ignored and dismissed; we still face sexism among  our colleagues, students (yeah, I said it!), and from practitioners that we know like the one who interrogated me today. Conference sessions on diversity, women, race, and planning are pushed to “the back of the bus” and scheduled on final days when nearly everyone is out of steam or they have gone back home, which shows us all how very important matters of gender, equity and inclusion really are for academics in city and regional planning and in the planning of its  conferences. Emerging feminist ideas about planning methodologies and frameworks, such as “loving attachment,” (made visible and palatable by Leonie Sandercock, Karen Umemoto, and Libby Porter) are not unknown, but they are not put into practice and thus they are not taken seriously by planners “in the real world.” Like, when have I heard this concept explained in detail for students or communities by one of my male counterparts?  That would be never. To make matters worse, it is not unusual for feminist proposals to be  openly criticized as divisive and unnecessary by those who are much more comfortable with traditional, Euro-masculinist theories and practices of city and urban planning.

Time and time again, women planners and planning scholarship that is gender-specific is disregarded and deemed not “good enough” or important enough to be first in presentation or priority at gatherings of scholars and students of planning. In addition, name for me one city where you have heard of a development project that has been designed for women or girls or with womens’ issues or concerns as the primary and motivating force. Yes, in planning programs we have inspiring workshops and courses that encourage us to think in terms of gender and race, and as they pertain to the built environment; and, we have women who are visible and audible in the teaching and in the practice of planning. But, where can we see city and regional designs or plans that make women and girls the primary beneficiaries?  Where do we find women’s thoughts and ideas about space and place that occupy the center of local discussion about city and urban planning projects and designs (beyond a class session or two)? Where, beyond the work of Dolores Hayden, and the planners I have mentioned above, do we see women city and regional planners taking the lead, offering visions of urban development that are also predominantly women-identified and women-centered and “in the real world?” I am not saying that they are not there, but I would like to know what is really happening with women and planning in the 21st century when many of the women that I know in planning have ultimately been more than willing to act in the interests of self, tradition, tenure, whiteness and patriarchy. As bell hooks once said, “Where is the Love?

Now, about black women planners and scholarship. Of course, I want to believe that black womens’ planning scholarship is important to city and regional planners who are “in the real world,” but today, after the “motivating” conversation that I had with a local Kansas City resident who has been active in community and neighborhood development, and after thinking about my own experiences “in the real world,” I really don’t see where black women planning academicians who talk openly and powerfully about race and gender in city and regional planning are perceived of as significant or important to the development of planning theories and practices (and who are on full-time status at schools and colleges of planning in the U.S.). I see black women planning academicians and practitioners, but rarely do I see the ones who are openly feminist or womanist and openly anti-racist (just for starters).

That said, I am currently in the process of working through a hypothesis, along with a trusted colleague, which posits that black women planning academicians who operate from a gender-centered position and from a standpoint that privileges the experiences of black women and girls and black communities (e.g., the epistemological privilege of the poor) will be dismissed, disregarded and ultimately rejected in response to being openly critical of whiteness, maleness and the positivist roots of city and regional planning. For several months, we have been working to construct and test our theory which says that black women planning scholars who openly and unabashedly critique men, especially white men and white conceptual frameworks of  city and regional planning, will face negative consequences and negative responses from colleagues, students, administrators, and other institutional officials overall. And, we predict that this response will happen more times than not and in the form of some very specific consequences and negations. If our hypothesis is proven to be true, then we – as in city and regional planners – have not come all that far when it comes to women and planning. In other words, if a significant percentage or group of black women planning academicians are not free to theorize and to practice city and regional planning as they see fit, then we are not free (not individually and not as far as academic freedom goes)! Unfortunately, “in the real world,” if we have that finding, we believe that it will demonstrate that theories and practices of city and regional planning and the institutional terrain of planning schools, colleges, and thus municipal and regional planning departments are still as Barbara Hooper said in 1992: what white bourgeois men have said it is.”

And if our findings prove to be true, since I am a womanist scholar, I think that what we must then think in terms of is what womanist Katie G. Cannon, a theologian and womanist scholar whose work was critically beneficial to me in my 2010 dissertation, is whether we, as city and regional planners, have “structured academic amnesia.” And, if we do have this ‘structured academic amnesia,’ you can be sure that it will be played out “in the real world,” “as if this true [feminist and not this] womanist story] never happened.” Yet for some of us, like Jane Jacobs did half a century ago, who are willing and brave enough to utilize the power of the pen, nothing could be further from the truth!

© 2016 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

For more on Katie Cannon, I recommend: Cannon, Katie Geneva.  2006.  Structured academic amnesia:  As if this true womanist story never appened.   In Deeper shades of purple:  Womanism in religion and society., 19-28.  New York:  New York University Press.

For more on Barbara Hooper, I recommend: Hooper, Barbara. 1992. “Split at the roots”: A critique of the philosophical and political sources of modern planning doctrine. Frontiers 13 (1): 45-80.

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