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A former Portlander wants to know what ‘women led’ cities would look like

Posted by on February 6th, 2018 at 9:53 am

Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman at Portland’s Parking Day event in 2013.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman is putting what she learned in Portland to very good use: addressing the sexism in urban planning and helping women take leadership roles in how our cities are designed.

“The city, as we know it today, has been designed and shaped primarily by men,” she wrote in a recent email, “By bringing women’s voices to the forefront of the urban discussion, the Women Led Cities Initiative aims to achieve a greater level of equity in urban planning and design – both bottom-up and top-down – and start conversations about developing feminist city policy towards greater equality for all people in our cities.”

Johnston-Zimmerman, an urban anthropologist with a Master of Urban Studies degree from Portland State University (and who shared a guest article here on BikePortland in 2013), moved to Philadelphia a few years ago; but not before cutting her teeth on local activism efforts like Better Block and Parking Day. Back in 2012 I worked with Johnston-Zimmerman (and two others) on a project for GOOD Magazine where we envisioned a Portland where bicycling was just as easy as driving or taking transit.

Those projects were just the start for Johnston-Zimmerman. She’s also founder of the THINK.urban consulting firm, part of the tandem (along with fellow urbanist Kirsten Jeffers) that hosts the Third Wave Urbanism podcast, and one of the driving forces behind the Women Led Cities initiative.

They need to raise another $5,000 to make this happen — and eventually bring it to other cities.

All this work is culminating in her latest effort: to bring together women from a variety of urban planning fields for a Women Led Cities gathering. Johnston-Zimmerman has started a crowdfunding campaign to help raise money for the inaugural ‘Women Led Philly’ event.

“I think it’s important to flip the script – while it’s true that women riding in skirts and heels are good to have, and showcase good infrastructure, I wonder if we wouldn’t get there faster and have better infrastructure if it were women-led.”

I reached out to Johnston-Zimmerman to ask how Portland inspired her work. “Portland was a huge influence on me when it came to women. I worked with a pioneering female urbanist there for a time, Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, and had many women colleagues at PSU who I’m still in touch with.” Johnston-Zimmerman recalled that she recently heard from a male professor at PSU who realized (after reading an article she about sexism in the urban planning field) that 95 percent of the required readings in his curriculum were written by men. “He had an epiphany and told me he should have done better,” Johnston-Zimmerman shared, “That was nice of him to say, but I didn’t have any idea at the time either!”

Johnston-Zimmerman’s experience as a bicycle rider in Portland also impacts her work. “I like using cycling as a way to think about the subject because women are often considered a key demographic — either as ‘interested but concerned’ or an ‘indicator species’,” she says. “I think it’s important to flip the script – while it’s true that women riding in skirts and heels are good to have, and showcase good infrastructure, I wonder if we wouldn’t get there faster and have better infrastructure if it were women-led.”

At this point, Johnston-Zimmerman just wants to expand the conversation and bring together women and girls to flesh out what this future, women-led city would look like. She hopes the Women Led gatherings gain steam so she can bring them to other cities. You can help by checking out the crowdfunding campaign and following @WomenLedCities on Twitter.

Hopefully the next time we see Johnston-Zimmerman she’ll be here for a Women Led Portland event.

Good luck Katrina! Keep us posted on your progress.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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Rebecca Hamilton
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Rebecca Hamilton

I love the momentum that Katrina brought to PARK(ing) Day and I miss her energy here in Portland. Wish I were in Philly to catch this event.

Robin S.
Guest
Robin S.

Great program and article. Thanks Jonathan for bringing Katrina and these projects to our attention!

David Hampsten
Guest
David Hampsten

I’ve rarely come across any cities where “planners” as a profession have any major influence on how cities are designed, especially cities that are several lifetimes old. At best they help local activists and city staff design local renewal districts, but rarely whole cities (Longview WA, Philly, & Gary Indiana are the only planned US cities I can easily think of.) Portland has a glut of planners, but it is highly disputable whether they have collectively influenced the design of the city very much, as opposed to land developers, steamboat captains, army and railroad surveyors, etc from the 1800s.

Are we talking about cities with women city managers here? Or cities where a majority of city councilors are women? Or cities where women have a majority of leading positions in city government, such as directors, engineers, and budget analysts? Or are we discussing cities designed and run on feminist principles? Or something else entirely?

I am in fact curious, having read Henri Lefebvre on feminist urban geography & planning (a foreign white guy.)

Clarence Eckerson
Guest

Lots of great rising stars in the movement are women! We all need to support them so make a donation!

Clicky Freewheel
Guest
Clicky Freewheel

Portland has a fair amount of women in leadership positions and still manages to not get anything done. Perhaps bureaucracy knows no gender discrimination? At any rate, a greater percentage of women making decisions certainly would be a good thing as long as they are qualified for the job and would at the very least, lead the discussion in a different direction. Having more perspectives involved in decision-making processes should be actively sought after.

joan
Subscriber

This is great! I hadn’t seen Katrina’s Next City piece, which is excellent. I love that she’s calling not just for inclusivity or more participation by women, but for women to be the leaders.

(And, the comments really reinforce the point she’s making.)

Cheers, Katrina! Thanks for your work and contributions!

John Liu
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John Liu

I do not believe in having a “quota” system in government. However, I believe the talent, experience, and insight of women (among others) is under-utilized and that the structural reasons for that have got to change. In government and elsewhere. I was happy to read this article and appreciate BP posting it.

Jim Lee
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Jim Lee

Katrina is late to the game: Vera was pretty darn good.

FRED_TRAMPLER
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FRED_TRAMPLER

HOW BOUT WE FORGET ABOUT WHAT SEX OR RACE OR RELIGION U R AND PUT THE MOST QUALIFIED PEOPLE IN POSITIONS THEY WOULD DO WELL IN, YOU KNOW, LIKE A MERIT BASED SYSTEM AS OPPOSED TO THIS SEXIST MARXIST IDEOLOGY BEING SHOVED DOWN OUR THROATS IN THE NAME OF “EQUITY” AND “FAIRNESS”

Smarty Pants
Guest
Smarty Pants

Katrina has surely stirred the pot here on BP by proposing that the solution to the cities woes is to put more women in charge. I’d have been more impressed if she’d have proposed something that would actually make the city better. Does she have no ideas other than “we need more women” in charge?

I’d have to agree with Fred above – we need people who are qualified. Most of our cities are run by all types of minorities, and most of those cities are failures, nearly bankrupt, overrun with crime, housing shortages, etc, etc.

Tim
Guest
Tim

A fair hiring / promotion system should be actively pursued…. But, isn’t ONLY using race/sex/gender/orientation (instead of actual qualifications), just as unfair/biased as the current system?

Carl Abbott
Guest
Carl Abbott

Katrina’s point, well supported in scholarly research, is that women, on the average, use cities in different ways than men do, and men are sometimes oblivious to those differences (examples might include different transportation needs because of a heavier burden of household care, or different concerns about personal safety in public places). Anybody can act on these concerns, but it may take women to move such concerns up the agenda. It is not about who is in charge, but about how they perceive and define problems and needs.

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

Per accidens ad miserecordia

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

Mistake in Latin!

The preposition “ad” takes the accusative, not the ablative. Should be “ad miserecordiam,” first declension accusative singular.

Needless to say, gender is feminine.

Out of state
Guest
Out of state

I came to this page to read about what features of a city a woman would change, to make it more amenable(!) to women. But I didn’t see any such ideas in the story. Maybe an online brainstorming discussion would be less time-intensive and more productive.

soren
Guest
soren

Apart from the two first comments, this sausage fest thread is a dumpster fire of misogyny and sexism.

#notinspired
#donotreadthecomments

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

Since when is anything run, or it’s leaders not controlled by, people with money? What we need are more women with money. We like to think that everyone has a voice, which they do, but not everyone has a string to pull. Man or Woman, without money, you are literally nothing but a “resource” to be influenced, used, and controlled by those with money.