An old idea is new again

The Use­ful Knowl­edge So­ci­ety of Hamil­ton starts a con­ver­sa­tion about ur­ban is­sues

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - Mar­garet Shkimba is a writer who lives in Hamil­ton. She can be reached at men­r­va­sofia@gmail.com or you can “Friend” her on Face­book and fol­low her on Twit­ter (@men­r­va­sofia)

I’m a city gal. There’s some­thing about the city that touches me in a way the coun­try doesn’t. Which isn’t to say I don’t love some down­time com­muning with na­ture, but I miss the life, the speed, the en­ergy, the busy­ness of city life. I’m re­minded of the 1960s TV se­ries Green Acres and the theme song where Eva Ga­bor re­sponds to Ed­die Al­bert’s in­vi­ta­tion to live in the coun­try, singing:

No — New York is where I’d rather stay I get al­ler­gic smelling hay I just adore a pent­house view Dar­ling I love you but give me Park Av­enue

Now, Hamil­ton isn’t New York, but even as a child go­ing down­town shop­ping with my mother, city life held me cap­tive. Part of it was the sense of un­de­ni­ably adult space, part of it was the dan­ger that un­der­scores ur­ban liv­ing. The grime, the grit, the con­crete and as­phalt sur­faces; it was all so dif­fer­ent from where I lived, in the sub­urbs with green grass all around, a house with a lawn and a tree and the es­carp­ment in the back­ground.

Women have long had a com­plex re­la­tion­ship with cities. The “city” through­out his­tory has car­ried both the prom­ise of in­di­vid­ual free­dom as well as the curse of li­cen­tious con­tam­i­na­tion; the city be­ing a hot­bed of sex­ual temp­ta­tion in an en­vi­ron­ment of loos­ened fam­ily over­sight and greater per­sonal and eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence. The city meant lib­er­a­tion from ru­ral drudgery and so­cial iso­la­tion, even if at the same time it meant hard­ship and strug­gle in an evolv­ing in­dus­trial land­scape where women held lit­tle to no so­cial or eco­nomic power. In lit­er­a­ture, peo­ple, women in par­tic­u­lar, run away to the city for ad­ven­ture, not to the coun­try.

So when I re­ceived no­tice through so­cial me­dia of the Women and the City event hosted by the Use­ful Knowl­edge So­ci­ety of Hamil­ton, I marked it in my calendar as a mustgo. You can mark it, too: it’s on Tues­day, June 6, 6:30 at the AGH An­nex on James Street North.

The Use­ful Knowl­edge So­ci­ety of Hamil­ton is a group of like-minded ci­ti­zens, real friends who started a Face­book group mod­elled af­ter the grass­roots knowl­edge col­lec­tives from the 1600s formed as or­ganic “think-tanks” to ex­plore is­sues of the day. This mod­ern-day ver­sion is de­signed to pull to­gether the col­lec­tive knowl­edge of group mem­bers to ad­dress chal­lenges that face our com­mu­ni­ties. By cre­at­ing con­ver­sa­tions, com­mu­ni­ties can come to­gether to be­gin the process of find­ing so­lu­tions to such is­sues as in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion, de­vel­op­ment, pub­lic tran­sit. Their event held last Oc­to­ber was billed as the first ever State of Our Neigh­bour­hoods Event with Mayor Fred Eisen­berger. The fo­cus is on talk­ing, and lis­ten­ing, learn­ing from each other. In that way, un­der­stand­ings can be forged and in­no­va­tions cre­ated through con­sci­en­tious col­lab­o­ra­tions that are more likely to find suc­cess­ful so­lu­tions.

What if women de­signed cities? It’s not such a far-fetched ques­tion; fem­i­nist ge­og­ra­phers have been ask­ing it for decades. Fem­i­nist writ­ers in the late 19th cen­tury imag­ined utopian cities and com­mu­ni­ties de­signed for and by women. In real life, city planners were men who an­swered the needs of other men, usu­ally busi­ness­men and in­dus­tri­al­ists; cities func­tion as the men who de­signed them needed them to func­tion.

What about women? How is our re­la­tion­ship with the city dif­fer­ent from men? Safety comes to top of mind. Al­though long a site fraught with dan­ger, how can we see the city as a site of fe­male free­dom and em­pow­er­ment?

How do women move around the city? How do women ac­cess pub­lic tran­sit? Re­search shows that the jour­neys women take are usu­ally multi-task jour­neys, that is, on any given work day she might stop at the day­care be­fore work and the su­per­mar­ket on the way home. How easy is that? What about bus stop ac­cess? Are there benches, is there a shel­ter, light­ing? Can the bus driver see us?

Ur­ban walk­a­bil­ity is a huge chal­lenge as moth­ers walk their kids to school, to stores, to parks and play dates in their neigh­bour­hoods. How chal­leng­ing is it for women and their chil­dren to nav­i­gate their way through our neigh­bour­hoods? Un­less we ex­plore these is­sues with in­tent to un­der­stand them, we don’t give them much thought, other than to say, why is this in­ter­sec­tion so dan­ger­ous, or we could use a street light here.

What about women and pub­lic space? Are there ac­cess is­sues for women dif­fer­ent from men? Ques­tions, ques­tions, ques­tions.

Come out to the AGH De­sign An­nex on June 6, at 6:30 p.m. for a FREE event ex­plor­ing the mul­ti­fac­eted re­la­tion­ship that women have with cities and, more par­tic­u­larly, with this city. And don’t for­get, FREE. Can’t beat that price.

MAR­GARET SHKIMBA

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