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Jay Pitter on How to Be a City-Builder

Growing up in social housing, Jay Pitter witnessed spatial design’s effect on vulnerable communities. Here, the co-editor of Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity shares how to own your space and shape your city

Jay Pitter: A portrait of the author, Jay Pitter.

(Photo: Taha Muharuma)

When you explore your neighbourhood, who do you see contributing to its vitality?  

For me, the answer to this question is simple: women.

Growing up in social housing, I observed both the vulnerability and power of women in my community. I witnessed how spatial design and social conditions contributed to an underaged sex trade, which resulted in the murder of my friend’s older sister. A girl whose warm smile and freckled face remains etched in my memory. And I also witnessed the ways women, many of whom were single mothers, worked to improve the lives of their families and overall conditions in the community. Women who bartered childcare services so they could attend night classes. Women who ran hairdressing salons out of their tiny kitchens. Women who stretched a pot of stew to feed newcomers.

While most neighbourhoods aren’t fraught with the extreme challenges faced by people living in social housing communities, women across lived experiences share common challenges in urban centres. None of us are immune from the feeling of fear creeping in when travelling down poorly-lit streets or the sting of gender pay inequity within the workforce. Issues of urbanism and gender have become so pronounced that respected leaders like Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam is pushing for Toronto’s city budget to consider gender. While work is being done to create systemic change at the municipal level, women continue to fill gaps closer to their homes.

Whether taking elderly neighbours to doctor’s appointments, volunteering in schools, or organizing inter-faith dinners in local parks—women often step in when municipal budget allocations and urban design schemes fail their communities. Yet the contributions of these city-builders are often overlooked.

Broadly speaking, I think there are two explanations for why this happens. Working in place-making and stakeholder engagement, I’ve often collaborated on projects with designers, funders and other decision-makers. Sadly, there are very few women at the helm of these processes. On many occasions, I’ve highlighted how prescriptive policy and design approaches unintentionally negate gender and community knowledge. The other reason is a bit more nuanced—I believe that work women do on the local level is perceived to be domestic rather than important city-building work.

This is why engaging young women is an integral part of my practice. At first, this wasn’t an explicit goal. Early on, I found myself working on projects with women slightly younger than myself and there was this natural rapport, which would be best described as mutual mentorship—a rich exchange on both sides. I’ve engaged young women on projects related campus safety, neighbourhood audits and civic participation. They taught me things about their local neighbourhoods and I taught them things about systems, municipal processes and accessing resources. During this time it became clear to me that city-building work was dependent on collective learning.

As urban centres face increasing environmental and social challenges, the necessity of collective learning and broader engagement has become urgent. Young women have an important contribution to make in shaping our cities.   

Here are a few of my suggestions for becoming more involved:

1. Develop a sense of healthy spatial entitlement. There are several organizations and individuals working to create greater inclusion for everyone. However, as with all issues of inclusion, gender-based social change is complicated and slow. Don’t wait for an invitation to participate or be afraid to respectfully disrupt a process. You have a right to meaningfully take up space. This may include doing things like presenting at a municipal deputation process, leading a neighbourhood walk celebrating local leaders, or running for council.

2. Harness the power of self-organizing. Many awe-inspiring protests and creative public initiatives began with a few passionate women dreaming aloud over a meal. Cities have always been places where people informally shared insights and resources to enrich their collective experience. The next time you are gathered with a small group of friends make note of reoccurring topics arising in your conversation such as: your shared appreciation for arts and culture, yearning for more green space, or concerns about bus services. Then do a bit of research to learn about how you might act or contribute to a larger conversation.

3. Reach out to your councillor, chief planner and even the mayor. Sometimes, people working in high-profile city-building roles can be intimidating or may not create enough space for people to respond to their plans or polices. Having been a public servant, I can assure you that receiving constructive criticism and ideas from stakeholder groups enabled me to be more effective and creative in my work. Never hesitate to tweet at decision-makers or invite them to your community. Good city-building requires an on-going, two-way conversation.

Jay Pitter is a place-maker and co-editor of Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity, an anthology exploring inclusive city-building.

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