When Cities Are Built for White Men

Our public spaces are used by diverse populations. Why does urban design still fail to reflect that?

A cyclist crossing a busy intersection in downtown Toronto at dusk. The streets are full of cars and a TTC bus. In the background are high-rise office buildings.
Leonardo Patrizi/iStock

Every morning, when I leave my house, I brace myself for what I’m about to face. Turquoise helmet in hand, I cross the street to unlock my red Linus, stow my bag in the rear basket, walk my bike to the curb, and mount. I grip the handlebar and take a deep breath.

While I’m currently not commuting because I’m practising physical distancing during the pandemic, I look forward to when I can get back on my bike. Even though I know cycling in Toronto comes at a cost.

I’m a Black woman with deep brown skin, which means I encounter the injustices of the minority experience every time I enter public spaces. My daily commute is no exception. It takes me through a city made for cars, where cyclists are a growing yet still marginalized minority, and where five cyclists have been killed in road accidents in the past two years.

I kick off and pedal my way down the back streets, alleyways, and roundabout routes needed to reach a bike lane, which offers me somewhat safe harbour. I swerve to avoid cars that fail to look or signal before they turn right, and I weave around cars pulled over in the lane farther down.

Mostly, I shrug off the stress and take pleasure in the sight of the often indignant white male cyclists who I imagine are unused to being treated as less than in the eyes of others. They seem to ride around the city in a state of entitled rage, yelling at drivers who don’t stop for them or banging on the sides of cars that have somehow made their way into the bike lane. I’m accustomed to those dangers and to being an afterthought in the eyes of the city more generally. They, I assume, are not.

I used to think this alienating experience of travelling along roadways made primarily for cars was solely the plight of cyclists. Until the day another cyclist, stopped at a red light in front of me, yelled out unexpectedly when the light turned green.

“You can go!” she bellowed.

I was thrown off for a second. Then I realized she was speaking to the man at the corner, waiting to cross the busy intersection. He was visually impaired and had no auditory signal to let him know when he could step into the street to cross. The city had failed him too, having created a crosswalk designed for sighted people. The default approach in building many elements of public spaces is to suit the “majority”—which usually translates to people who identify as male, cisgender, able-bodied, and white.

Most North American cities, Toronto included, were largely built in the postwar era. Their expansions were designed primarily by men who were creating cities meant to move cars driven by working-age men from their homes in the suburbs to their workplaces downtown and back again each day. But the way roadways and public spaces are used, and the types of people who use them, have changed significantly since then. Cities have yet to adapt despite their changing demographics.

According to the 2016 census, 22.3 percent of Canadians are visible minorities, 16.9 percent are over sixty-five (with an increasing percentage over eighty-five), and 50.4 percent—just over half—are women. An estimated one in five Canadians fifteen or older have one or more disabilities that limit them in their daily activities, according to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability. Meanwhile, according to the 2016 census, the segment of the population identified as low income ranges from 9.3 percent in Alberta to 17.2 percent in Nova Scotia, with most regions sitting around 15 percent. In Toronto, just over half of the low-income population is visible minorities. And many urban residents are driving less: between 1996 and 2016, car use has gradually declined and public transit has increased in popularity among those who work in major Canadian cities.

As a woman, as a racialized minority, and as a cyclist, I’m constantly faced with microaggressions and oppressions wrought by systems not made for me. I may represent just one of many minorities in the city, but there are enough of us with needs being overlooked in public spaces that we should be considered a majority. Yet many cities fail to serve these groups effectively or fairly.

Often, as I ride to work, I wonder if we should just tear down the entire city and start over. Since that’s not likely, those of us who feel marginalized by our own cities can at least demand that planners design spaces and infrastructure with more empathy, so that our spaces can properly reflect the diverse needs of the people who use them. The good news is, in some places, that’s already starting to happen.

City planning is changing, says Kristin Agnello, a British Columbia–based urban planner and designer whose work focuses on the impact of design on vulnerable populations—including seniors, children, and women. Over the past five years, she says, planners have begun to consider the issue of equitable design more extensively in their work as they seek to build spaces that accommodate a greater number of people with a broader range of needs. “We’re seeing so many topics come up at conferences and on social media in the planning profession talking about these issues,” she says.

In Toronto, some planners are experimenting with methods of community engagement that go beyond the standard consultation session, in which city representatives typically share their plans, invite some input, and offer little opportunity for follow-up. Katie Wittmann, a planner with the City of Toronto’s Transportation Services department, says she leverages the city’s Equity Lens tool to guide her work. Designed as a set of questions—including, for instance, Have you determined if there are barriers faced by diverse groups?—the tool is meant to inform every stage of a public project.

Wittmann’s division is responsible for planning, constructing, and managing cycling infrastructure in Toronto—including leading the city’s Cycling Network Plan update and installing new bike lanes. She and her colleagues are trying to attend and set up booths at more neighbourhood events, such as community barbecues and block parties, and seek out local representatives to work through their plans with residents directly. They’ve presented their work at Neighbourhood Planning Table meetings, which bring together residents, businesses, councillors, and city staff. There, they’ve mapped Toronto neighbourhoods and asked community members to call out any important destinations or hubs that were missing, then added those places to the maps. They’ve even hired local residents as consultants.

Such efforts may seem small in the context of a city, but they are part of a larger global shift toward planning approaches that try to consider a diversity of needs in public spaces. As part of an initiative that began in 2000, the city of Vienna revamped its cemeteries by, among other measures, making their paths more amenable to wheelchairs and walking aids, providing carts to transport water and soil, and making water taps more accessible to the older women who often take on the burden of maintaining family graves. Agnello points to this as an example of gender mainstreaming—the practice of considering women’s needs when developing and implementing policies.

An effort like this not only acknowledges who is using the spaces but also makes it easier for them to do so. It’s stepping away from assuming a cisgender male is the default user. But such projects are harder to replicate when you think about the complexity of, for example, reworking entire city roadways.

The fact that most cities are built for cars, says Kofi Hope, senior policy advisor at the Wellesley Institute, means that, “for lower income folks who don’t have access to them, it’s extremely difficult to move around the city and to access not just work but even cultural amenities.” Buildings that offer public programming, such as museums, as well as events like live shows and parades still aren’t wholly inclusive—especially when the only public transit options to reach those places require multiple transfers and are hampered by delays. I’ve noticed this myself: often, when I attend public events or venues in Toronto, I make a game of looking for people who look like me or like they don’t live nearby. Mostly, I see crowds made up of white parents and their young kids and pets.

Addressing these inequities demands that planners think beyond their own experiences as they develop public projects, which is a new and potentially uncomfortable habit. But more empathy in design isn’t necessarily a simple solution.

“I think that asking people to jump to empathy is too big an ask in many circumstances,” says Jess Mitchell, a senior manager at the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University in Toronto. “So, instead of empathy, what I’m kind of fond of is, Can you tap into genuine curiosity or wonder?” In other words, those who design cities need to be more curious about how people outside of their sphere experience the world. And, of course, they need to be more aware of the biases that influence their own decision making.

In her work, Mitchell looks at what she calls diversified points of data—including quantitative and qualitative data as well as anecdotal evidence—to uncover blind spots in design. Planners might not have anticipated bike lanes being used by electric wheelchairs, for instance, or that bike lanes might also hinder specialized public transit services for people with mobility issues, making it more difficult for these vehicles to pick up and drop off riders. Mitchell would draw on these and other unexpected findings, she explains, to inform decisions in the creation of future bike lanes.

“There’s a limit to empathy that just comes from reading it in books or hearing about it from statistics,” seconds Hope. Empathy is born from face-to-face experience. “We’re seeing increased [desire] to have lived experience and community engagement take place, but there are limits to the systems we have and the amount of money we budget to do it.” Wittmann’s team’s approach of engaging directly with community groups is still the exception; in the standard consultation model, “there isn’t the deep relationship or ongoing connection to really make that a legitimate expression of where a community’s at.”

When it comes to equitable city building, though, consultation is just one of many approaches. In some cases, planners have to overcome entrenched biases and prejudices not just in their own approaches but among competing groups. It took years of data collection, time, and compromise to bring biking infrastructure to life and to make a relatively new bike lane permanent on Toronto’s Bloor Street, one of the city’s busiest east-west thoroughfares. That bike lane was one of the most studied transportation projects in Toronto, says Jared Kolb, former executive director of Cycle Toronto. And the work paid off: in the end, the bike lane was shown to have slowed down drivers’ daily commutes by two to four minutes while broadly benefiting cyclists, pedestrians, and even local businesses. The approach also helped inject nuance into a contentious topic and evolve the conversation beyond the rhetoric of a war on cars or cyclists. It meant decisions were data-driven rather than simply based on assumptions and long-held biases among planners or city councillors.

In modern North American cities, the competition for space means that making room for wider sidewalks or bike lanes requires taking space away from cars. Policymakers are trying to reframe projects like the Bloor Street bike lanes so that they’re no longer seen as a so-called war on cars. They’re recognizing that “we’re moving people; we’re not moving cars,” says Wittman. “And there are different ways to move people that are safer, that are more space efficient, that are friendlier and livelier.”

“The term cyclist is very loaded,” Kolb adds. People can have negative associations and assumptions attached to the label that remove bike riders from the realm of person and into that of nuisance. One study in Australia that looked at driver interaction with cyclists found that more than half of drivers surveyed (out of 442 responses) viewed cyclists as less human. That figure was one of the reasons Kolb’s organization began avoiding the term.

“There’s a great deal of othering that happens in our lived experiences across a huge number of platforms and theatres,” says Kolb. “I think that plays out on our roads and that’s what this study was really pointing out.”

One benefit of projects like the Bloor Street bike lanes is showing how increased accessibility for one marginalized community can lead to universal rewards. “The heart of this conversation is that making your environment responsive or your public spaces responsive really benefits everybody; it doesn’t just benefit the one group,” says Agnello. A motorist might take issue with losing parking space or driving privileges on certain arteries across the city, but they would also gain a vibrant, more engaged streetscape (with less than five minutes added to their commute). When we make sidewalks safer for the elderly in the winter, they become safer for everyone else, including parents with strollers or people in wheelchairs.

For me, a safer bike commute means more than avoiding injury. It’s also about a sense of belonging in my city, of being seen and accounted for. Which is essentially what everyone who engages with public spaces wants: to feel seen and acknowledged in those experiences. No, I no longer want the city I grew up in to be torn down and for us to start over. But, like all systems of inequity, I want it to be interrogated and adjusted in an attempt to make it better and fairer for everyone. Though it’s not currently reflected in the experiences of so many of us using public city spaces, we all have a right to be here and use these spaces and feel centred in them.

Being able to leave my house and feel confident walking, riding, driving, and moving through my city is a feeling I don’t know well. But it’s one that’s long overdue.

Chantaie Allick
Chantaie Allick is a writer, freelance journalist, brand strategist, and consultant based in Toronto.