Hi, I’m Julian Walker from the Development Planning Unit, I’m a senior lecturer, and I work in gender and social policy and citizenship. So, cities are a site of social diversity as places shared by many different types of people. Furthermore, social identity such as gender, ethnicity, disability, age, class, sexuality, and religion, are fundamental to how different women and men, and girls and boys experience, inhabit, and shape their cities. However, urban interventions are often based on ideas about how these social identities work, which do not reflect the realities revealed by research. There are three overarching challenges here for urban planners. First is the recognition that identities are socially constructed.
Planners often work on the assumption that the patterns and activities, access to and control over resources, and social status of different types of people are due to inherent or natural differences between them. So for example, the gendered division of labour, which means women’s predominate involvement in unpaid care work, or the different sectors in which women and men typically work, such as nurses, versus construction, is often understood to be the result of biological differences between women and men. But the fact that this gendered division of labour differs from place to place and across generations tells us that these differences are in fact socially constructed and not natural.
In the same light, the social model of disability adopted by most disabled people’s organisations emphasises that most of the factors which limit disabled people’s life chances result not from their physical or mental impairment, but from society’s unwillingness to accommodate for, and value, their needs and capacities. Arguably, the reason that norms and practises linked to specific social identities are presented as natural and unchangeable is that this is a way of hiding, or justifying, the unequal power relations that are built around these identities. For example, the inequalities in political participation earnings or asset ownerships, which are pervasively linked with factors such as gender or race.
So presenting these differences as natural is in the interest of those who benefit from the status quo of inequality, as it means that they are fair and can’t be changed. Second, therefore, is the challenge of bringing a diversity perspective to city planning to target such inequalities. If social diversity means that different types of women and men in the city have different life patterns and different barriers to meeting their aspirations, planners need to understand and address these, rather than assume that all urban citizens somehow are the same. On the one hand, this requires planning tools which disaggregate social groups and their patterns of social roles, access to and control of resources, and aspirations.
On the other hand, in addition to having diversity sensitive planning tools which reveal difference, there needs to be space for different voices or identities to participate in the planning process. This means having representative decision making forums, rather than ones that are made up of more powerful social groups and planning bodies in most cities are typically dominated by middle age, more wealthy, and educated, able-bodied men often from the dominant ethnic group. This leads to the final challenge of intersectionality. While it’s critical that different social groups are represented in the planning process, this is always tricky in practise, because we don’t have singular identities. We all have a gender, an age, a race, and so on.
This means we can’t assume that a youth speaks for all youth. However, this is often how planning bodies aim to be representative. Such identity quotas, while often valuable, therefore need to be supplemented by other actions, such as undertaking diagnostic research using planning tools which reveal inequalities which
cut across a range of identities: race, gender, class, et cetera, and also by working with identity based groups such as women’s associations, which aim to represent both the shared and the contradictory claims of women as a wider interest group.