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The intersectional city

Applying an intersectional lens to multi-layered challenges in urban settings can lead the way to greater empowerment of community members in cities.

April 2, 2024

5-minute read

Cities reflect the avoidable—yet escalating—inequality that stems from prioritizing financial profits over the well-being of people and our environment.

You see it in the affordability crisis, the housing crisis, and environmental destruction spread unevenly across social and geographic divisions in the city.

Cities are a crucial arena for confronting global crises. Our power as community members can have a significant impact locally and beyond.

But deeply rooted structural inequities unevenly restrict the power of city residents. Gentrification, environmental racism, racialized income disparity, gendered care burdens, obstacles to economic participation for people with disabilities, the legislated precarity of immigration are modes of inequality in urban life that are interrelated and, for many, compounded.

Applying an intersectional lens to these multi-layered challenges can lead the way to greater empowerment of community members in cities.

Intersectionality is a framework developed by legal scholar Kiberlé Crenshaw for understanding how multiple aspects of a person's social identity—such as gender, race, class, sexuality, or ability—might combine to create unique modes of oppression. Crenshaw found that addressing class, gender, or racial inequity in isolation failed to account for how the discrimination faced by Black women in the workforce operates differently from either the discrimination faced by white women or Black men.

Through an intersectional lens, we can examine how various forms of systemic injustice and social inequality operate together and exacerbate each other.

“The way we imagine discrimination or disempowerment often is more complicated for people who are subjected to multiple forms of exclusion. The good news is that intersectionality provides us a way to see it.” —Kiberlé Crenshaw

Rather than tackling social issues individually through piecemeal policy, an intersectional lens can help shift our focus to understanding how class, racism, misogyny, heteronormativity, ableism, and environmental destruction are interdependent systems of oppression built into our cities.

Traditional urban planning often reinforces a gendered division of labour, designing cities around the 'public sphere' of work predominantly occupied by men, and the 'private sphere' of domestic life and care work, associated with women. This division affects the availability and accessibility of services like public transportation, which may cater more to men's schedules and activities. Racialized women experience this more acutely: they often face the double burden of gendered and racial segregation, leading to their double displacement.

Intersectional urban planning requires that we identify and examine the common roots of these ways of oppression in order to have a better chance of tackling their multi-faceted expressions of inequality.

Inclusive approaches to urban planning call for reclaiming the city from a design that’s driven by consumption and profit. Capitalism treats space as a commodity and the crises stemming from this extractive, exploitative, and self-destructive process are reflected in the spatial inequalities within and between cities.

An intersectional lens can help us account for the uneven distribution of power between the richest one per cent and the rest of the city, and within the 99 per cent.

An intersectional approach must account for who has been dispossessed and who has been exploited in the development of the city. That can tell us a lot about the distribution of power and wealth.

Tracing the common roots of oppression built into cities requires us to examine how injustice is reproduced in settler colonial contexts.

On whose lands and by whose labour were our cities built?

European colonial powers amassed wealth through the extraction of resources from colonized territories and the forced labour of enslaved peoples, which was justified through racialized ideologies that deemed non-European peoples as inferior and exploitable.

This white supremacy is embedded in capitalism, which continues to see racialized bodies and lands as commodities. Racism is not a defect of capitalism but a characteristic feature of it, as Cedric J. Robinson argued: “it could be expected that racialism would inevitably permeate the social structures emergent from capitalism.”

The social structures that have emerged from capitalism reinforce European notions of race, gender and sexuality. This is especially the case in the context of the settler-colonial capitalist city, where white supremacy and heteropatriarchy are constantly reasserted through violence.

“What makes settler societies unique,” says geographer Laura Pulido, “is their desire to replace indigenous peoples in order to take their land, rather than simply control resources and labor.”

This has involved the violent erasure of Indigenous ways of life and forms of governance that have targeted women, in part because many Indigenous societies are female-led and are at odds with the structure of the colonial city.

As colonialism underpins capitalism, and racial capitalism has been the structuring logic of our urban planning, they’re reflected in how we organize our cities.

The focus on areas with potential for capitalist investment overlooks communities that don't promise immediate economic returns. Cities often neglect or gentrify neighborhoods predominantly inhabited by racialized or Indigenous communities, which further marginalizes already segregated groups, impacting their access to essential services and employment as they navigate exclusion or displacement.

Planning the intersectional city requires resisting injustice that is specific to settler-colonial contexts. For cities on stolen land, built by racialized labour, sustained by gendered and racialized domestic care, we need to decolonize.

Decolonization is a process of undoing the legacy of colonialism and its pervasive impacts on Indigenous Peoples and their lands. It involves the dismantling of the political, cultural and economic structures of colonialism that continue to dispossess and disempower Indigenous Peoples.

Settlers tend to think about decolonization on an exclusively national scale but the marked erasure of Indigeneity in cities ignores municipal institutions’ part in upholding the settler-colonial project.

Settlers, including those of us in racialized and diasporic communities, should put the full weight of our struggles for justice in solidarity with returning stewardship of the land, including the organization of space, society and infrastructure, to the Indigenous communities to which they belong.

As Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes in Until We Are Free, “When I write about Michi Saagiig nationhood, I’m not talking about any Indigenous desire to be a nation state. I’m talking about dismantling the nation state. I’m thinking about how I can share space and land in deeply reciprocal and relation ways with freedom fighters and diasporic communities in a way that supports each of our sovereignties and self-determinations, and I’m thinking about what relational solidarity might be like within Nishnaabeg thought.”

The linkages between colonialism and racial capitalism create a natural basis for solidarity between Indigenous and racialized and diasporic communities’ struggles for justice. While decolonization and abolition are very different projects, their solidarities can be grounded in shared struggles against systemic oppression, dispossession, and the historical and ongoing impacts of colonial and capitalist structures.

Abolitionism is historically associated with the movement to end slavery, but it also accounts for the ways in which racism is perpetuated through the very same institutions and systems that are foundational to settler-colonial violence: schooling, child welfare, policing and prisons.

The intersectional city is one that is already being built through the co-resistance (Betasamosake Simpson’s term) of Indigenous and racial liberation movements. Together, they are disrupting colonial frameworks and enabling sustainable, just urban futures.

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