Feminist Activism for Safer Social Space in High Park, Toronto: How Women Got Lost in the Woods

By Whitzman, Carolyn | Canadian Journal of Urban Research, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Feminist Activism for Safer Social Space in High Park, Toronto: How Women Got Lost in the Woods


Whitzman, Carolyn, Canadian Journal of Urban Research


Resume

Les parcs municipaux de Toronto ont fait l'objet de discussion en ce qui concerne la signification (sens) et l'utilisation d'espace public. High Park est le plus grand et le plus populaire parc du centre de Toronto. A la fin des annees 1980 et au debut des annees 1990, le souci de la violence et la crainte de violence ont conduit a plusieurs tentatives pour insere "la voix des femmes" dans le discours concernant la planification, le design et le maintien de cet espace public. Get activisme -- la facon dont la recherche a ete effectuee et presentee et l'impact (ou pas) de la politique resultante -- illustre A la fois la force et les limitations de la politique d'identite dans le domaine public.

Mots clefs : Parcs; Espace Public; Femmes; Securite; Toronto.

Abstract

Municipal parks have been a key arena for disputes over the uses and meanings of public space. In High Park, Toronto, the largest and most popular park in central Toronto, concern over violence and fear of violence led to several attempts in the late 1980s and early 1990s to insert "a women's voice" into the discourse about the park's planning, design and maintenance. This activism--the way research was carried out and presented, and the impact (or lack thereof) of the resultant recommendations -- illustrates both the powers and the limitations of identity politics in the public realm.

Key Words: Parks; Public Space; Women; Safety; Toronto.

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In "A Gender Agenda: new directions for planning theory," Leonie Sandercock and Ann Forsyth conclude with a research agenda that concentrates on areas where feminist planning theory has had little to say. Their first recommendation is for more case studies of planning practice: "Feminist theory, unlike more academic theories is related to and grows out of feminist practice. Studies of both feminist planning practice and the relationship of feminist activism to planning are needed." It is particularly important, according to the authors, to produce case studies where women are actors, and not merely victims of bad planning practice (1992: 54).

Exploring and exploding the public/private divide has been a particular concern of feminist activists and researchers since the current wave of feminism began in the late 1960s. Feminists writing about cities -- geographers, planners, sociologists and political scientists, among others -- have been engaged in debates with colleagues about the uses and meanings of public space. Feminist activists have organized activities such as annual Take Back the Night marches, which seek to bring hitherto 'private' issues such as sexual assault into public view. More recently, feminists have engaged in debates about whether utilizing the sometimes simplistic binaries of public/private, city/suburb and man/woman has obscured as much as it has illuminated. While feminism began as a revolt against universalist assumptions about public goods, including public space, there has also been the tendency to replicate universalist assumptions about "women." (1)

This case study is a story about identity politics in the public sphere. My primary concern is to tell the story as a participant/observer, since it is in the nature of grassroots activism, driven as it is by people with limited time and energy, not to leave behind an institutional memory. Stories -- especially stories about people challenging authority -- often get lost or essentially transformed in the retelling. (2) But the story also illustrates both the powers and the limitations of identity politics in the public sphere. Following Andrew (2000), I find the work of Nancy Fraser particularly useful as a framework for describing the "discourse of women's needs" in relation to public safety concerns. Women's activism in High Park will thus be viewed through this lens of "needs talk," since the story illustrates the ability to make a substantive difference, coupled with the possibly inevitable corruption of basic principles that accompanies liberal change. …

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