This article formerly appeared in Dutch in the online magazine ‘Bewogen Stad’. Read it here.
For some time now, a billboard in Amsterdam Central Station has carried the slogan: ”This station is from and for everyone.” It fits into a trend of public institutions in the city that have appropriated the catchphrase ”for everyone.” Every time I see it, I am reminded of last summer, when the elevator at the subway station near my house broke down. A mother with a double stroller had to get herself and her two children down the steep escalator. Had no one been around to help, she would not have succeeded. At the same time, my roommate’s grandmother came to visit. She, too, was forced to take the escalator, which was actually going too fast for her. She fell and didn’t dare take the subway the following days. For her, and for a whole group of other travellers, the city centre was only accessible by buses or cabs. At that time, was the subway ”for everyone”?
The broken elevator was not a problem for all travellers. I myself could still travel fine, even when the escalators broke down after a few days. Mobility is subjective: people like me, with a working set of legs and no children to look after, find their way up anyway – albeit complaining. But what about the loss of mobility of all those people for whom the subway was no longer accessible
The elevator and escalators remained broken for more than three weeks: three weeks of extra costs for an Uber, or extra time for a bus ride. It raises questions about whose mobility (apparently doesn’t) matter. The subway stop in question is in Amsterdam Southeast, a district that was neglected by the city government for years, and is still stigmatized. If the elevator breaks down at a subway stop in the center, how long does it take to fix it?
The above incident suggests that the needs of some people matter less than those of others. Travel is only one part of living in the city; but there are countless examples that show time and again that the city is meant more for some people, than others. In this essay, I discuss some of those examples, and show how our cities in their current form are far from being ”for everyone.” I discuss how this inequality came about; how it continues to be reproduced, in policy and design; and what the consequences are for people’s daily lives.
The city is not neutral
Many policy and design choices appear at first glance to be “neutral,” but they are not. Take travel through the city: great importance is still attached to the car, compared to public transport or bicycle and walking paths. On the face of it, this has nothing to do with equality. But it does if you consider who actually are the users of these different means of transport. The same urban policy affects people differently because people use the city differently. A study in Karlskoga, Sweden found that when snow fell, major highways were cleared first. Who benefited: especially commuters, most of whom were men. Bicycle and walking paths were cleared last. As a result, pedestrians were three times more likely to have accidents than motorists. Of those pedestrians, 70 per cent were women. In other words, the snow plowing policy in this city made women more likely to have accidents.
This policy was not deliberately developed with the intention of putting women at a disadvantage. It was the result of a lack of perspective. The snow plowing policy in Karlskoga had been drafted by a group of men based on their own experiences and needs. This has happened on a larger scale to Western cities as a whole. For a long time, the public domain has been attributed exclusively to men. Women’s place was restricted to the private sphere: the household. This meant that in decisions about the public domain, only the needs of men were considered. And not all men, either: only those who were part of the almost exclusively white, wealthy elite in charge.
Today’s urban planning still builds on that ”knowledge,” which, at its base, is entirely built around the experiences of that select group. That means that, in educational institutions where urban planning or architecture is taught, but also in the work field, such as at the municipality, one kind of experience is still held as the norm. That knowledge is built upon. But very many other groups in society have not had the power to be allowed to determine what knowledge is important.
The lack of other perspectives has serious consequences for people’s daily lives. In her book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez uses the example of cars being crash-tested with dolls. Those dolls are tuned to the weight and size of the average man. But for women, the centre of gravity is somewhere else. Because that information is not factored into the design of cars, women are 47% more likely to die in car accidents. If we extend this to a larger scale, we begin to see how the lack of certain knowledge can affect all facets of our lives in the city.
But even if current design practices are transformed, we are not there yet. After all, the built environment retains norms of the past: after all, it is literally ‘’set in stone’’. One of the most poignant examples of this is the omnipresence of our colonial history. Amsterdam’s inner city brims with coloniality. Consider the Palace on Dam Square, figurehead of the ”Golden Age.” On its pediment, Amsterdam receives gifts from enslaved people. The city still boasts dozens of such structures. A note making it clear that this splendor is the result of exploitation, slavery, and murder is largely absent. The result is that the city exudes approval, pride, and whiteness as a persistent norm. The racist, colonial violence inflicted by the Netherlands remains invisible.
The physical environment is always in ongoing conversation with society. This is a society in which people of color experience racist disadvantage, prejudice, and police brutality on a regular basis. The colonial legacy thus lives on, in material and immaterial ways, in the city.
A city can propagate social relations, but also reproduce them. I am thinking, for example, of anti-roofless architecture. Armrests in the middle of benches, or spikes on the concrete under an overpass, make it impossible to sleep in certain places. Such designs are presented as aesthetic, but are meanwhile deliberately used to get homeless people out of the streets. This is legitimized under the guise of public safety. Anti-homeless architecture drives people without homes even further to the literal and symbolic edges of the city. Thus, the invisibility and dehumanization of this group of city dwellers is normalized.
The alternative. Hope for the future
In the above, I have shown how our cities are designed, built, and governed based on the needs of a select few. Everyone else’s experiences count as less important. A city ”of and for everyone” is, at this point, very far from us. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Countless initiatives reclaim their space in the city every day. I think of Bar Bario or FiteQlub, which specifically provide a place for the LGBTIA+ community of color. Or Queer Skateclub on Sundays, who immerse the park near the Eye museum in rainbow flags and queer joy every week. It is critical to support grassroots initiatives like these, financially and otherwise. The knowledge needed to make this city truly belong to everyone is already here. It just needs to be legitimized. That also means that our decision-making processes need to be democratized. The top-down approach no longer serves us. To move forward, the experiences of all kinds of people must be considered real knowledge.
Want to learn more?
- Leslie Kern’s book ‘Feminist City’ lays an enormously useful foundation for understanding the ways in which our cities foster structural inequalities.
- Caroline Criado Perez’s book “Invisible Women” provides insight into the ways in which science, design, health care and policy take away from women’s experience.
- Dr. Alana Osborne’s work delves deeper into the coloniality and whiteness of places.
- The websites Failed Architecture and Mapping Slavery depict the colonial history of Amsterdam. Or join a Colonial Heritage Tour.
- The instagram account @dutch_hostile_architecture collects examples of anti-homeless architecture in the Netherlands. This article takes a closer look at the phenomenon.