Feminist urbanism and ecology: putting life and care at the center

The city is not neutral, it expresses and materializes various relationships of power and gender. This article, originally published by Ciudad Feminista, will deal with the ways in which the patriarchal system is embodied in cities and, secondly, what is its relationship with the environmental crisis that in recent years has been conceptualized as “climate change”. Finally, an outline of how urban planning with a feminist – more specifically, “ecofeminist” – perspective will be presented, highlighting how it represents an option and an urgency to question traditional urban planning and to propose a new way of building cities: putting the sustainability of life and care at the center.

Urban segregation and the sexual division of space

According to Valdivia (2018), starting from the Industrial Revolution, a segmentation of urban spaces began according to the activities that take place in them, giving way to a functional and “rational” urban planning. This segmentation would be developed in accordance with the sexual division of labor and the definition that those spaces where productive life takes place (paid and political work) is linked to the male “public space” and that related to the reproductive field (care and maintenance of life), to the “private space” or intimate, historically confining women in it. This binary segregation is not less, since its repercussion in the urban area means that cities were not designed for all the people who inhabit them, much less consider satisfying care, directly influencing the quality of life of those who deal with these tasks. In other words, they reproduce a material reality where there is a certain prioritization of activities and functions, both in urban design and in its own ecosystem, establishing an androcentric perspective in the spatial configuration (Muxi, Casanovas, Ciocoletto, Fonseca, & Gutiérrez, 2011; Ortíz, 2007; Valdivia, 2018). In this sense, we could speak of a sexual division of space, as Valdivia (2018) well conceptualizes.

The experience of women in urban space is different from that of men, but it would be wrong to reproduce the same binary logic to understand this reality. If we apply an intersectional approach, we can affirm that within the variables that determine the urban experience those related to age, racialization, migrant status, disability or reduced mobility, and many others that provide us with an overview are also crossed wider and composed of all people in their immense diversity, opposing the universalization of “man” as a reference subject to build the city. Traditional urbanism is built on this false universality of humanity, which, as Muxi et al. affirm (2011), hides the real subject of law who is the one who has adapted this false neutrality to their needs.

Urban functionalism within the framework of a development model rooted in neoliberalism has tended to design and produce spaces that are efficient for production, physically and socially segmenting the city, separating the areas that comprise it. In “modern” cities, there tend to be various specialized areas, whether residential, commercial, productive or transport, that generate a segregation of uses and fragmentation in the social, economic and functional spheres; a spatial and territorial configuration detached from the territory in terms of its ecological capacity, placing urban planning at the service of the capitalist economic system (Herrero, 2011; Miralles, 1998). In this regard, Montoya (2012) adds that cities have been characterized by being the scene of certain violence and authoritarianism of the public powers and the establishment of exclusive gender orders, which have implied the differential enjoyment of the right to the city.

Urban functionalism within the framework of a development model rooted in neoliberalism has tended to design and produce spaces that are efficient for production, physically and socially segmenting the city, separating the areas that comprise it.

If the space is built according to values ​​that prioritize the productive, and this is structured based on a flow system, it is correct to consider that the current urban highways have gradually become the backbone of modern neoliberal cities and that their element revitalizer is made up of the private car. This was already predicted by Jane Jacobs when she referred to the importance of the streets as a public space par excellence, “its most vital organs”, but which, intensively, during the 20th century, had been stripped of people to accommodate motorized traffic (Jacobs, 1961).

On neoliberalism and the deterioration of the environment

In addition to this panorama, the systematic deterioration of the environment has worsened in recent years as a direct consequence of the neoliberal model and the capitalist production system, which has installed a global ecological crisis that puts the sustainability of life at risk. However, it is not correct to affirm that environmental deterioration has a unique foothold in neoliberalism. Anthropocentrism, a vision and practice that confers a superiority of human beings over nature and considers it only indirectly (Ferry, 1992; Heffes, 2014), is the idea that underlies and sustains “modern society”. Nature is understood as what surrounds the human being, the periphery and not the center, which is why it cannot be considered as a subject of law, an entity that possesses an absolute value in itself (Ferry, 1992: 32). Therefore, the current economic and political system is not only neoliberal but also anthropocentric. Currently, the physical metabolism of the western economy exceeds the regeneration capacity of the planet, as a consequence of increased production of all kinds, a result mainly associated with the exploitation of fossil fuels and soil (Herrero, 2012).

The introduction of the neoliberal model in Chile was carried out during the dictatorship process and managed to penetrate all possible areas of Chilean society. In the late 1970s, this resulted in the formulation of a new National Urban Development Policy, where it was established that “the development modality currently applied in the country and its consequent economic and social policies have made it necessary to review the approach and the technical and legal instruments with which, in the past, the urban development process has been conducted”(MINVU, 1981: 10, cited in Daher, 1991). The same document determines that “urban land is not a scarce resource” and that “land use is defined by its greater profitability. Land is a freely tradable resource […] Procedures will be defined and restrictions will be eliminated in order to allow the natural growth of urban areas, following market trends” (MINVU, 1981a: 10 and 13, cited in Daher, 1991). This produced very serious consequences due to incentives at the level of private investment and the systematic expansion to foreign markets. The economic opening of Chile transformed the entire territory, carrying out a process of extractivism as a way by which humanity appropriates the resources of Nature and inserts them into different productive strategies (Gudynas, 2016). But there is also an urban extractivism, a concept coined by Vásquez (2016) to refer to the typology of the city from the neoliberal model, mainly in Latin America, which is related to the housing, social and, above all, environmental problems of the city.

Free-market policies in Chile transformed the entire territory, carrying out a process of extractivism as a way by which humanity appropriates the resources of Nature and inserts them into different productive strategies.

In the report published in 2019 by IQAir AirVisual, the countries with the worst pollution rates in Latin America and the Caribbean are Peru, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Puerto Rico. In the case of Chile, the country has the highest pollution levels of MP 2.5, registering five cities within the most polluted in the world (IQAir Air Visual, 2018). The study considers that among the reasons for the high levels of environmental pollution are emissions from agriculture, motorized transport, as well as the burning of biomass for heating and domestic and commercial cooking. This is consistent with the Fourth Report of the State of the Environment of the Ministry of the Environment of Chile, where it is specified that the country’s air quality is an aspect of great concern, and that in 2017, more than 8 million inhabitants of the the country were under the exposure of average concentrations of fine particulate matter (MP2.5) higher than the norm, estimating around 3,500 cases of premature mortality from cardiopulmonary diseases associated with chronic exposure to this pollutant, among other impacts (Ministry of the Environment Environment, 2018: 7).

The same report addresses the main areas of pollution, among which are waste management, water, the ozone layer, soils, biodiversity, among others. For the contemplated areas, Chile exceeds international standards and positions itself as a country that, despite assuming certain international commitments, has been unable to reduce the environmental impact related to the way in which the country operates and structures both its economy and its way of living.

It is important to consider that, according to data from the World Bank (2019), currently more than 88% of people living in urban spaces in Chile are exposed to extremely high levels of contamination on a daily basis – which is exacerbated in certain periods of the year due to, for example, the change in the matrix of certain pollutants and ventilation conditions, such as in the case of large cities in the winter period.

Ecofeminism: the urgency of placing life at the center

At this point it is important to articulate why ecofeminism – through the lense of feminist urbanism – is a bet that combines the previously exposed problems, such as the sexual division of space and its harmful consequences for women, and the ecological crisis that is intrinsic in the neoliberal urban model.

For Yayo Herrero (2018) the neoliberal city and neoliberalism as an economic system ignores what is essential to sustain life, building forms of production and consumption and even institutions that are organized around priorities that collide with the material bases that ensure our own existence as humans. In this sense, it maintains that people are eco-dependent, since we are subject to the physical limits of the planet. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, 2018), for this year we had already exceeded four of the nine ecological limits established by the Stockholm Resilience Center, which are: stratospheric ozone layer, biodiversity, chemicals dispersion, climate change, ocean acidification, freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle, Earth system, the contributions of nitrogen and phosphorous in the biosphere and oceans, and atmospheric aerosol (Rockström, et al., 2009).

The neoliberal city and neoliberalism as an economic system ignores what is essential to sustain life, building forms of production and consumption and even institutions that are organized around priorities that collide with the material bases that ensure our own existence as humans.

At the same time that humanity is eco-dependent and that the material basis of our existence is increasingly at risk, we are also vulnerable bodies. This means that sooner or later our lives will have some dependency and will require care, whether from birth and childhood, illness, old age or functional diversity.

These activities, those related to care, as stated at the beginning of this article, have been historically attributed to women. It is not that there is an intricate or essential relationship between women and nature. The sexual division of labor and its consequent gender roles are a social construction, the foundations of which are found in the partnership. However, it is essential to make visible the leading participation of women in the resistance for the right to live, in defense of the territories, against the extractivism in whatever geographical context, for the right to decent housing and for maintaining life and care as a minimum condition for human existence (Vasquez, 2016). It is therefore essential, as Vásquez (2016) asserts, the encounter between feminism and ecology to address the problems in urban contexts against the neoliberal extractive model that is installed in modern cities.

In this regard, environmentalism and feminism feed directly into each other, since they have a common source of struggle: subordination, control and violence. Thus, ecofeminism formulates a theoretical discourse that connects the oppression of women with the domination of nature (Heffes, 2014) and seeks to find a way out of the current ecological crisis through the emancipation of all people, criticizing the current model of development which is based on androcentrism and anthropocentrism (Herrero, 2018; Perales, 2014; Pérez Neira & Soler Montiel, 2013). Ecofeminism is positioned against extractivist neoliberalism, but it also criticizes the concept of sustainable development and environmental activism or shallow ecology, since they do not necessarily question the economic model or the development paradigm, but instead – in many cases – seek ways to mitigate it to maintain a conventional standard of living by opposing certain radical changes (Monasterio & Rico, 2008; Ferry, 1992; Heffes, 2014). In this way, the proposal of ecofeminism is more related to de-growth theories and to political and social ecology.

Ecofeminism formulates a theoretical discourse that connects the oppression of women with the domination of nature and seeks to find a way out of the current ecological crisis through the emancipation of all people, criticizing the current model of development.

When we talk about women and segregation in the framework of the sexual division of space, we also mean that women have been invisible in planning processes. The demands of women in cities are related, for example, to the integration into the city, equal access to public services and the improvement of common spaces. The latter, in particular, is the most deprived of urban environments: in order to favour the flow of cars, the public space dedicated to people (who occupy it, either in their active or rest modes, and make social interaction through it) is more and more restricted. Moreover, women are the most affected by the increasing space given to private transportation, not only because they lack public spaces of encounter and communitarian equipment, but also because they are the main users of public transport (Vásquez, 2016; Jirón, 2007). Ecofeminism thus promotes an approach that is centred not only on the lack, but mainly on the importance of considering care to think about an ecologically and socially sustainable society, through values ​​such as reciprocity, cooperation, mutual support and complementarity (Svampa, 2015).

Finally, it is important to anticipate that there are no universal recipes and that social transformation, both human and urban, will be subject to material conditions, social organization, and the prevailing political will. The transition to an ecologically sustainable society and the production of cities that follow those values ​​will not be possible in the current economic model or under the logic of hegemonic anthropocentrism that places the human being at the center of life, giving a secondary role to all the rest of the living organisms on the planet. There are no middle points when the scientific pressure is clear when stating that the conditions of environmental deterioration are advancing by leaps and bounds giving rise to a climate crisis that puts at risk the material bases that allow life in its broadest sense. Both feminism, environmentalism and urban resistance are called to contribute to the generation of alternatives with a local and contextual perspective, which come to dispute the forms of production as the way we live, rejecting economic growth as a parameter of social and collective benefit, since it is in the name of this same growth that justifications are made to take away labor rights, destroy the territory, eliminate public services, expel and murder those who resist extractivism, privatize basic services and pushing the planet to the brink of irriversible climate change.


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Valentina Pineda is an activist and feminist geographer based in Chile.
This article was originally published in Spanish by Ciudad Feminista.