Building a Feminist City: Reflections from Kitchener’s Urban Planning team

By Janine Oosterveld, Manager, Customer Experience & Project Management

As an urban planner and a parent, Dr. Leslie Kern’s message of inclusion through policy and design is both powerful and empowering. She asked us to consider: Who builds our city? Whose bodies are the norm? Who is the city for? And most importantly: What can we do about it? Her questions resonated with me. As a planner, I want land use policies and the design of our city to be comfortable, welcoming, and safe for everyone. But planning for everyone means that there must be room for people of various genders, ages, abilities and cultural backgrounds to share how they feel as they go about their daily activities so that the city works for those that don’t fit the mold of an average, middle-aged, white male body.

The Planning team will use the Building Equitable Cities speaker series along with current events and social themes to discuss: How does urban planning need to evolve to support a more inclusive city? Where are we hitting the mark? Where can we continue to strive for better?

I am proud of Kitchener’s newly established Equity, Anti-Racism and Indigenous Initiatives team and I’m excited to see how we will partner with them and our community members, as well as local agencies and organizations, to learn from their personal and professional knowledge and lived experience. We also recognize that all staff play a part in creating an equitable city. Equity isn’t an “add on”– it needs to be built into everything that we do - how we grow our team, how we engage and develop planning policy, and how we make decisions in the design of public spaces and development projects.

From a feminist lens, Kitchener’s planning team has a new female director, Rosa Bustamante, who joined the City late 2020 and has led the team through a season of significant change, including a reorganization that has both grown and refined the team while delivering on key initiatives that are reshaping how we plan and provide service. Shattering the trend that Dr. Kern identified - that most architects are male and far fewer female planners or architects are in leadership positions, we’re proud to be able to share that within our new team, four of six leadership positions are held by women. I want to highlight a few key initiatives, as examples, that we are particularly proud of.

Through the lease of City lands and streamlining and accelerating development approvals, Kitchener supported the YW Kitchener Waterloo through the first phase of their affordable housing project with the support of federal funding. Creative problem-solving and collaboration between staff and project partners helped deliver housing for 41 women, vulnerable to homelessness, to move into stable, supportive housing in record time – 72 days from project start to final development approvals. Construction is expected to be complete in early 2022. This year, we are also excited to assist again on the second phase of this project, to support another 10 women and their families!

Watch a video of the YWCA Supportive Housing being built

Through a multi-year review of the City’s development services, we have been striving to remove systemic barriers to make it easier for residents to understand how the city is growing and changing, what planning and development is about and how their voice can be heard as our dynamic city changes and grows. To do this, changes have been made to how information is shared and stories are told. Public notices for development proposals includes visual signs and postcards that are easier to understand. The postcards now reach more people by doubling the circulation distance around a property and include renters in addition to property owners. There are new tools and resources available online too – like Planning 101 training and our new planning applications map. We want everyone who is a part of a neighbourhood or would like to join one feel more comfortable getting involved in city planning discussions.

While we are proud of these accomplishments, we continue to strive for better. As an example, Kitchener’s Urban Design Manual includes design guidelines about safety and family-friendly design. To give an example of “whose bodies are the norm?”, Dr. Kern identified that when designing a tall building, engineers have historically used a typical male body type for determining whether pedestrians will be comfortable walking or sitting near a tall building on a windy day. This really resonated with me: the criteria does not consider a woman carrying a child and a bag of groceries or an elderly person with an assistive mobility device – both will be affected more by a wind gust. The Planning team plans to take a feminist lens on future updates to the City’s Urban Design Manual, which provides detailed guidance for new development projects; for example: updating or creating new standards for wind studies, lighting levels, and active transportation from a feminist perspective.

From an engagement perspective, we are now gathering socio-demographic information from participants to understand who is giving us feedback and, more importantly, who is missing in the conversation. We want to use this data to address existing gaps in who we’re engaging and test out new, more inclusive approaches to engagement. Dr. Kern suggested connecting with agencies and groups that serve women, as an example, to ask for their ideas or use their networks. We want to dig deeper into why some women may not be participating and remove barriers to engaging with us. For example, they may not feel their voice matters or they may be suffering from exhaustion with work, caring for others, and pandemic stress - needing a quicker, easier ways to share their feedback.

The Planning team is on a journey to continue to grow our skills and knowledge and challenge the status quo so that we can better meet the needs of the entire community and support inclusion and belonging. We invite you to join us on that journey: participate in future Building Equitable Cities speaker series events; we invite you to watch the Planning 101 training; and engage with us to learn more about how you can be involved in shaping your community. Challenge us by sharing your ideas: what might we be missing from not having walked in your shoes? When people of different genders, ages, abilities, cultures and experiences are involved in creating planning policies, our city will continue to grow to become more accessible and welcoming to all.

Comments welcome!

  • What are your reflections on Leslie Kern's talk?
  • How would you respond to Janine's question "what might the city be missing from not having walked in your shoes"?
  • How might we apply the principles of the feminist city here in Kitchener?
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Thank you to everyone who joined us for this five-part speaker series in 2022/2023. Together, we explored topics related to how we can make city infrastructure and services more equitable and accessible for all residents. The speaker series has now concluded. If you have any questions, please contact the Planning division at

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