Building Equitable Cities Speaker Series

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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has amplified existing socioeconomic inequities. Nowhere has this been clearer than in our cities.

Throughout 2022, we, along our community partners, will host quarterly talks related to addressing inequities and disrupting systemic bias in the establishment and development of cities, including how we can build back differently as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

This speaker series is a part of our ongoing work to share diverse perspectives on issues of equity, inclusion and development. This is also an opportunity for imagining new social possibilities and new ways of thinking through the old challenges of access, sustainability and social justice.

We will share the topics for future sessions closer to the session dates. We also share regular content on this page related to the equity and city-building. To get updates on this speaker series, click the “Subscribe” button.

Community Partners

We’re presenting the Building Equitable Cities Speaker Series in partnership with the Feminist Shift, YW Kitchener-Waterloo, YWCA Cambridge, and Women's College Hospital.


The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has amplified existing socioeconomic inequities. Nowhere has this been clearer than in our cities.

Throughout 2022, we, along our community partners, will host quarterly talks related to addressing inequities and disrupting systemic bias in the establishment and development of cities, including how we can build back differently as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

This speaker series is a part of our ongoing work to share diverse perspectives on issues of equity, inclusion and development. This is also an opportunity for imagining new social possibilities and new ways of thinking through the old challenges of access, sustainability and social justice.

We will share the topics for future sessions closer to the session dates. We also share regular content on this page related to the equity and city-building. To get updates on this speaker series, click the “Subscribe” button.

Community Partners

We’re presenting the Building Equitable Cities Speaker Series in partnership with the Feminist Shift, YW Kitchener-Waterloo, YWCA Cambridge, and Women's College Hospital.

  • Right to home: Shaping how we plan Kitchener

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    By Janine Oosterveld, Manager, Customer Experience & Project Management

    The right to home is a simple concept that is complex to solve. Leilani Farha’s talk on the value of a human right to housing framework provided insight into both the shift in mindset that is needed and what that might look like for local governments. She explains the right to housing as the right to live somewhere in peace, security and with dignity. Examples include:

    • Security of tenure – where a person enjoys living without fear of eviction;
    • Affordability – relative to the needs of the household;
    • Decent housing that is structurally sound, sanitary without risks like infestations or black mold; and,
    • Cultural appropriateness – including housing that is relevant for Indigenous peoples, newcomers and intergenerational families.

    Leilani explains that a human rights-based approach shifts the framing from people as beneficiaries to people as entitled to safe, secure, and decent housing. Governments, at all levels, are then accountable to people and people are ‘rights holders’, where access to housing is the norm and delivered equitably across jurisdictions.

    So how does this apply to Kitchener’s urban planning framework?

    I appreciated Leilani’s acknowledgment of Kitchener as a good example through the Housing for All Strategy. Kitchener’s leadership chose to identify and tackle things that are within our jurisdiction and ability to change, despite housing falling under the mandate of the Region of Waterloo within our two-tiered municipal system. This was a significant shift in approach that has led to several City actions including affordable housing incentives (e.g. development charge incentives and application fee waivers), streamlining development approvals for affordable and supportive housing, and advocacy, which included working with our Regional counterparts to provide temporary locations for A Better Tent City.

    As a member of Kitchener’s planning team for the past 10 years, I have witnessed the transition and we continue to make changes with so much more work to be done. As planners, one of the primary principles of equity is that we cannot “people zone” – meaning, bylaws cannot be set up to exclude a certain group of people. Kitchener’s planning tools allow a broad range of housing types to meet the needs of current and future residents as they change over time. One example is “single family” zoning where it is illegal to have more than one dwelling unit on a property. Since the 1990s, Kitchener has been a leader in this area by permitting duplexes in most single detached residential zones. More recently, updates to the Zoning Bylaw over the past year allowed additional dwelling units in the form of backyard homes and the flexibility to provide up to three dwelling units on approximately 25,000 properties.

    One of Leilani’s examples included lived experience in the decision-making process. All too often, decision-makers have the privilege of safe and secure housing and may not fully appreciate the systemic barriers affecting access to housing. Kitchener has been integrating lived experience into our engagement practices. Most recently, the Kitchener Housing Lived Expertise Working Group was established in partnership with the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region to guide and monitor the implementation of the Housing for All recommendations using a right to housing lens.

    We have also begun a community-led update to our vision for Downtown which includes a Downtown Community Working Group whose membership includes those with lived experience. This group will work collaboratively with City staff to update Kitchener’s vision for Downtown to recognize the evolving needs of our community in an area that is growing quickly.

    Leilani identified that this is a complex problem that cannot be turned around overnight and multiple strategies are needed. Kitchener residents also understand the importance of affordable housing as reflected through the 2022 Environics survey conducted as part of the City’s strategic plan process. Through this survey, 33% of residents identified housing affordability as the single most important issue facing the city. Residents of Kitchener, through the survey, also recognized the need to coordinate with other levels of government to fund and support programs. Cross-jurisdictional work is ongoing and must continue from the national down to the local level to support equity and the right to housing.

    My questions for you are:

    There were many housing advocates, residents and development professionals who attended or watched the recording. Considering the right to housing is complex and requires multiple actions, what additional steps should we take, collectively, beyond the work already underway?

    Kitchener’s planning team is open to exploring innovations in housing policies and tools. As we start to plan for an update to Kitchener’s Official Plan, which is our long-range policy document that guides growth and development 20 to 30-years into the future, how can we better integrate the right to housing into the Official Plan?

    How do we hear from those that are most impacted by housing scarcity and affordability to ensure that their voices are captured and included as we look forward to plan Kitchener’s future?

    What do you think? Add your comments below.


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  • City of Kitchener continues Building Equitable Cities Speaker Series

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    The City of Kitchener, along with its community partners, has continued its Building Equitable Cities Speaker Series. On Tuesday, April 26 the second session of the series was held, featuring Leilani Farha, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing. This talk explored the human right to housing framework and its implications for local governments.

    A recording of the session can be viewed here.

    Leilani Farha is the Global Director of The Shift, an international movement to secure the right to housing and the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing (2014- 2020). The Shift was launched in 2017 with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and United Cities and Local Government and works with multi-level stakeholders around the world including with several city governments in North America and Europe.

    Leilani’s work is animated by the principle that housing is a social good, not a commodity. She has helped develop global human rights standards on the right to housing, including through her topical reports on homelessness, the financialization of housing, informal settlements, rights-based housing strategies, and the first UN guidelines for the implementation of the right to housing.

    She is the central character in the award-winning documentary PUSH regarding the financialization of housing, directed by the Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten. PUSH is screening around the world and to continue its momentum, Leilani and Fredrik now co-host a podcast – PUSHBACK talks about finance, housing and human rights. She also participates with the City of Kitchener on the Right to Home Municipal Working Group with other large cities across the country, focusing on helping municipalities implement and advocate for the right to housing.

    Throughout 2022, the City of Kitchener and our community partners are hosting quarterly talks related to addressing inequities and disrupting systemic bias in the establishment and development of cities, including how we can build back differently as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

    We’re presenting the Building Equitable Cities Speaker Series in partnership with the Feminist Shift, YW Kitchener-Waterloo, YWCA Cambridge, and Women's College Hospital.

    Subscribe for updates using the Stay Informed button.

  • The Value of a Human Right to Housing Framework for Local Governments

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    April 26, 2022

    12:00-1:00p.m.

    ASL Interpreters will be present

    In June 2019, the National Housing Strategy Act (NHSA) received Royal Ascension. For the first time in Canada’s history, the right to housing was enshrined in domestic legislation. Canada’s first-ever National Housing Strategy (NHS) preceded this historic Act. The NHS was a 10-year, $70 billion plan to reduce homelessness and housing need. The Canadian Government now recognizes that to address the housing crisis we need to change how we view housing. We need to see it as a human right, not a commodity.

    To advance the right to adequate housing in Canada, all levels of government have a key role to play. Local governments are in a unique position because of how close they are to residents. They are also responsible for related programming and services. This includes housing and homelessness programs, leading urban planning, and enforcing building standards. In this presentation, Leilani Farha will explore the transformational human right to housing framework. She will discuss its implications for local governments like the City of Kitchener, who has adopted this framework.

    Join the Conversation

    Following the session, keep the conversation going by visiting the Forum on this page. Share your thoughts and reflections on the event with others interested in this topic. Subscribe to this page using the 'subscribe' button to be notified about new content related to this session and future speakers in the seires.

    About the Speaker

    Leilani Farha is the Global Director of The Shift, an international movement to secure the right to housing and the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing (2014- 2020). The Shift was launched in 2017 with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and United Cities and Local Government and works with multi-level stakeholders around the world including with several city governments in North America and Europe. Leilani’s work is animated by the principle that housing is a social good, not a commodity. She has helped develop global human rights standards on the right to housing, including through her topical reports on homelessness, the financialization of housing, informal settlements, rights-based housing strategies, and the first UN Guidelines for the implementation of the right to housing. She is the central character in the award-winning documentary PUSH regarding the financialization of housing, directed by the Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten. PUSH is screening around the world and to continue its momentum Leilani and Fredrik now co-host a podcast – PUSHBACK Talks - about finance, housing and human rights.

  • New Feminist Shift Podcast with Leslie Kern

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    We are excited to be sharing a new podcast created by one of our partners in this speaker series, The Feminist Shift.

    Listen to the podcast at S2: E4 Building Feminist Cities with Urbanist Leslie Kern

    Feminist Shift recently interviewed Leslie Kern, our speaker from Jan. 31, and asked her to respond to two Kitchener-based case studies. In the episode, they explore how cities can better support women in caregiving roles and how to build safety into our city for low-income and homeless women. Referencing urban planning and drawing inspiration from other feminist projects they reimagine our community's transportation system, infrastructure, and even the safety value of payphones.

    Share your comments below. What are your reflections on the podcast? How do you plan to respond to creating a feminist city?

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

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    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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  • Is the train schedule sexist?

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    Read on for a summary of Leslie Kern’s talk on “How Cities Fail Women”. This includes key themes, actions and ways that you can learn more about how to build a feminist city.

    While we do not have a recording of Leslie’s talk, we committed to sharing key themes from the session with you. Here are some of the things that we captured as important takeaways:


    • Cities fail women in a variety of ways: safety, housing, jobs, mobility, care work.
    • One of Leslie’s arguments is that gendered exclusion is built into cities. For example, city planning practices and policy-making, infrastructure design, transportation, etc.
    • Leslie’s work has been animated by the question: who is the city for?
    • Everything from the height requirements to reach something, the strength that it takes to push open a revolving door, the temperature of an office building - these are set to some idea of normal for a male body.
    • City builders, including architects and chief planners, have historically been, and are currently, largely male-dominated positions.
    • Rather than a city for everyone, we have made a man-made City, and this isn’t a new concept – it goes back to the 19th century.
    • Transportation is another example. Leslie posed the questions: is the train schedule or bus route sexist? Her answer is ‘yes’, there is a sexist impact. Decades of research have shown that women’s mobility and men’s mobility through the city look quite different. Women are less likely to have a 9-5 commute. Also, their journeys aren’t linear but circuitous and they often involve ‘trip chaining’. For example, they might drop kids off at daycare, then go to check on a loved one, then pick up dinner all without returning home.
    • There is hope: it isn’t inevitable that men will only design spaces for men, and we don’t need to bulldoze cities!
    • What if we focus on having different people in the room? Focus on the people, places and activities that have been the most marginalized? Critically evaluate what we use urban spaces for? Take into account and think about how to support the different kinds of labour like care work that we need for human flourishing? Emphasize the needs of excluded or ignored groups? Considered special interest or marginalized groups at the forefront in decision-making?


    What can we do about it? What are some practical ways we can apply these learnings?


    • Leslie provided several tangible examples of how we can build more equitable cities:
      1. Shift curriculum for urban-related professions to include more diverse views
      2. A paradigm shift in how we engage the community around development:
        • Shift from viewing it as a burden to a more inclusive and cost-effective process in the long run. Getting it right the first time saves costly fixes later.
        • Go beyond traditional, one time engagement. Making people come to a meeting on a specific date/time will not give you a diversity of views
        • Go to where people are at. Ask local agencies how their clients want to be engaged.
        • Shift thinking of community participants to co-creators in our changing and growing city
      3. Undertake safety audits with community members, planners and developers. Physically go into spaces and experience them in a holistic way instead of looking at sets of drawings at a desk. Ask where are there opportunities for change?
      4. Address challenges holistically instead of in isolation of other intersecting issues. Consider gender, race and colonialism (e.g., climate crisis, active transportation)
      5. Collectivism is an important way to get voices heard. Become a chorus together, creating solidarity across many different groups.
      6. Leverage learnings from the pandemic and don’t go back to the ‘old way’ of doing things (e.g. closed streets for pedestrians, etc.)


    • Leslie also highlighted several innovative and evidence-based examples of tackling gender inequity:
      1. Los Angeles, C.A.: Gender Action Plan to support gender equity in public transit. Based on the recommendations from the 2019 Understanding How Women Travel study.
      2. Quito, Ecuador: Quito Cuentame (“tell me” booths where women can report experiences of sexual harrassment)
      3. United Kingdom: Rail to Refuge UK intervention for domestic violence. Train operators cover the cost of train tickets for anyone escaping abuse who needs to find refuge accommodation.
      4. Scotland, U.K.: “Don’t be that guy” campaign. Encourages men to look first to themselves when considering how to tackle questions of violence against women.
      5. Barcelona, Spain: Policy changes to address safety for women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities at the street/block level.
      6. Stockholm, Sweden: Ban on sexist and racist advertising in public spaces, like bus shelters.
      7. India: Mysafetipin. A digital tool that collects data from women who experience fear and harassment in urban areas. Helps other women make informed decisions about trip routes, etc.


    Do you want to learn more on this topic? Here are some books referenced by Leslie:

    • Feminist City: Claiming space in a man-made world (Author: Leslie Kern)
    • Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men (Author: Caroline Criado Perez)
    • Making Space: Women and the man-made environment (Author: Matrix)


  • How Cities Fail Women: Toward Safety and Inclusion in the Feminist City

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    January 31, 2022

    12:00-1:00p.m.

    Leslie Kern, author of Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World, will examine how cities have long failed women by refusing to acknowledge gender differences in the ways people move, work, live, and play in urban environments. She contends that women have often been excluded or sidelined in planning, policymaking, and consultation processes regarding transit, housing, jobs, and safety; and will explore best and emerging innovative practices for improving safety from gender-based violence in our cities.

    Join the Conversation

    If you want to send in a question before the session, please do by adding to the Your Questions board on this page. If there is time at the end of the session, you may also be able to ask the speaker questions using the chat in Zoom.

    Following the session, keep the conversation going by visiting the Forum on this page. Share your thoughts and reflections on the event with others interested in this topic. On the day of the talk, we will post a discussion question to get the conversation started.

    About the Speaker

    Leslie Kern, PhD, is the author of two books on gender and cities, including Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World (Verso). She is an associate professor of geography and environment and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University, in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. Kern’s research has earned a Fulbright Visiting Scholar Award, a National Housing Studies Achievement Award, and several national multi-year grants. She is also an award-winning teacher. Kern’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vox, Bloomberg CityLab, and Refinery29. She is also an academic career coach, where she helps academics find meaning and joy in their work. Kern’s next book project is an intersectional guide to gentrification, forthcoming from Between the Lines Books and Verso in 2022.


Page last updated: 18 May 2022, 12:27 PM