Negative City Experience: Gender

One of the most common experiences in a urban area is a negative sidewalk interaction on the basis of gender. Catcalling is a type of street harassment that often involves a man as initiator, in a public space, verbally trying to capture the attention of woman, who he doesn’t previously know, using sexual comments (di Leonardo via Bowman 1993). The male initiators of sidewalk interactions often defend this behavior by arguing that not only is this behavior a polite form of civil discourse but that their comments are complimentary. Campaigns going as far back as the early 20th century show women (and men) trying to fight against this misconception and explain that this behavior is unwanted. While other negative interactions are based on the person being undesirable, catcalling happens when a man wants a woman to know that he finds her desirable.

The experience is common and has been studied by many different types of scholars including feminist geographers who have interrogated the fear of violence and the way this changes the way women move through spaces.

Notes on Attraction, repulsion and desirability

What am I measuring? And why? One of my jokey subtitles for my dissertation was ‘quantifying the oppression olympics.’ You know the ‘oppression olympics‘ that ‘game’ you play with your friends at cocktail parties competing over who has it worse, disabled people or trans people? Black people or Latinx? It’s not a fun or particularly useful game because pain is pain, comparison isn’t usually going to get you to improve your cocktail party or lead to understanding. But exploring the question of which demographic groups are most and least respected in the US seems worthwhile.

Another way of putting this is social desirability. A friend once joked that the most powerful people in America were old rich white men and young attractive women. The term social capital is used to refer to education and other attributes that make people attractive in the economy. Social desirability includes the more attributes that make people attractive in sidewalk interactions, which often happen very quickly. On the nature vs nurture debate, I think social desirability is more nature, since it has a lot to do with what you look like, while social capital is more nurture. While completely subjective ‘attractiveness’ is also completely socially constructed, overtly political, and objective in the sense that you are treating someone else as an object rather than a subject. While it’s true for someone to say ‘I’m just not attracted to black women’ this truth was not achieved in an apolitical media vacuum and OKCupid stats bare this out.

With the recent incel news came this article: Does Anyone Have a Right to Sex. In the article, Amia Srinivasan problematizes sex-positivity which, she argues, covers for misogyny, racism, ableism, transphobia and every other oppressive system under “the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference.” While gay men understand and problematize this phenomenon with thing the webseries ‘What the Flip’. However, writes Srinivasan,” straight people – or should I say, white, able-bodied, cis straight people – aren’t much in the habit of thinking there’s anything wrong with how they have sex.”

Happy Cities

Many urban planners have historically focused on positive interactions in cities. Scholars like Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte and more recently James C. Scott, Jeff Speck and Charles Montgomery talk about idealistic communities where everyone is safe because they are keeping an eye on each other. Jane Jacobs famously asserted:

“This is something everyone already knows:A well-used city street is apt to be a safe street.”

Jacobs argued for ‘sidewalk terms’ and ‘eyes on the street,’ small exchanges and conversations that promote public respect and trust. According to this logic, dense, walkable cities promote neighborhood safety.
These neighborhoods sound like they exist in a bygone era, when life was simpler, we knew our neighbors, people weren’t on their phones all the time, kids played outside because crime was low and the air was smog-free. Through people-centered design and transit-oriented development New Urbanists like Charles Montgomery hope to build Happy Cities. The ideal city behind these positive interactions is a communitarian one (according to Martin de Waal’s urban ideal types), focused on beneficial ways we interact with each other.

I’ll write more about unhappy cities next week, and how mixed up in the nostalgia and environmentalism is a denial of racial and class differences that lead to public mistrust of certain strangers.

Visualizing Urban Sidewalk Interactons: Thoughts on Baselines

For AAG 2018 I presented during the Mapping Urban In/justice I: Methods session that Taylor Shelton and Dillon Mahmoudi put together in the Digital and Urban Geographies Specialty groups. In my presentation I talked through one of the problems I’m working through. I’m trying to figure out some different ways of displaying my sidewalk interactions data (which I will start collecting soon!). My main task is to create a model with all the variables to look for patterns and associations. The mondo-list of variables include demographics, locations, types of interactions and trip purpose. Particularly with negative interactions I’m interested in whether there are types of participants who experience more negative interactions and whether there are people more likely to be viewed negatively by participants. 

What about the spatial component? What types of maps might be useful? My initial idea was to create a series of heatmaps along demographic lines, kinda like this one I made with Hollaback App Data a few years ago:


But will I have enough data points to see clustering? Heatmaps are problematic objects. One of the biggest problems is establishing a useful baseline. Although I titled my map Manhattan Street Harassment, it’s more of a map of people who had smartphones and had heard of the app, I don’t think it’s a very accurate or precise map of the preponderance of actual instances of street harassment.

In order to establish a baseline for sidewalk interactions I need to first map the locations of potential interactions. I’ll use observations to mark where other people are likely to be and also map out the areas of public space vs private space. I’ll also have data about the likely path that the participant is walking that way I can also note deviations from it. (Thanks to Leah Meisterlin for talking through this with me, and for her great presentation on a more phenomenological approach to visualizing distances).

I have (at least) 3 different types of absence that I need to acknowledge and hopefully display visually. One is lack of data, people whose experiences I haven’t represented. Another is areas where people walked but didn’t record interactions. In addition there’s a particular kind of interaction that I need to track, which is an absence of interaction. It’s well known to men of color, when people cross the street in order to avoid interacting with you. In thinking of how to map absence, I’m indebted to Anthony Robinson and the paper he presented during a Cartography session:

In the same session I was also inspired by Somayeh Dodge’s work on time geography.

I’m also interested in how these visualizations will be perceived or interpreted, particularly by the participants themselves.

Getting In and Out: Who owns black pain?

Some poignant words from Queen Zadie Smith in a recent Harper’s article on the movie Get Out and the painting Open Casket:

Peele has found a concrete metaphor for the ultimate unspoken fear: that to be oppressed is not so much to be hated as obscenely loved. Disgust and passion are intertwined. Our antipathies are simultaneously a record of our desires, our sublimated wishes, our deepest envies. The capacity to give birth or to make food from one’s body; perceived intellectual, physical, or sexual superiority; perceived intimacy with the natural world, animals, and plants; perceived self-sufficiency in a faith or in a community. There are few qualities in others that we cannot transform into a form of fear and loathing in ourselves.


Crime Score as Weapon of Math Destruction

What is Walk Score/Crime Grade?

In the past 10 years Walk Score has gone from a cool GIS startup to a popular Redfin widget, helping people plan their moves and real estate purchases based on a neighborhood’s perceived walkability. Recently Walk Score has begun beta testing Crime Grade, a measure of crime risk near an address.

How does it work?

Walk Score uses a patented system to score locations by amenity access and pedestrian friendliness including population density, block length and intersection density (Walk Score Methodology). Crime Grade‘s letter grade is calculated using a location’s per capital crime rate ranked with other rates around the city.

Why is it problematic?

Jeff Speck’s General Theory of Walkability states:

“…to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting.”

While Walk Score does a pretty good job of measuring useful walks with distance to amenities, it is less effective at measuring a walk’s safety, much less the more subjective aspects of comfort and interest.

Crime Grade is scored based on reported crime: crimes reported to the local police. This is potentially very different from the measure most important to potential walkers; perceived safety. While it is useful to know what crimes are reported to the police, what keeps walkers from a neighborhood is really their perception of what crimes are committed there. Like many crime statistics, measures of perceived crime and disorder are very connected to the racial and economic demographics of the neighborhood (Sampson and Raudenbush 2004). In fact, the most powerful predictor of perceived disorder is neighborhood demographics, stronger than observed disorder and even reported crime (ibid). Crime Grade has the potential to become another in a long line of Weapons of Math Destruction, algorithms that hard code our implicit biases about race and class with potentially drastic consequences.

Potential Solutions

My research attempts to tease out some of the racial, gender and class dynamics in perceived walkability. Using data collected about people’s perceptions of sidewalk interactions I intend to analyze racial/gender and class differences.


Personal finance

I’ve been reading a lot of personal finance books lately. It all started when I read The Millionaire Next Door because it was on sale in the Kindle store ($2!).
Later, I attended a seminar on graduate school personal finance put on by Emily Roberts of
One of the things she said was that when your budget aligns with your values then budgeting stops being an unpleasant chore, it helps you save for things you want. This idea resonated with me and I wanted to read more about it, being a good former graduate student, Roberts included a great bibliography for her presentation. What I found in my own subsequent survey of 5 personal finance books was that all offered similar advice about getting your budget into alignment but that each one had a different way of determining what your values were. I found each one helpful in its own right.

Smart Women Finish Rich, David Bach

One of the books Roberts suggested to help you figure out your values was
Smart Women Finish Rich, by David Bach. I quickly found a cheap copy, devoured the book and began setting up his 7 step plan to get rich. The way Bach suggests determining your values is based on an analogy of a ladder. You brainstorm ideas until you come up with a value you have about money and then you get to the next value (or rung on the ladder) by assuming that you already have that covered. For example, if the #1 reason you value money is to have Peace of Mind, the next step is to assume that you have enough money to have Peace of Mind and then think of what you would want next. In this way you come up with 5 core values. Mine turned out to be:
Peace of Mind
Health/Spirituality(mental health and physical health),
Justice/Charity(paying back the people and institutions that helped me get to where I am),
Joy, Mirth and Great Renown (A line from the Agincourt Song, a song we used to sing at my high school Sing assemblies).

Another thing Bach suggests is talking to rich people you know about how they set up their own finances, so I sent out an email to 10 or so of my parents wealthier friends. In researching some of the books they suggested I came across this stellar roundup of 52 top finance books by Trent Hamm at The Simple Dollar. After reading through this great list, I came up with my own short-list of books that seemed the most relevant to me.

The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke, Suze Orman

This book, and the one below I found in a Little Free Library while walking around the neighborhood. It was on my list so I picked it up along with Stanny’s (they had both been read and heavily annotated by their previous reader). Suze Orman’s advice didn’t differ wildly from David Bach’s but I appreciated the structure of the book and the frank style (also, the classic 90s cover!). The book doesn’t really get into how to set up your values, but rather assumes that everyone reading it is in their twenties or thirties and offers great, if generic, advice to those in that demographic. I’ve left it on my kitchen table, and my housemates have taken to browsing it over meals (we all independently acquired the David Bach book).

Overcoming Underearning, Barbara Stanny

This book is the only one that was not recommended to me and I found problematic, however, I also found it very helpful. Rather than focusing on financial tips like Orman, Stanny focuses on the psychological relationship that people have with money. I’d describe it as a mix between ‘Smart Women Finish Rich’ and ‘The Secret.’ The book is full of Stanny’s trademarked phrases, affirmations, and handouts from workshops she’s led. In order to determine your values about money Stanny shows a list of 100 or so values and has you chose 10, and then narrow them down to 5. Mine were:
Time Alone



After determining these values you are to keep them in mind whenever making any decision in order to make your life (and money) align with your values. I found this and other exercises very helpful in my own personal exploration of my money values.

What Color is Your Parachute, Dick Bolles

This book is a classic for a reason. And when Trent Hamm sang the praises of the flower exercises on his list I quickly added it to my list (as well as my boyfriend’s). In addition to helping to kickstart my job search (which I’ll be doing in the next couple years) the flower exercise helps people determine their values as their relate to jobs and money. The way Bolles helps you find your values is to list 9 and use his prioritizing grid to get to the one value/purpose/life-goal/mission our most identify with. Of the 9 values:
Human Spirit

I most identified with Conscience/Will because of its focus on morality, justice, righteousness and honesty. I’ll definitely be coming back to this book as I get further along in my job search.

Your Money or Your Life

In a way, I saved the best for last. Robin’s book is the only one I am excited to pay full price for after initially borrowing it from the public library. I suspect I will return to it often (and I want to support the author’s charitable mission). Although another 9-Step plan for financial independence was sounding pretty trite by this point, it was so highly recommended by Hamm that I decided add this book to my ‘Must Read’ list. I’m really glad I did. The book briefly mentions money types, of the 4 (guardian, rationalist, idealist and artisan) I most identified with the idealist

In order to figure out your money values the authors have you take a thorough inventory of the things you own now, all the money you’ve ever received and your current job in order to calculate a ‘real hourly wage’ which they use as a measure of ‘life energy’. Rather than using abstract words and concepts to align your budget with, the authors have you use your own budget and your current real hourly wage to calculate your budget’s alignment with your values. It’s a little hard to explain (though not complicated), it’s well summarized here:

One of the things i really appreciated is that this book is the only one that isn’t focused on getting rich. As such, it doesn’t rely on risky stock market investments to plan your finances.

City as Interface

I found it. Last year at this time I was looking for a term for a phenomenon I hadn’t seen described before, which I had given the cumbersome title of ‘urban community worldview‘. Well I found it, in Martijn de Waal’s book the City as Interface. His book looks at how technology is changing the urban landscape and he sets up 3 urban philosophies that underlie urban ideal types: libertarian, republican and communitarian.

    libertarian – the libertarian city is centered around economics, and focuses on individual privacy. Public spaces are primarily used for the market.
    republican – the republican city is based on the idea that each person is a citizen and has certain responsibilities. The name is a reference to the latin res publica or public interest.
    communitarian – the communitarian city is based on harmonious village and focuses on a collective rather than individual identity. Public space is primarily used for rituals.

The central proposition in this book is that many urban media mainly support the libertarian urban ideal. With their emphasis on efficiency and personalization, they approach city dwellers as individual consumers and increase their freedom to organize life according to their own insights; at the same time, these media also reduce city dwellers’ mutual involvement. This is not a foregone conclusion, however: other examples of urban media are based on the republican ideal. They succeed in combining the smart city ideals of personalization and efficiency with the social city ideals of citizenship and connection.

-Martijn de Waal, the City as Interface

My research definitely explores this idea of what people’s urban ideal types are and whether or not technology can help get them there. As such I had also been looking for an easy way to collect data without having to design and market an entire app just for my research. I thought I’d found it in Open Data Kit (ODK); this platform was designed with an android operating system in mind which is great because I wanted to include a free smartphone for those who want to participate in my study but can’t afford a smartphone (you can buy a cheap android phone for about $20 these days). Unfortunately with all that android compatibility, I found it almost impossible for my friends with Apple iOS to use; enter Kobotoolbox. I’ve now created a prototype to collect data with their setup. Coming soon to a smartphone near you…


During winter quarter I took a few qualitative courses where I got the opportunity to think a lot about my positionality. Social scientists often talk about positionality; it’s an attempt to think reflexively about the relationship between the researcher and the research. Often this is a chance to take a look at power structures inherent in socio-cultural research and an attempt to take other perspectives into account. Although I am a black woman, and I’m certainly interested in how different demographic groups (like black women) experience the urban landscape, my reflections on positionality have little to do with my identity as a black woman. My unique view with respect to my research hinges on my inner personality and my intense aversion to and skepticism towards strangers. I walk a lot and I really hate it when strangers try to interact with me on the sidewalk. Some people like to interact with others on the street, they see this as a sign of a healthy community, but for me it’s the quickest way to ruin my day.  

I’ve been calling this phenomenon the ‘urban community worldview.’ (please help me come up with a better term, this one sucks) Initially I thought it was an introvert/extrovert thing, that, introverts don’t want to interact with strangers, but it’s more than that. It has to do with how you think of your community and what you think urban settings should feel like.
One thing I noticed is that I feel more comfortable in certain spaces that others. In a space like my home, I feel like people know me and draw conclusions based on what they know of my past behavior, it’s subjective. In other spaces, like sidewalks, I interact with people I don’t know, and their knowledge is based on my context and immediate surroundings, it’s more objective. I’m not using objective to say that it’s more true, in fact I feel rather the opposite way, but objective space is a place where you are judged as an object.

There are other factors I want to research, but like my skin tone and gender there’s not a whole lot I can do about my urban community worldview. When I think about my sample I want to make sure I have people on both sides of the urban community worldview spectrum.