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.

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.


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.

State of the Research I

State of my Research:
Since I started grad school this fall I’ve decided to use this blog to talk about where I’m at in my research. Right now my topic is street transgressions, a term I made up and defined as: any breech of civil inattention with eye contact, gesture or speech. Civil inattention is a fancy sociological term for the way we ignore strangers on the street, how we acknowledge them without fully engaging. Generally one looks at the other from about 8 ft away, without making eye contact, and then looks away, you may look again at closer range. I’m considering any deviation from this to be a street transgression
I initially started using the term street harassment, looking at gender and race based interactions but found the term troubling and problematic for a few reasons.
1) harassment is so negatively charged that it ignores positive experiences that people have with strangers in public
2) harassment is a crime, it criminalizes the ‘harasser,’ something I find counterproductive to my project
3) I want to be as inclusive as possible here; catcalling, stop & frisk policies, pamphleteers, people asking for money, I think all of this contributes to where certain people feel safe (or unsafe) in urban areas.

This topic has been in the news lately, with Hollaback bringing attention to gendered harassment:

and Eric Garner bringing attention to race-based harassment:

Initially I was worried, that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as an academic studying urban black problems (being an urban black woman myself). In light of current events I feel a responsibility to the black community to continue my research.
My experiment seeks to use GPS to track where and to whom these street transgressions occur. I’d like to chose a demographic sample and have them track street transgressions on their phones. I hope that this simple data will help us figure out what is going on and how we can make the world feel like a safer place for everyone.

Feminist Style

After hearing about the VIDA Count on the bookriot podcast I’ve been trying to only read books by women this year. This summer I read the Golden Notebook and Americanah. When describing the books to a friend, he asked if I was into ‘alternative storytelling.’ It hadn’t occurred to me until then that neither of the books were conventionally written novels. In fact none of the books I’ve read this year have been. I don’t want to essentialize the sexes, and having only read women this year I don’t have the tools to do so. But it did make me wonder, do women write differently from men?

I’ve simultaneously been preparing for graduate school in geography. I love reading, and have developed lots of technical GIS skills in my recent work but I’ve been worried about writing. One thing that worries me is citation, I want to give credit where it’s due, and fully and truthfully acknowledge that no idea comes from a vacuum. MLA citations don’t seem like enough to me, I don’t want to pretend that these ideas are mine. Not to cite is stealing, but citing seems colonialist and anti-feminist. It doesn’t seem like enough to put someone in a footnote if my name is at the top of the paper.

I recognize that this reaction is gendered, that this false humility is performative. Women have to site sources, they have to give credit or their work won’t be viewed as legitimate. Women and minorities are more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome: a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments despite external evidence of their competence. Society values white men in academia, women have to prove themselves with citations and data. In addition, a woman who doesn’t do this is viewed as aggressive and bitchy, whereas the same behavior would be viewed as entrepreneurial in a man.

Nonetheless, I have trouble with the way non-fiction is written these days by both sexes. To me the rubric for blogposts (like this) seems to be personal anecdote followed by study that supports this, then more anecdata followed by more scientific (or often pseudoscientific) data. These blogposts turn into articles and ultimately turn into books. These articles don’t seem to take into account the history of the ideas that preceded them. They pass off others ideas as their own.

What is the best way to honor our ancestors’ ideas, do we use citations, even though they have been used to undermine people int he past? Do we use the power of the internet to link back to the web of papers and ideas? Or do we co-opt the same misogynistic ideology and say these ideas are mine as much as they are yours or anyone else’s?