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Policy research highlights how municipal trans inclusion policies are driving urban innovation
By Casey McCarthy
Tiffany Muller Myrdahl, a faculty member in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (GSWS) and the Urban Studies Program at Simon Fraser University (SFU), is using policy research to advocate for safer, more inclusive cities.
As Myrdahl explains, while many policy analysts — and voters— pay attention to higher levels of government, the decisions made by city councils have an indelible impact on our everyday lives, “Municipalities set our expectations for government because they are closest to us.”
Rethinking gender and life in the city
According to Myrdahl, cities are built upon assumptions about gender and sexuality that do not reflect the diversity of our communities. As a university researcher interested both in how municipalities work and urban inequalities experienced by women and the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, Myrdahl uncovers the biases underpinning urban planning and policy-making practices.
Myrdahl analyzes actions municipal governments have taken to become inclusive, and recently reviewed the City of Vancouver’s policy framework aimed at advancing equity for trans people. This framework is guiding changes to make city spaces, programs, and services safe, accessible, and supportive for members of the Two-Spirit, trans, and gender-diverse (TGD2S) community.
Many municipal governments in British Columbia have launched strategic Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives in recent years. “Municipalities have begun to recognize equity as an important component of the work that cities do,” Myrdahl says. “Among the reasons for this is that it brings cities in line with federal and provincial support for using Gender-based Analysis Plus (GBA Plus) to design programs and initiatives.”
Support from leaders has also helped to move policy into action. Myrdahl’s trans inclusion research examines work related to the Supporting Trans* Equality and an Inclusive Vancouver policy, which the Vancouver City Council passed in 2016.
Reshaping municipal work and public spaces
Through analyzing public-facing documents from the City of Vancouver — such as policies, communications and announcements, meeting minutes, and community consultations— Myrdahl described and brought awareness to barriers preventing the TGD2S community from participating in taken-for-granted aspects of city life.
Everyday activities – such as registering for a class at the recreation centre, completing paperwork at city hall, or finding a safe place to change at the community pool – created obstacles. “There’s just not very much recognition for what trans and non-binary folks deal with in their everyday lives,” says Myrdahl of the need to change the gendered approach municipalities have traditionally taken to urban planning and administering programs.
Members of the TGD2S community were previously unlikely to take part in recreational activities offered by the city, according to Myrdahl. However, the trans inclusion policy has helped to create more welcoming experiences. What began as the Vancouver Park Board changing its signage and programming - which now includes TGD2S-safe swim, exercise sessions, and social activities – led to city-wide changes.
“This began as one very small volunteer-driven project, and it has really reshaped a whole set of practices at the city more broadly,” says Myrdahl. “Trans inclusion does not affect just park board or community centre services. It affects every building that the municipality owns or rents. The changes that have been made at the City of Vancouver also had an impact on BC building code, such as policies related to washrooms.”
Rebuilding cities to include all community members
As a researcher interested in social policy, Myrdahl characterizes trans equity as innovative because it has transformed many established and invisible aspects of city work that influence how we live our lives. “Historically, municipal decision-making has not been equitable,” says Myrdahl. “It has been based on normative assumptions about productive land use and who has the right to make decisions about land.”
Through her research, Myrdahl hopes to invite city decision-makers to think about the effects equity policies can have and encourage municipalities to work with those who have been left out of the planning process to understand their needs and lived experiences.
As an educator, Myrdahl is also having an impact on the next generation of city workers, politicians, and activists. Myrdahl encourages her students to speak out about the changes they want to see in their communities.
“My goal is to increase student awareness about what municipalities do and how they can be involved in municipal decision making. Whether it is through voting or participating in an advisory committee or following Council decisions, it is important to support decision-makers to be accountable to all city residents, not just to an entitled few,” Myrdahl says.