Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 35: Making Our Cities More Inclusive — with Tiffany Muller Myrdahl

Speakers: Fiorella Pinillos, Am Johal, Tiffany Muller Myrdahl

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Fiorella Pinillos  0:06  
Hello everyone, I'm Fiorella Pinillos with SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement, and thanks for tuning in to this week's episode of Below the Radar. On this episode, our host Am Johal sits down with Tiffany Muller Myrdahl, a senior lecturer in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies, and the Urban Studies program. As a feminist geographer, a lot of Tiffany's work and research looks at Urban inequalities and inclusion strategies, especially those targeting LGBTQ2S people and women. Am and Tiffany talk about why this work is necessary for our cities and urban places. And the way in which Tiffany challenges her students to think critically in their work.

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Am Johal  0:54
We're really excited to have Tiffany Muller Myrdahl here with us from SFU's Urban Studies and Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies. Thank you for joining us, Tiffany.

Tiffany Muller Myrdahl  1:02  
Thanks so much for inviting me.

Am Johal  1:04 
Tiffany, you've done a lot of work over the years in your doctoral research and terms of teaching in urban studies, but also had involvement with Women Transforming Cities, and I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about your work in feminist geography and broadly in urban studies?

Tiffany Muller Myrdahl  1:21  
Sure. I often kind of joke about the fact that I'm a feminist geographer with people because people don't necessarily think of putting those two words together. So, I usually explain that I am interested in social change, and the city, and who has power in the city. And how have cities come to be, and the shape that they take, and how that changes over time. Who's part of the planning process and who's not, who's left out of that? An easy place for people to imagine the combination of feminism and geography is to think about safety in cities and how cities are safe for some and less for others. I was lucky to work with Ann Woodworth and a lot of other fabulous feminists and urbanists when I first arrived in Vancouver right after Women Transforming Cities was launched in 2012. And work with them for a couple of years through the position that I had at the time as the Ruth Wynn Woodward Junior Chair in the Gender, Sexuality, Women's Studies Department.

Am Johal  2:24 
We've had some people who've worked in the office, Fiorella Pinillos who did her master's in urban studies at SFU and she's talked with me quite a bit about when she had her first child and she was pregnant with her second child just moving through the city getting onto a bus and how decisions are made around planning and how moving through the city and safety being one thing, but it's actually a myriad of decisions that are made about day to day life, that affect people in a disproportionate way and wondering if you could talk a bit more about your work with Women Transforming Cities and the kind of approach that was being taken in terms of the policy development there.

Tiffany Muller Myrdahl  3:02  
Yeah, Women Transforming Cities has been really important in bringing questions of women's particular needs to the table at City of Vancouver and really helping to shape a conversation around how it is the built form, as you say, it's about sidewalks and the dip in the sidewalk -- I'm forgetting the planning term -- but you know, whether people who are using different kind of mobility aids or have a stroller can get from the street to the sidewalk. Everything from that to policies in terms of how we name streets, who's visible in the urban landscape. And so, some of the early work in Women Transforming Cities involved things like setting up conversations, setting an agenda, and then turning that into the first hot pink paper campaign, which launched in the municipal election of 2013, I think. And so that was an opportunity for Women Transforming Cities to bring a bunch of partners together and talk about what are the key issues under a series of different topics like environment, like violence and ask candidates to make a pledge and then be able to kind of hold them accountable. And Women Transforming Cities redid that hot pink paper in the last municipal election. So it's been a really important policy engagement tool. And it brings, you know, young people and people who haven't been involved in the planning process or the decision making process to the table in ways that they haven't been before.

Am Johal  4:31  
Imagine when you look at the decision making process in terms of the hierarchy of how institutions work, particular professions like engineering, or planning, there are these structures that when you look at it from the perspective of equity, diversity, inclusion, there's particular places within the structures that there's big lenses that aren't being considered or at the table when some of those what would be called technical decisions are being made that have high political and social consequences.

Tiffany Muller Myrdahl  5:03 
Yeah, absolutely. I think my dad is an civil engineer. So I grew up going to a lot of bridges, that would be under construction. One of the kind of mantras in my household was, "the shortest distance between two points is a straight line." So he looked at the world through a very kind of, quote unquote, "objective lens," that there would be transportation users, and the transportation field would meet their needs. And I think that is what misses the point partly that we forget about the ways in which different users have different needs.

Am Johal  5:35 
Yeah, so the methodologies of planning in general, which has a kind of relationship to a kind of linear rationalism, which also consequently has a connection to colonialism here as well. I'm wondering, when you're teaching your own students in an urban studies program, which is different than a planning program, how are these things interrogated and deconstructed?

Tiffany Muller Myrdahl  5:59 
It's a good question. I think every faculty brings their own particular expertise to that question. And I think, at SFU Urban Studies, it's an exciting place because it is so interdisciplinary and people have such diverse backgrounds that they can draw from. I do think that everybody asks students to really unpack some of the histories and sort of normal codes. I teach a lot of research methods in both urban studies and gender sexual human studies. And part of my job, I think, is to ask folks to not just think about how we can answer a question best, but what kinds of values we bring to that question asking, and data collection, and data analysis process.

Am Johal  6:44 
When you see students today as well, they're carrying a lot of stresses from student loans to the affordability questions you're probably discussing in class. You have the climate emergency going on. These questions about student wellness and resilience come up often, I know you've been doing some work around that. And if you could talk a little bit about that.

Tiffany Muller Myrdahl  7:05 
Yeah, I guess I think about it in the way in which my teaching has changed over time. When I was teaching at the University of Lethbridge, many years ago now, we were in a kind of traditional seminar setting. I was asking students to read complicated and difficult texts. And they were doing that work. And one of the sort of questions they had in return was, "and now what? What do you want us to do with this?" And so that pushed me to really think about how much engagement I actually do in the classroom. I thought of myself as a pretty engaged teacher at the time. But I decided at that point that I really wanted to ask students to rethink how their work could be relevant outside the classroom. And so that was actually the moment that I came to SFU and learned about City Studio, which I think had maybe just been launched, and decided that I wanted to take the opportunity to try and get more student opportunities to see their work mattering outside the class and not kind of dying in the classroom. And I find that that type of tool building helps that notion of resilience, helps students see that what they're thinking about, what they're reading, what they're asking critical questions of, can really have a life beyond just that 13 weeks session in the semester.

Am Johal  8:28 
Now, when you were doing your graduate research, you're working with a lot of different communities. When I first about you doing some public programming, and I'm wondering you can talk a little bit about the doctoral research you're doing at the time.

Tiffany Muller Myrdahl  8:40 
My doctoral research was working on questions of leisure in the city and I use the Women's National Basketball Association as a case study. So, I was working with lesbian fan communities and trying to understand the WNBA is sort of, "please come and be a fan, but don't be a lesbian," which would be really interesting to revisit, actually, because I think they have a new embracing as I, you know, kind of watch from a distance now. Anyway, I'm not sure whether we've moved from tolerance to acceptance sort of thing. When I was in Lethbridge, I started an oral history project with LGBTQ folks, lesbian, gay, bisexual trans folks who had lived in the city for at least five years. And part of my interest was to kind of write the historical record to show that queer marginalized people whose voices had not been part of the historical record could be part of the notion of how Lethbridge came to be as a city, and also to talk with folks about how they see their city changing over time. Lethbridge in you know, southern Alberta is a really interesting place in part because it's very, it's actually very culturally diverse, very racially diverse. But anecdotally and in my own experience, it's a very invisible kind of racial diversity in part because it's a very suburban landscape and people drive everywhere. It's also incredibly windy. So even though there is a bicycling community, it's just the ways in which pedestrianism, and cycling, and things that happen in larger, less windy places has a very different visibility.

Am Johal  10:18 
And in coming to SFU and being in a city like Vancouver, how have you engaged in urban issues here through your research and just day to day life? I guess?

Tiffany Muller Myrdahl  10:30 
Yeah, I mean, it's impossible to get away from the housing crisis, of course. As a renter myself, I am very grateful for great landlord, but that infiltrates everyday life. I am a persistent taker of Talk Vancouver surveys. So, for those who aren't aware, that's one of the engagement tools that the City of Vancouver has, and just responded to one yesterday about rental housing in Vancouver, and I'm not sure how much it really matters, but it isn't outlet to say what an impact it has on my psyche at least. I think I tend to do urban engagement through my teaching. So things like participating in the Vancouver Planning Commission's "A City for All," getting students involved in Women Transforming Cities, different kinds of engagement pieces like that.

Am Johal  11:24 
Yeah, I just got back from Montreal just a couple of weeks ago and visiting a project called Bâtiment Sept, Building Seven and where a group of activists squatted a building. This began negotiating with the city and a very kind of grassroots approach to taking over space to stop a condominium project and there is this kind of history and culture of community organizing in Montreal that still maintains a kind of edge and aspect of being able to negotiate with the city. The alternative in Vancouver is that you see tent cities and other forms of occupying space happen. But the rules and the laws that are in place, particularly on private land, you know very much just requires a complaint from the landlord and the police remove people on public land, it's a much lengthier process. So, there isn't sort of the same sort of legislative toolbox then if you're in Hamburg, or Berlin, or another place, where squatting culture has really advanced the capacity for groups on the margins and periphery to really win advances. In a way, there's a strong history of community organizing in Vancouver, of course, but in a way, my reading of it and I share this with people, you know, half jokingly, but kind of half true, which is, you know, there's a form of corruption that functions in every city. And in Montreal, the corruption slows the city down and as a result, it's actually more affordable. In Vancouver, the corruption makes the city go faster and money flows through it faster and so it's more expensive as a result.

Tiffany Muller Myrdahl  13:04 
That sounds really accurate. Yeah, I mean, I think ownership, land ownership and the way in which that is an outcome of colonialism is so foundational to how we look at the world here. And I, you know, activism is shaped by its local histories and I think what you've described is just a really important distinction between Montreal and Vancouver. 

Am Johal  13:33 
Now, sort of as a follow up to your your work with Women Transforming Cities, in your current research, we're looking at policy making in cities with a gender lens on it. Where do you see cities making advances, or that are doing interesting things, or where you'd like to see policy making go in a way that's far more inclusive than it is right now?

Tiffany Muller Myrdahl  13:58 
Yeah, it's a good question. I mean, I can think of a few different responses. One refers to the, I'm forgetting the name of this, some of the ways in which different cities have come together to sign onto kind of gender equality and, they look to the sort of low hanging fruit options. And one of those low hanging fruit options is how to make it safe for women to use transportation and become more mobile in the city. And so one of the responses for immediate solution is to create women only buses. And, you know, I teach this in my classes and some students are very excited about this option because they are persistently harassed when they take the bus or the SkyTrain, and they want to get where they're going safely. Other students say, "yes, we'd like to get to where we're going safely, but how is that going to solve the problem in the long run?" And I think that is the crux of the issue. It seems like an immediate response. And what we know about policy responses is that once they're in place, they're very hard to change. And yet creating women only buses, you know, creates a whole host of other problems like, well, what do you do when you have a male child who you're traveling with? For example, how does this split families up? And then it doesn't actually address the problem, which is harassment of women in public spaces. So I think that's one issue. But I think there are lots of exciting directions, the Metropolis report that came out I think, in November of last year, October, Women and Cities International, which is a organization I'm on the board of, they did the work around that and did the kind of desk research to look at what kinds of policies are in place and what sort of the best practices, and Metropolis has put out a recent call to do the follow up implementation piece on that. So I think there is good work happening. The City of Vancouver passed the Gender Equity Strategy, I'm getting the name wrong Women's Equity Strategy, I think, January of 2018. And it was funded strategically during the Women Deliver conference. And I think one of the things that's important about that is it was brought into conversation with the trans and gender variant inclusion work that's being done so that this equity and inclusion piece can be thought of in a broader sense. I think that's a really important set of work. The city is making changes at basic levels, like how they collect data, they're changing the ways that they collect census data, for example. And yet we have a long way to go. And I think everybody agrees on that point.

Am Johal  16:46 
You know, in urban centers like Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, because of the density and diversity, that's there, oftentimes on this social policy front, there tends to be more progressive policies development happening, not always, but often, but in suburban and rural areas, it tends to lag a little bit behind. But I'm wondering if you can sort of draw on some of your observations related to either, you know, suburbs of Vancouver and rural areas where people are doing interesting things, or where places that need to be kind of improved upon based on experiences of this urban policy development and places where things seems to be pointing in a direction that has more inclusion.

Tiffany Muller Myrdahl  17:28 
Yeah, you know, it's interesting. I'm involved in a project looking at, again, queer experience LGBTQ2S experience in the suburbs. It's a three city project: Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal. And Vancouver in the kind of early data collection, Vancouver seems a bit like an outlier or meaning, not Vancouver, but very importantly, the municipalities around Vancouver. The project is looking at Burnaby, Surrey, and New West, and the kinds of activism among queer folks that are happening in those municipalities seems quite distinct from what's happening in Montreal and in Toronto. And one of the things that has come up in those focus groups and interviews is the importance of the rainbow crosswalk. And you know, from a kind of an outside perspective, it seems like such a very small symbolic gesture. But people talk about how really important it is for them to see what they understand is that they see themselves in public space and they see a space being carved out. And I think Squamish, Terrace BC, lots of small communities are taking that up. And I guess I would say that what's important about that is it's not the stopping point. It's not like, "Oh, we've put the rainbow crosswalk in and now we've reached inclusion," but I think it's an important gesture and and people take it seriously.

Am Johal  18:56 
I think it was either in Abbotsford, or Chilliwack where the city decided not to put it in. It was very political that someone on private property, painted it on themselves with overwhelming public support.

Tiffany Muller Myrdahl  19:08 
Yeah. I saw that. It was great. Yeah.

Am Johal  19:11 
Wondering if you can talk a little bit about your research that you're doing now?

Tiffany Muller Myrdahl  19:16 
Yeah, well, I'm involved in that project. And then I'm starting up a teaching fellowship in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in January. And the work that I want to undertake there is really to get a better sense of the literature of student resilience and learn more about what kinds of practices are happening in other SFU classrooms, across Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. I hear from my students that the projects that I assign are unique. I don't know if that's true or not, but I expect that there are lots of tools that faculty are giving students and maybe part of the issue is that we as faculty need to be more explicit about the fact that they are actually tools, but really just investigating what's been written and talked about in terms of student resilience, what kind of work is being done in education, because I'm sure that it is being done in education, and then thinking about how we can apply that in our own faculty.

Am Johal  20:21 
Cool. Thank you so much for joining us Tiffany.

Tiffany Muller Myrdahl  20:23 
Thanks Am.

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Fiorella Pinillos  20:31 
Thank you again to Tiffany Muller Myrdahl for joining us on this week's episode. If you want to read the Metropolis report that she references in the interview, we've left a link to it in the show description. Additionally, you can also learn more about Women in Cities International by checking out their website. There's a link to that in the show description as well. That's all for this week. Join us in the new year on Below the Radar.

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
December 17, 2019

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