Toward a More 'Feminine' Urbanism

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published March 26, 2018 in The Urban Evolutionary

In a recent blog post, I explored the vision and process by which Pierre L’Enfant designed the city of Washington. Essentially, I reported on the work of Nicholas Mann, in his book entitled “The Sacred Geometry of Washington DC.” At the end of the book, Mr. Mann touches on the idea of re-emphasizing what he terms the feminine aspects inherent in the grand power of the Golden Mean, the foundation of L’Enfant’s design. In this era of “me too” and gender fluidity, this is a fairly intimidating topic for a male to approach; even so, the last paragraph of my article prompted a couple of people to suggest that I take on the matter of what a more feminine urbanism might involve.

The spiritual thinker Ken Wilber was once asked what meditation would look like if it had been developed by women rather than men, meditation being an effort to reach an elevated spiritual state. His answer was essentially that men will meditate by “staring at a blank wall” for torturous hours to gain that elevated state, while a feminine approach to spiritual growth comes in the form of healing, nurturing, and relationships, as exemplified by those women mystics of medieval Europe who served the victims of leprosy intimately and at the risk of their lives.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to a conventional view of the feminine as the more creative and artistic, and the masculine as the more practical and logical; men and women carry each within them. However, these notions provide a useful prism through which to view a potential future for American urbanism. Seen through this prism, what the Founding Fathers imagined for the nation was a move toward the feminine. In a letter to his wife, President John Adams wrote, “… I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.” I see a progression here reminiscent of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But somehow it feels as if we have become stuck, not progressing as Adams envisioned. When we think of urbanism, the dominant setting in which we find ourselves, how can we move forward, beyond concrete and asphalt?

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