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It’s Not Easy Being Green Feminist Thoughts on Planning for Sustainability

May 6, 1998 by Administrator in May/June 1998

by Sherilyn MacGregor

Recent interest in “sustainability” has overshadowed issues of social justice in planning. There is an implicit assumption that, in the face of impending ecological destruction, we’re all in this together. But, as Peter Marcuse argues, we are clearly not all in this together. The costs and benefits of moving toward a sustainable society will surely be distributed unevenly in an already unjust society. Yet is the addition of “social justice” to the sustainability puzzle enough?

Feminist critics of planning theory argue that it is not. Although feminist critiques of planning have gained acceptance in some circles in recent years, there is a long way to go before gender is taken up consistently in planning discussions. As in many other cases, if feminists do not raise issues of importance to women’s lives, such as the gender division of unpaid labor, the gendering of social space, access to urban goods and services, and changing employment patterns in the global economy, they simply go unmentioned.

Social Justice: More than Class and Income

Feminists have pointed out that social justice concerns in planning are mainly focused on the allocation of resources and distribution of wealth. Aspects of social injustice that are not reducible to class or income frequently get left out of the analysis. Gender inequality and sexism includes but is by no means limited to matters of distributional justice. The domination of elite white men is pervasive in all aspects of Western society. This privileges male interests and needs within political, educational, cultural and familial institutions. Similarly, as Sandra Rodriguez argues, racism is not only a matter of unequal access to opportunities or jobs, it is also about the political and cultural marginalization of people of color.

Sexist assumptions about gender roles and responsibilities are deeply embedded in North American culture. They are manifested in the design of living spaces and the relationships that take place within them. Women are expected to be primarily responsible for the care and maintenance of the living spaces in our society. That women will look after the work of caring – what I call life-sustaining work – is so deeply rooted in our culture that it is commonly taken for granted and poorly rewarded, if rewarded at all. In addition to keeping questions of the distribution of wealth on the agenda, we must also keep in mind the distribution of labor and responsibility necessary to achieve an ecologically sustainable society. Moving toward a more just and sustainable society will require more unpaid labor and more participation by citizens. The question is, on whose shoulders will these added burdens fall?

Life-Sustaining Work

Decades of empirical research have documented the unequal gender division of labor. Despite some gains for some women in the labor force in recent years, women still do a disproportionate amount of the unpaid work that nurtures and maintains households and communities. Many women who are employees, caregivers and neighborhood volunteers juggle a double and triple day of work without adequate support from family members or government. This workload is unsustainable for individual women who, on average, have less leisure time and lower wages than men do. This division of work and responsibility is socially unjust. It represents an unfair subsidy to men and capital at the expense of the continued subordination of women. Feminist planners, therefore, have tried to find ways to alleviate this burden through innovative social policies and the redesign of gendered urban spaces.

Non-feminist planners have been slow to take these gender concerns into account in their discussions of both sustainability and social justice. They tend to either ignore the importance of life-sustaining work altogether or take the gender division of unpaid labor for granted. Planning theory is masculinist in that it privileges the public sphere and embraces a conventional economic understanding of work that excludes domestic and care-giving activities. As a consequence, there is little recognition of the implications of plans for sustainable societies and for those who will be compelled, by virtue of their socially constructed gender roles, to perform the extra work required to live sustainably in everyday life.

Women’s Unpaid Labor

Insofar as planners and environmentalists have realized that changes in living habits are a necessary part of the search for sustainability, they advocate initiatives that demand particular responses from household and community members, such as waste reduction and energy conservation strategies, and collective efforts to grow and pool resources. Such changes in daily living are no doubt important. But what must be challenged is the lack of awareness that they will intensify the burden on unpaid labor. This increased labor will be borne primarily by women in their socially constructed roles as care-givers and housewives.

For example, planning for municipal solid waste reduction through household recycling, precycling, and composting campaigns (growing in popularity in places like Seattle, San Jose, and Berkeley) demands extra time and effort from those responsible for household maintenance and provisioning. Recycling depends on the diligence of individuals to collect, wash, sort, and transport recyclables, and composting requires increased effort on the part of cooks and gardeners. Precycling involves the reduction of waste that enters the household, a practice that requires cutting down on over-packaged “convenience” goods and environmentally unfriendly household cleaners, and purchasing more fresh foods. Research conducted in German households found that precycling alone adds at least 20% more work time for the two person household. There is clearly a price to be paid for green living.

Many energy conservation strategies, such as the use of “appropriate” technologies, demand increased human labor time. For example, the use of solar ovens is promoted in Sacramento in order to reduce the need for air conditioning in private kitchens. Sustainable community advocates in Toronto, such as the authors of Get a Life!: How to Make a Good Buck and Save the World While You’re At It, recommend the switch to solar powered composting toilets to conserve water and electricity. While the cost-effectiveness and environmental benefits of such technologies are celebrated, no mention is made of the demands they place on those who will actually use and maintain them.

Those who promote more sustainable forms of transportation like cycling and walking don’t address the logistical problems for those who need to get around the city with children and groceries in tow. Feminists have long criticized the gendered assumptions of transportation planners who forget that some people have different concerns than “the journey to work.” Similarly, those who champion the cause of telecommuting (working at home online) in order to reduce car use fail to consider what it means for those workers who already see the home as a workplace (nor do they consider the plight of the underpaid and non-unionized women workers in the electronics industry!)

Sustainable community planners have also advocated the local production of food in community gardens (also known as community shared agriculture) and collective kitchens. While feminists support the concept of collectivization of socially necessary work for social and ecological reasons, the appeal fades when it becomes evident that women tend to do most of this work. In addition to the intensification of unpaid work in the household, women could end up with added responsibilities in the community – all in the name of sustainability.

Environmental Privatization

The sustainability agenda seems to romanticize a return to good old fashioned self-reliance, elbow grease, and homespun goods while taking for granted that gendered individuals will bear the burden of increased work. We need to reconsider a range of energy, resource, and waste intensive practices that we rely on to sustain us, but part of the discussion must be the equitable redistribution of the work that will take their place. Placing responsibility for sustainable living on the household and neighborhood can be seen as a form of environmental privatization. This approach takes the onus off corporate polluters and government regulators. Environmental privatization shifts responsibility to women under the assumption that women’s ability to care, provide, and serve is elastic and can expand indefinitely. Rarely is there any mention of the work required or who will do it, because women’s work is taken for granted, or “externalized” (in the language of economics). The same writers who argue that there are biophysical limits to human use of the earth seem to forget that there are also limits to the use of labor.

Sustaining Participation

A growing number of sustainability advocates envision a greater role for citizens in the planning and administration of local communities and neighborhoods. Citizen advisory boards, task forces, and round tables on environmental issues, community-based environmental impact assessments, and other forms of participatory democracy are thought to be an essential element of a sustainable society. Eco-guru Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism – his vision for the good ecological society – is modeled after the Greek polis wherein rational citizens took an active part in the running of public affairs. It is thought that increased public involvement in planning and administrative decisionmaking will improve the quality of urban life for greater numbers of citizens and result in heightened levels of environmental consciousness and responsibility at the local level.

While feminists support participatory democracy and more inclusive decisionmaking processes, that support is tempered by concerns for the distribution of responsibility and disparities between men and women in the ability to participate. Rarely do advocates of citizen participation in sustainability issues take into account that public participation takes time and requires a range of conditions that only a small and relatively privileged segment of the population enjoy.

Feminist Critique of Citizenship

Feminist scholars have developed a critique of the concept of citizenship, asserting that it is based on masculine traits and elite male life experiences. The concept of citizenship itself comes from Greek society (as Bookchin explains so well) wherein males could participate actively in public processes precisely because their basic subsistence needs were met by the labor of women and slaves who were excluded from participation and other citizenship rights. Active participation in public affairs is only possible when people have spare time on their hands and when basic needs are met in the private sphere.

So what happens when the demands on citizens for the political life of a sustainable community increase along with demands on unpaid work? Some people, particularly women, may actually have less time for public engagement. Even if sustainable societies are more participatory, male domination of decisionmaking will persist in the absence of any concerted effort to redistribute and support the work that is necessary to sustain life in the domestic sphere. For women who already perform a double or triple day of work, taking an active role in the planning and on-going management of their community adds an additional burden to their already over-burdened lives.

Yet the majority of activists in local environmental justice and community struggles are women. We need to understand the costs of this triple role, and whether an ecologically sustainable society can be built on top of existing, or intensified, gender inequalities. Without providing support services like child care, or finding innovative ways to collectivize socially necessary work – issues that feminist planners have been trying to put on the planner’s agenda since the early 1980s with only limited success – citizenship in the sustainable society will be plagued by the same tensions between public and private that have produced and reproduced gender inequality for centuries.

If we accept that there will be no ecological sustainability without socially just relationships and institutions, then the eradication of sexism and gender inequality must also be seen as an essential piece of the sustainability puzzle.


Sherilyn MacGregor is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, Toronto Ontario. She is a contributing author of Change of Plans: Towards a Non-Sexist Sustainable City (M. Eichler, Ed., Garamond Press, 1995). She can be reached at shermac(at)yorku(dot)ca

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