People walking on a city scape

How Do We Create Cities Where Everyone Can Thrive?

(Published in the Hill Times, Nov. 29, 2023)

At YWCA Metro Vancouver, we grew tired of reflecting on this question and decided to take action. For the last two and a half years, we’ve been leading YWCA City Shift – a project that calls on local decision-makers to transform our region into a place that has equitable opportunities for everyone to live safely and thrive.  

To do this, we need to both hear from a range of diverse voices at the municipal level and embrace innovative solutions to the pressing challenges before us. The process isn’t straightforward, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and it will take time. There are, however, tools like Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA Plus) that cities can use to accelerate the process.

YWCA City Shift recommends councils and city staff use GBA Plus, or a similar tool, to assess systemic inequalities and help decision-makers identify the needs of diverse groups of people. It provides ways for policy leaders to consult the often underserved people they represent, while reflecting on how their own assumptions might be incomplete. Ultimately, it encourages better decisions that lead to more equitable outcomes.

While this tool helps spotlight and correct the disparity between genders that persist in our society, the “plus” in the acronym acknowledges that this work is about more than just the differences between genders. Rather, it represents our varied characteristics—race, ability, age, socioeconomic standing—that intersect and contribute to who we are collectively and how we experience life in cities.

Without this awareness, policy decisions often favour the people who make them, and exclude the considerations of those who don’t have a seat at the table. Civic amenities like parks, roads, housing, transit and community centres can be designed with innovations that serve all citizens, but their needs must first be understood.

Women, for example, make up more than half the population, yet they remain underrepresented in local government, accounting for less than one quarter of Metro Vancouver mayors and about 40% of councillors. In eight of Metro Vancouver’s 21 municipalities, including larger cities like Burnaby, Coquitlam, Delta, Richmond and Surrey, less than one third of councillors are women. In places like Vienna, Austria, however, where “gender mainstreaming” has been a priority since the 90s, dozens of policies have passed that have made it fairer for young girls to enjoy playgrounds, mothers with small children to easily use sidewalks, and for everyone to feel safer walking at night.

Our last municipal elections saw some municipalities elect more racialized people and younger candidates, but our council chambers still don’t reflect our communities. And people from marginalized groups tend to be even more excluded from traditional decision-making spaces. Until we have better representation, it’s even more critical that those in leadership use equity-based tools like GBA Plus.

Since we launched YWCA City Shift, we are beginning to see positive outcomes locally. The City of Burnaby, for example, is piloting GBA Plus in the revamp of their Edmonds Town Centre Community Plan and public engagement process to incorporate feedback from a broad range of residents. Port Moody, North Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster put forward a resolution at this year’s Union of BC Municipalities convention calling on local governments to address systemic inequities in our communities.   

At the YWCA, we deliver housing, childcare, and employment and family services that help women and families live free from violence and gain financial stability.  Women-led households are disproportionately in the lowest income bracket and the increasing cost of living is significantly impacting them. For groups with intersecting barriers, such as Indigenous, racialized and newcomer women, women fleeing violence, women with disabilities, trans women and gender diverse people, these challenges are even more acute. Yet these communities are often overlooked in policy decisions about safe and affordable housing, reliable transit, accessible childcare and inclusive community amenities.

Despite the challenges before us, we remain optimistic and encouraged. City councils prioritizing equity signals progress towards more inclusive spaces that more people can easily enjoy. They are an important step to addressing the root causes of social inequity and injustice and they are pointing toward a future that we all want and deserve.

Our call to action for local governments is to find ways to engage more diverse voices and perspectives as they work towards addressing the complex challenges we face. We all benefit when there is diverse representation and a range of voices are heard. Amidst growing inequality, division and polarization, this is a critical time for bold and equitable leadership in Metro Vancouver and beyond.

Learn more about YWCA’s City Shift project: