State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


For Women, a Search for Safety and Community in the City

The following post is Kaori Yoshida’s final project for Professor Susan Blaustein’s course, Women in Cities in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program. Kaori builds on her own experience with safety and housing to consider the meanings of the terms “safety” and “home,” and the vital importance of safe housing for young women to urban social sustainability in the City of New York. State of the Planet will feature three of these final projects from Blaustein’s class.

Kaori Yoshida
Kaori Yoshida

In my last semester here at Columbia, I had to relocate out of my room in university housing. I no longer felt safe in the space I had been living, and regretfully needed to leave my home three months before graduation. Not only was this move extremely frustrating because of the timing, but it also disrupted many aspects of my life that I had previously taken for granted. Notifying the residential assistant of my situation, then taking part in several meetings with university housing as well as various school authorities, moving out discreetly from my home, and settling into my new place were all draining tasks. That is why now, as I move onto the next chapter in my life, moving to a new place that is safe for a young woman is an extremely high priority.

Through my moving experience this year, it made me think about what safety and having a safe space which you can call home truly means, especially for young women. When looking for a new place of shelter, you consider various objective factors that you can input in searches on sites such as Streeteasy. For example, in my recent apartment search, we first started off by looking at the basics—convenience of location, access to public transportation, cleanliness, size of the apartment, type of neighborhood and the area surrounding the apartment. While these external factors are easy to factor in, safety is too fluid a concept to be guaranteed, unlike apartment size or amenities in the apartment. With this in mind, as women we are in need of mitigating any potential threats to our safety. For example, because of a previously uncomfortable experience that my roommate had experienced in a large apartment complex, she suggested that we not live in large apartment complexes, as it increases the risk of potentially troublesome neighbors.

This further raises salient questions about safety and our homes—firstly, what is meant exactly by “safety,” and secondly, how does the definition of safety intersect with what a “home” should be? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2016), safety is a condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury or loss. According to Susan Clayton, as stated in the article, “The Psychology of Home: Why Where You Live Means So Much” by Julie Beck (2011), home is a part of one’s self-definition, illustrating why our homes mean so much to us. Home and belonging are concepts shared by many and not only describe our experiences, but also characterize the way we interact with the world. In the article, “Disability and the Experience of Architecture” by the disability rights activist Cheryl Davis and Raymond Lifchez (1986), it was made clear that the sense of being safe and of possessing your own space was crucial for Davis’s own personal development and for her grasping control of her own life. Home is not only just a safe space, but a space for one’s own rejuvenation and growth.

Photo by Kaori Yoshida
Photo by Kaori Yoshida

It is however crucial to note that not only is the home important for the individual, but also for the greater community that includes it. An example illustrating this is the vast impact that the Urban Renewal Act had in 1949, which inevitably destroyed established communities and networks of people in Chicago, as described in Dr. Mindy Fullilove’s article, “Root Shock: The Consequences of African American Dispossession” (2001).

During this time, we saw entire communities of mainly African-Americans dispersed and divided in the name of urban regeneration and the elimination of “slums.” With the destruction of individual homes came the destruction of entire communities. Fullilove points out that it was the urban renewal program which instigated and exacerbated poverty for the African-American community not only because of monetary loss due to costs of relocation, but also bore large social costs because families, old family friends and neighbors were separated throughout the city, sometimes never to be reunited. The formerly established network and support systems in place were lost, even pushing some out onto the street.

During our guest lecture by Fullilove, our class was shown a collection of photos from these “slums” prior to their being “cleaned up” by the urban renewal program. The photos showed communities of people who looked as though they felt like they belonged to the area and were safe—a stark contrast to the living situations they were subjected to, after essentially being forced to leave their own homes. Through this case study, we were able to see that urban community-building was not only crucial to ensuring healthy social ties within a close network of people supporting each other in times of need, but it also ensured safety within the community, which was felt in all aspects of their society.

As seen through our examples of the disruption that root-shock causes in urban communities, it is clear that safety and community-building intersect in many ways and are closely linked. In fact, the concept of “urban social sustainability” encompasses the close linkage between the two factors, through a variety of characteristics. Nicola Dempsey in her 2011 article, “The Social Dimension of Sustainable Development: Defining Urban Social Sustainability,” described urban social sustainability through social equity, sustainability of community, social interaction/social networks in the community, participation in collective groups and networks in the community, community stability, pride/sense of place, and safety and security.

These concepts all rely on close, long-term community bonding, which takes time and collective effort and cannot simply be built overnight. Furthermore, safety and security are precedents to achieving these additional benefits from urban social sustainability, as people need to “feel secure in their social interactions and participation in community activities.”

Even in my personal experience of relocating from my home, I am forever grateful for the support I was given by my other suite-mates throughout the process. We in a sense had built our own community in our small space within university housing and created a network of support.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that there are positive aspects to urban social sustainability, however without a sense of security and safety, we are unable to enjoy these benefits. However, with such quick turnover and the constant moving of people in our world today, what are the implications? Also, what do safety and community mean for cities such as New York, where there is a quick turnover rate, especially for young people who relocate often? Moreover, what will urban sustainability mean for New York City, and additionally for our generation and the generations to come, which are extremely mobile, seemingly never to settle down?

Photo by Kaori Yoshida
Photo by Kaori Yoshida

We live in a unique urban space, New York City, known for its fast pace. People are running in and out of the city with mass transit, and people are constantly on the move—many of us in New York City have embraced this as a norm. According to the article, “7 Ways New York City Real Estate Differs from the Rest of the U.S.” (2012), New York City also has a very high turnover rate for apartment tenants, and it is customary to sign leases that only last a year. If community development and building safety through the intersecting of these two factors are the keys to building urban social sustainability, how can we overcome our biggest obstacle of high turnover rates?

In order to create safe environments and communities, we have to encourage community development and resilience of the population that settles in that area. We have seen time and time again how disruptive urban renewal schemes have been, and will continue to be in low-income areas, as residents do not have as much choice. We can certainly see the speed in which change is made even from the rapidly changing areas around Columbia University. Especially as we continue to build new campuses further uptown, we inevitably change and end up gentrifying the surrounding areas as we move.

It is essential that community-building needs to be coupled with safety, and there is much to gain from strong community unity and engagement. There is no question that support systems and belonging to a community are essential parts of the human experience that no one should be denied. Keeping these ideas in mind, how can the Columbia community ensure that we do not cause root-shock and the dispersal and destruction of communities? How can we ensure the safety, so that it can act as a catalyst for building communities and a sense of unity in the area(s) we inhabit?

While safety is a key concept in which allows individuals to participate in community events, resilient communities can only be built from within, in order for it to truly be effective. How can we create an environment that is cohesive to community-building, especially the building of communities that are safe and supportive of women? These are the questions I ask myself as I leave Morningside Heights, but also as I become a resident of another part of New York City, perhaps myself becoming a perpetrator of gentrification in that area.

Kaori Yoshida is a recent graduate of Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs with a masters of public administration, specializing in gender and public policy. Prior to coming to the School of International and Public Affairs, she completed a year at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Public Policy, where she received a master of public policy.

The flexibility of the Master of Science in Sustainability Management allows students like Kaori to cross-register from other schools and take MSSM courses, and MSSM students have the opportunity to take courses from other schools through Columbia.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.





Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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