A seminar highlighting the life and career of Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) Professor Gerda Wekerle took place on Nov. 6 and featured Wekerle as a guest speaker.
Students, colleagues and faculty gathered for the event, titled “Unearthing the Other Stories: Political Spaces and Everyday Life at the Intersections of Cities, Gender and Nature,” which was co-sponsored by the City Institute and FES.
In addition to Wekerle as the keynote speaker, the seminar included the following panellists: Professor Liette Gilbert (environmental studies), Professor Ellie Perkins (environmental studies) and Donald Leffers (PhD candidate, geography).
During her 42-year career in FES, Wekerle’s work has spanned topics such as housing and transportation, violence against women, feminist policy analysis to community gardens, urban agriculture, and urban and regional planning.
While diverse, her work has shown a consistent commitment to applied research, activism, politics and asking critical questions.
“Feminist scholars have insisted that power dynamics be made visible, that we probe silences and absences in dominant paradigms to identify new questions for research and action,” said Wekerle. “This perspective underlies much of my own work.”
Wekerle reflected on how questions surrounding gender and the city have figured prominently in her work. In particular, she noted how her activism and involvement in women’s organizations led her to do research on women’s transportation needs and public violence against women.
Her research and work with women’s organizations in the 1990s successfully lobbied the Toronto Transit Commission to improve women’s access to transit and be more responsive to women’s needs. This resulted in changes to public transit, including requesting stops after 9pm, designated waiting areas, better intercom and camera systems and a women’s security committee to advise on the design of the Sheppard subway.
Wekerle’s research on gender and cities focused on women’s housing projects across Canada, women’s urban citizenship, gender and the local state, gender and public policy, and women’s urban movements.
She received the City of Toronto’s Constance E. Hamilton Award for her contribution to securing the equitable treatment for women.
Additionally, she co-authored a book, Safe Cities: Guidelines for Planning, Design and Management, which has been used by academics and practitioners throughout the world.
In recent years, Wekerle has engaged in research on urban sprawl, the conservation of nature and exurban movements that shaped policies to save the Oak Ridges Moraine. It also led to the implementation of a greenbelt, which culminated in a co-authored book, Battles for the Oak Ridges Moraine: Nature, Sprawl and Development (2013).
A current Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant focuses on land conflicts and environmental conflicts in southern Ontario.
Wekerle has taught a wide range of courses on topics such as environment and behaviour, urban planning, social policy and planning, gender and public policy. She was coordinator of the planning program from 2006 to 2012. Throughout her academic career, Wekerle has collaborated with 25 different students in research publications.
As an avid and dedicated gardener, Wekerle also remarked how connecting nature and the city has been a central theme in her research. Recent projects include looking at food movements in Toronto, planning for urban agriculture, immigrants’ gardens (the subject of a two-year exhibit at the ROM) and investigating the movements of urban soil unearthed by development.
Here at York U, Wekerle’s passion for gardening is associated with the Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies (HNES) Building’s Native Plant Garden; from 2006 to 2013, she dedicated and volunteered her time to designing and coordinating the garden.
From helping to raise funds to buying, transporting and arranging plants to saving seeds and donating them to North American Native Plant Society, she has been instrumental in maintaining and growing the garden. The result has been an ecologically diverse garden space, with 63 native trees, shrubs and plants to date.
After Wekerle’s presentation, the three panellists had a chance to speak on Wekerle’s career. Perkins spoke to Wekerle’s “fiery” activism and the importance it has played in her scholarship.
“From the local to the global, Wekerle’s activism and research has sparked many positive changes for woman, always grounded in real world practices and a passion for equity,” said Perkins. “Her uncovering and understanding of the different needs women experience in relation to housing and transportation is innovative, even today.”
Leffers spoke to his experience with Wekerle as his mentor and supervisor. He talked about her dedication to students, and how she genuinely values students’ insights and encourages them to succeed.
Gilbert hailed Wekerle as a truly interdisciplinary and collaborative scholar. She went on to talk about the amazing rigour and passion Wekerle applies to all aspects of her life, including researching, writing, painting and gardening.
“Good research is about raising good questions,” said Gilbert. “Wekerle’s career is marked by her courage to find the excluded and complicate the normalized.”