SOCIETY

The Queer City: How to Design More Inclusive Public Space

by pippa Catterall, Ammar Azzouz

Pho­to Mikel Parera

14/06/2022

Most peo­ple might not usu­al­ly think of pub­lic space as being gen­dered, but this is how schol­ars of the built envi­ron­ment increas­ing­ly talk about it. In many coun­tries, the archi­tec­ture pro­fes­sion is large­ly male and white. That results in a design approach that priv­i­leges the male per­spec­tive, from licens­ing regimes that favour het­ero­sex­u­al male drink­ing estab­lish­ments to parks and sports facil­i­ties built for boys.

These assump­tions about who the built envi­ron­ment should serve, as well as oth­ers such as the het­ero­sex­u­al, fam­i­ly ori­ent­ed nature of sub­ur­bia, con­tribute to how it is designed. They can also affect how pub­lic spaces are expe­ri­enced by women or men who don’t con­form to mas­cu­line stereotypes.

Design fail­ures, such as inad­e­quate or poor­ly posi­tioned light­ing, only serve to make pub­lic space even more intim­i­dat­ing for mar­gin­alised groups who, as a result, try to make them­selves invis­i­ble – or avoid open spaces altogether.

In the con­text of ris­ing pat­terns of hate crime, the idea of “queer­ing” pub­lic space  might offer a solu­tion. Through inter­views with over 120 aca­d­e­mics, design­ers, activists and oth­er respon­dents, we have stud­ied how con­sid­er­ing the design and plan­ning needs of LGBTQ+ peo­ple might make the pub­lic realm more inclusive.

Marginalised Geographies

Since the 1980s, schol­ars have mapped out geo­gra­phies of how dif­fer­ent social groups access, or are mar­gin­alised and threat­ened, in pub­lic space. Much has been writ­ten, in par­tic­u­lar, about the emer­gence of the “gay­bor­hood”. From the 1950s, queer urban enclaves – such as Manchester’s Gay Vil­lage and London’s Soho – began to appear in run-down, mar­gin­al areas of cities across the world. Key ini­tial fac­tors were low rents, good trans­port links and acces­si­ble bars and oth­er ameni­ties.

These neigh­bour­hoods, how­ev­er, are not with­out prob­lems. Improve­ments led to increas­es in rent, so that these enclaves steadi­ly became over­ly struc­tured around rel­a­tive­ly wealthy gay white males. Poor­er LGBTQ+ peo­ple can often only access them via poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous trans­port net­works. What’s more, as is borne out by police sta­tis­tics, gay­bor­hoods like Soho are marked by rel­a­tive­ly high lev­els of homo­pho­bic crime.

Old Comp­ton Street is at the heart of London’s Soho, one of the ear­li­est gay­bor­hoods. / Mark Hay­ward

These areas are also vul­ner­a­ble to rede­vel­op­ment. By con­tribut­ing to the cul­tur­al val­ue of a city, gay­bor­hoods even­tu­al­ly attract investors. But regen­er­a­tion and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion often results in the com­mu­ni­ties who used to vis­it or live in these areas being dis­placed. Almost 60% of London’s LGBTQ+ venues have closed since 2010.

So, while gay­bor­hoods have pro­vid­ed much appre­ci­at­ed space in which LGBTQ+ peo­ple can be them­selves, we still need to think about inclu­sion in pub­lic space more generally.

Inclusive design guidelines

In the UK, exist­ing guide­lines for inclu­sive design con­cen­trate large­ly on acces­si­bil­i­ty for dis­abled peo­ple. In our research, we have iden­ti­fied three main prin­ci­ples to improve this.

First, plan­ning regimes should pri­ori­tise safe­ty. LGBTQ+ peo­ple need more pri­va­cy in pub­lic space because com­mon activ­i­ties that most peo­ple take for grant­ed (hold­ing hands, with a part­ner, say) can draw neg­a­tive attention.

Our respon­dents high­light­ed how green­ery and light­ing could be used to break up space and sight lines and pro­vide more pri­va­cy. It’s about get­ting away from both claus­tro­pho­bic, enclosed designs and large, open plazas dom­i­nat­ed by the kind of harsh secu­ri­ty light­ing and wide sight lines dic­tat­ed by sur­veil­lance strate­gies, and the pro­tec­tion of property.

Instead, as in New York, plan­ners can fol­low the gen­der-sen­si­tive approach pio­neered in Vien­na, Aus­tria, to make city parks and streets feel safer and more com­fort­able on an indi­vid­ual level.

There they have installed bet­ter, warmer light­ing to encour­age foot­fall (which can help to counter hate crime) and cre­at­ed semi-enclosed pock­ets in parks that are vis­i­ble but still offer a rea­son­able lev­el of pri­va­cy for those who do not feel com­fort­able being vis­i­ble from all angles and from far off.

Sec­ond, city plan­ners need to cater to the spe­cif­ic needs of all sec­tors of the pop­u­la­tion. For the LGBTQ+ com­mu­ni­ty, this does not just mean pre­serv­ing venues and his­toric land­marks. His­tor­i­cal­ly, hous­ing estates have often been inten­tion­al­ly designed for het­ero­sex­u­al fam­i­lies. Chang­ing design assump­tions – plan­ning for all kinds of peo­ple and fam­i­lies — will make cities and neigh­bour­hoods feel more acces­si­ble and diverse.

The dis­tinc­tive ser­vices required by an age­ing LGBTQ+ pop­u­la­tion also need to be con­sid­ered. This group is more like­ly to live alone than their peers. They often have dis­tinct health needs and can lack sup­port net­works. Cru­cial­ly, their expe­ri­ence of dis­crim­i­na­tion and exclu­sion often means they pre­fer to live in queer-spe­cif­ic accom­mo­da­tion.

/ Robin Ooode

Third, plan­ners need to make spaces vis­i­bly inclu­sive. More rep­re­sen­ta­tion of queer her­itage – through stat­ues, memo­ri­als, plaques and street and build­ing names – would empha­sise that these com­mu­ni­ties, though mar­gin­alised, have always exist­ed. And mak­ing that his­to­ry more vis­i­ble, even tem­porar­i­ly, may help to under­mine pub­lic hos­til­i­ty towards them.

Sim­i­lar­ly, as on the South Bank in Lon­don, fea­tures includ­ing pub­lic art­works, artis­tic light­ing or dec­o­ra­tive street fur­ni­ture, such as rain­bow cross­ings, can help to sig­nal inclu­sion to LGBTQ+ people.

It may seem that these rec­om­men­da­tions are sim­ply about gen­er­al good pub­lic space design. And they are. Address­ing these design issues would ben­e­fit all sec­tions of the com­mu­ni­ty, rather than just LGBTQ+ peo­ple by mak­ing pub­lic space safer, acces­si­ble and inclu­sive for all.


Pip­pa Cat­ter­all, Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry and Pol­i­cy, Uni­ver­si­ty of West­min­ster
Ammar Azzouz, Short-term Research Asso­ciate, Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford

This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion under a Cre­ative Com­mons license. Read the orig­i­nal arti­cle.

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