What is inclusive public space for LGBTQ+ citizens? The report, “Queering Public Space” a collaboration between Arup and the University of Westminster, unpicks public spaces and the white male gaze
As Jos Boys has observed, when the feminist Matrix Architectural Collective emerged in London in 1980, it was still widely – if erroneously – believed that architecture and design was neutral.
Assumptions and exclusions encoded into the planning and design of the built environment only gradually began to be more widely questioned from the early 1980s by pioneering analyses that sought to map out queer and feminist geographies, while too often overlooking ethnic minority ones.
By the mid-1990s, this literature had developed two important strands: analyses of discrimination, exclusion and hate crimes and incidents in public and private spaces; and accounts of the emergence of queer enclaves increasingly described as ‘gayborhoods’.
As more recent work has shown, these latter are often problematic spaces: they are overly structured around gay white males, sometimes to the exclusion of trans and gender nonconforming people (TGNCP) and LGBTQ+ people of colour; reflexive of income inequalities; too often attract homophobes to where they can readily find their targets; frequently only accessible for poorer LGBTQ+ people through using potentially dangerous transport networks; and vulnerable to gentrification and decline.
‘Gayborhoods’ may provide concentrations of queer businesses, but not all LGBTQ+ people want to live in these places, even if they can afford them. In any case, gentrification in areas where residential property tends to be rented all too easily prices LGBTQ+ people out of the gayborhood. It also fosters a heterosexual colonisation of these spaces. This is deeply problematic for groups who have few places where they can comfortably be themselves in public space.
We need to think ‘beyond the gayborhood’ to explore how to produce safer, more welcoming, and inclusive public spaces in general
Queer places found in these locales - bars, bookstores, dance venues - are important for LGBTQ+ identities. We are in no way arguing that the concept of the gayborhood is outdated, though it does need to become both safer and more inclusive. We need to think ‘beyond the gayborhood’ to explore how to produce safer, more welcoming, and inclusive public spaces in general.
Our report, Queering Public Space, grew out of a growing body of literature began to appear in the twenty-first century on the exclusionary assumptions that shaped much planning policy. Important work has drawn attention to the resulting impacts upon LGBTQ+ people. Yet it became clear from our research that we needed to move beyond queering planning outcomes to thinking about how to apply the resulting insights more thoroughly into queering planning practice in a way that incorporates it into overall design considerations.
Alongside these developments in planning, building codes were redrawn in response to disability discrimination legislation in the 1990s, culminating in the UK in the guidance for inclusive design contained in BS8300 in 2001. This, however, continued mostly to reflect the mobility requirements for disabled people in line with predecessor documents going back to the late 1970s. The latest update in 2018 still largely focuses on mobility issues.
Our extensive review of the literature made clear that it was time to incorporate the accumulating evidence of diminished access to and safety in public spaces experienced by vulnerable groups, not least LGBTQ+ people, into thinking about what makes for inclusive design.
Public space is organised spatially by planners whose approaches encode assumptions about gendered use of space, and that homes are for heterosexual nuclear families
Public space is not controlled by the public or accessed evenly by its members. It is designed by an architecture profession which in Britain remains overwhelmingly male and white. That a declining number of British LGBTQ+ architects feel able to be out at work and 39% of them in the most recent survey in 2017 reported discrimination and homophobia from colleagues demonstrates that there is a need for a more inclusive approach to architecture in the workplace as well as in public space.
This public space is organised spatially by planners whose approaches to zoning developed in the twentieth century to encode assumptions about gendered use of space, the heteronormative nature of housing estates and suburbia, and that homes are for heterosexual nuclear families. It reflects a historic ideological framing of heterosexuality as the norm which marginalises and vilifies those who do not conform. Sometimes these planners have valued gayborhoods, if only so they can be exoticised and commodified as sites of (often heterosexual) tourism and spectacle, processes that both objectify and price out LGBTQ+ residents. Sometimes they have simply expunged them through redevelopment.
Activities within public space are regulated by public bodies who manage the public realm and license the events which take place within it. Spaces are policed in ways which often actively target non-heterosexual activities, accommodating heterosexual desire and romantic encounters while interdicting others. Access to gendered space is monitored in ways which not only exclude TGNCP, but also those, such as butch lesbians, whose bodies do not conform to the binary gendered ideals imagined by heteronormative society.
The spread of Live Facial Recognition Technology as part of the surveillance culture of contemporary society - given the way in which it is constructed around white, idealised binary identities - will only exacerbate this problem. Rough sleepers are harrassed and moved on by local authorities: this process differentially affects LGBTQ+ young people who, because they too often experience violence, rejection and abuse from their families at home, constitute up to 24% of youth homelessness in the UK.
Sometimes planners have valued gayborhoods, if only so they can be exoticised and commodified as sites of (often heterosexual) tourism and spectacle. Sometimes they have simply expunged them through redevelopment
Supposedly non-discriminatory language using terms like ‘public safety’ is deployed to justify policing and surveillance which focuses on marginalised groups and reinforces the sense that they should not stray into heteronormative, middle-class, white spaces. Security lighting is used – as it is designed to – to intimidate and exclude. And income inequalities ensure that lesbian spaces are even more vulnerable to changes in market conditions than gay male ones.
Public bodies and private businesses own, oversee, license or control access to or activities in public space. Today public bodies may also record the many and various types of hate crimes and incidents committed against LGBTQ+ people in these spaces, which is a form of authoritative recognition of danger and exclusion. Even though these records invariably underrepresent the number and severity of these incidents, they do nonetheless indicate the extent to which LGBTQ+ people are marginalised in these spaces. To encroach on them is to lay yourself vulnerable to abuse.
This is even more the case for lesbians and TGNCP. Whereas gay men are predominantly attacked in known gay locations, considerable research testifies to the risks inherent in falling subject to the male gaze within the generality of public space. Normative expectations about masculinities and how they are expressed, particularly in groups of men, can lead to the objectification and sexualisation of women, the hostility often shown to people who do not conform to social assumptions about masculinity and/or gender, and the unwanted harassment that frequently results.
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Existing literature suggests that there is a neighbourhood effect shaping this: that perpetrators of hate incidents are often people who recognise their victims as local but out-of-place, challenging their reading of their heteronormative imagined space. We also know that hate events - both because of this often local dimension and because they deliberately target a group as well as a person’s identity - have a much greater psychological impact than other types of crime, and not just on the immediate victim.
In consequence, paradoxically, all too often LGBTQ+ people need more privacy in public space, rather than having to self-police by avoiding eye-contact or other behaviours which might draw aggressive heterosexual male attention. The risk of acts taken for granted by heterosexuals, such as holding hands with a partner, are carefully assessed according to various situational or locational factors. Wide thoroughfares – with their increased visibility and echoing soundscapes – are among the points where self-censorship occurs. Particularly vulnerable groups, such as TGNCP, are known to avoid whole areas because of calculations of vulnerability.
Most public spaces are male spaces. It is men who do the looking in such spaces and whose voices carry and dominate their soundscapes, while marginalised groups tend to seek invisibility within these spaces or avoid them altogether.
The concept of Authorised Public Space Discourse is thus not just about how spaces are controlled but also the way in which they facilitate this male domination of them. Our view is that this also reflects design features which increase the visibility and thus the vulnerability of marginalised groups.
Most public spaces are male spaces. It is men who do the looking and whose voices carry and dominate their soundscapes
Much public space in the UK was designed and built in the nineteenth century and reflects the increasingly rigid sexual mores and binary gender assumptions of that era. Victorian public squares frequently reference military parade grounds in their design. Meanwhile, the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries also saw the reconfiguration of urban space towards wide, straight boulevards with enhanced sightlines - generally for the purpose of controlling public order - and opportunities for public spectacle. Organic spaces were replaced by highly designed ones in townscapes with often rigid use distinctions.
The resulting spaces – frequently rectilinear, enclosed, undifferentiated and monumental – and the sightlines and soundscapes they created, fostered more male-dominated open spaces in which homophobes, who tend to act in packs, can easily intimidate. These male-dominated spaces become even more so at night.
Their monuments and street furniture also speak of the maleness of public space. Benches are aligned to facilitate gazing into the distance, rather than face-to-face interactions. Public memorials and statues in Britain frequently merely celebrate - rather than contextualise - an often sanguinary military and imperial past. And relatively few of these spaces contain the ‘cosy corners’ mentioned by our LGBT+ respondents, providing much needed privacy in public space, where they can see but not be seen.
Design decisions, in other words, have contributed to the male dominance of what is imagined as heteronormative, rather than all-inclusive, space. This is Authorised Public Space Discourse, that web of assumptions and decisions made by those with power about who public space is or is not designed and managed for. We argue that public space needs to be queered if LGBTQ+ people, and other marginalised groups, are to find these spaces accessible, safer and more inclusive. This is not taking away anything from anyone; it is a process of integrating and usualising the historically marginalised and disempowered, from which the whole of society can gain.
Usualising is about understanding and accepting humanity in all its rich diversity. In terms of LGBTQ+ people in public space, this will be achieved when they no longer are targeted for being different – because usualising is about accepting all the differences rather than trying to impose some kind of normativity to which people either do or do not conform.
These frequently rectilinear, enclosed, undifferentiated and monumental male-dominated open spaces are those in which homophobes, who tend to act in packs, can easily intimidate
Evidence suggests that most perpetrators of hate incidents can be desisted, and our aim here is to suggest ways of designing in a diversity which facilitates desistance. For exclusion or inclusion is not just about prejudiced behaviour among the public, but is also facilitated by the nature, regulation and features of the space. For example, licensing regimes that produce monocultures of certain types of businesses serving a mainly heterosexual male clientele, particularly at night, will tend to deter others from the streets. Studies have indicated that marginalised groups like LGBTQ+ people are particularly affected by night-time vulnerability. This vulnerability is increased by poor design characteristics. Poorly lit, badly maintained and confined spaces can all convey a sense of danger. So, for marginalised groups, can harsh lighting.
It is not just particular environments that require attention. Planners should also aim to move away from inherited twentieth-century assumptions of heteronormative suburbs and instead provide more diverse, organic, and affordable types of living space.
In other words, diversity and inclusion needs to be signalled at the intersection of private and public space in order to desist neighbourhood hate crimes and incidents directed against those who are felt not to conform on identikit estates of family homes. This can be addressed by attention to the scale and aspects of the dwelling units, as well as their design features.
Similarly, our research identified monotonous streetscapes of regimented buildings in designated commercial areas are perceived as positively anti-queer spaces. These spaces - both residential and business - were seen by many of our respondents as over-designed, reflecting the aesthetic of the designer and not those who have to inhabit the space.
How is inclusion designed in? After all, as one respondent put it: ‘Protected characteristics under the 2010 Equality Act are not directly considered in planning’
It has often been noted that the design of space can either foster or – as in these cases – inhibit a sense of belonging. LGBTQ+ people, understandably, generally seek to be anonymous in public space. However, streetscapes which are themselves anonymous tend, paradoxically, to make those who do not conform or look like they belong there even more frighteningly visible. Like bright colours against a dull, monochrome background, they stand out.
How is inclusion designed in? After all, as one respondent put it: ‘Protected characteristics under the 2010 Equality Act are not directly considered in planning’. BS8300 and the guidance on project management provided by ISO21500 needs to be updated to cover these considerations. Planners are nonetheless already starting to utilise equality impact assessment tools to assess the effects of their work, though it is important that their staff are appropriately trained for such tasks. Planners should not expect marginalised groups to do yet another piece of emotional labour to explain the problems of particular top-down designs.
Planning authorities are also beginning to consult with those user groups who might be especially affected by changes to the built environment and to appreciate, for instance, the distinctive needs of older LGBTQ+ people. Tower Hamlets in 2017 became the first planning authority in Britain to specify that a development had to include an LGBTQ+ pub in response to the campaign run by the Friends of the Joiners Arms to replace this lost venue and reverse the decline of queer places in the capital.
Soaring property prices, compounded by the fact that LGBTQ+ businesses and social enterprises rarely own the freehold of their premises - a problem replicated in gayborhoods around the world - has meant that 58% of London’s LGBTQ+ venues closed in the previous ten years. Two years later, the Planning Inspectorate turned down a redevelopment scheme in which the preservation of an important LGBTQ+ venue was not guaranteed.
Planners should avoid overplanning. As one of our respondents put it, ‘Queer space needs organic freedom to grow’
Nevertheless, when planners do take LGBTQ+ issues into account, it is often only in the context of such venues, and these decisions have not solved the problem either locally or across London. Existing equality assessment tools are similarly deficient, focusing on queer places and not on queer living or access to public spaces. Furthermore, only 26% of local Statements of Community Involvement in London indicate awareness of how to reach particular groups, and just 3% include a commitment to collaborate or co-create with such groups. These processes, moreover, do not invariably include local LGBTQ+ groups.
Extending these consultations to do so would clearly contribute to inclusivity. So, would greater recognition of queer heritage in public space.
This is not just so LGBTQ+ people can see themselves represented in public space. As a rule, the more diversity people see, the less they feel threatened by it - as long as it is not felt to undermine their own sense of identity - and therefore the more they are likely to accept it. This is something strict organisation of residential areas along property value, social class or ethnic lines has historically militated against.
At the same time, planners should avoid overplanning. As one of our respondents put it, ‘Queer space needs organic freedom to grow’. There should be ‘Less constraints on use of spaces…to allow this organic process to thrive’. Planning authorities could think about using devices such as the Community Infrastructure Levy to facilitate this. Avoiding over-designing spaces was something of a theme both in the literature and in the comments of our respondents. Design should be on a human scale as one respondent put it, but not a scale which sees the default human as male, heterosexual, cisgendered, middle-class and white.
Instead, examples of spaces regarded as queer-inclusive were ones which had a diverse feel to them. These were not uniform in terms of scale and mass of buildings, rooflines, colour or facades. They were not rectilinear and offered a range of sightlines through spaces which were punctuated by features. Their soundscapes were softened by greenery or bodies of water, rather than harshened by hard surfaces. Space was not open and intimidating but broken up and intimate.
Streets with high footfall support more social capital. Daytime activities, such as cafes, enhance this social capital and diversity. In turn, these activities require the wide pavements and opportunities for a flow of people mentioned by a number of respondents. Such settings are necessarily more inclusive than ones in towns dominated by motor traffic, where to be a pedestrian is to stand out. The faster the traffic, the less the footfall. ‘Curvy roads’ have instead been cited as a feature of queer-inclusive spaces.
Spaces regarded as queer-inclusive were ones which had a diverse feel to them. These were not uniform in terms of scale and mass of buildings, rooflines, colour or facades. They were not rectilinear
Finally, there are micro-interventions in design that can exclude or include. Research has shown that women prefer street furniture to allow intimacy, and our evidence suggests that many LGBTQ+ people would similarly prefer benches that face each other rather than the vista – hence the reference earlier to ‘cosy corners’. Symbols, such as rainbow crossings, signal inclusion to LGBTQ+ people and help to usualise their presence. Care should be taken, however, to avoid such interventions becoming tokenistic cliches, so thinking about images which speak of diversity and inclusion for all may be a better solution. Public art can be a way to achieve this. It can also break up space and provide colour, as well as adding to diversity in representation. Artistic lighting can do the same. Much public lighting is for the benefit of motorists, not pedestrians. Indeed, for the latter, this lighting can create puddles of light and dark.
Lighting should indicate that space is designed for all members of society. Softer, more ambient lighting can be much safer than harsh bright lights. Thought therefore needs to be given to the nature of the lighting of public space and how this varies according to its brightness; the context and layers of light – the human perception of light levels including light bouncing off surfaces; and the quality of light which enables the viewer to distinguish colours, contrast and shapes. More thought also needs to go into where it is positioned and the way in which it impacts upon its users.
It may seem that much of the foregoing is simply about good public realm design. That, surely, is the point. Addressing these design features would benefit all sections of the community, rather than simply LGBTQ+ people. By designing in diversity and creating environments that include rather than exclude, it should also help to make public spaces more accessible to all marginalised and disempowered groups, and to usualise their presence therein.
This is an edited extract of the report, “Queering Public Space” a collaboration between Arup and the University of Westminster, which explores the relationship between queer communities and public spaces. LGBTQ+ is used to designate people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, pansexual, asexual or otherwise gender or sexual identity non-conforming, many of whom are acutely aware of the hostile nature of public space
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