Why Urban Planners Don’t Know Much About Queer People, Why They Should and How to Start Thinking About It

“Take away, for the moment, the identifiable markers of the gay and lesbian experience, and imagine a social protest movement that, throughout the twentieth century, has created an independent urban culture, suffered police harassment, been legally subject to housing and employment discrimination, and, in response, waged a campaign for social justice that has intensified over the past fifty years.  Then imagine, that, as planning historians, we have overlooked these experiences.  If nothing else, the implausibility of this occurrence marks the gay and lesbian experience as worthy of current attention.”

—Moira Kenney, “Remember, Stonewall was a Riot: Understanding Gay and Lesbian Experience in the City

In the Fall of 2008, I was new to both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cambridge, MA.  In fact, I hadn’t become very familiar with Cambridge, because, after being accepted into MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, I had chosen to re-locate to the North End of Boston with an old friend.  After a day of classes, something took me on a longer walk than usual down Massachusetts Avenue and beyond Central Square.  As I approached Cambridge City Hall, that Romanesque structure in the middle of row house retail buildings, I noticed an announcement for a “townhall” meeting.  In particular, the meeting was being organized by Cambridge’s Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, and Transgender (GLBT) Commission and hosted by the mayor herself, Denise Simmons.

As a queer student, I was most intrigued and excited by the thought of a local government acknowledging that its queer residents were indeed a constituency with unique needs.  I went home to do my research and discovered that the mayor was openly a lesbian of color.  When I arrived at the event a few nights later, I was thrilled to be ushered into the City Council’s chambers where the meeting was taking place.  What a coup to see queers of all kinds in the seats of local power.

But when the meeting started, I was caught off guard once again.  Attendees voiced frustrations by a lack of LGBT “community” in Cambridge.  Specifically, this translated into too few spaces to be visible to one another and to connect.  These feelings were shared by singles trying to date, as well as families looking to meet one another.  Older people complained of the absence of a queer or queer-friendly business directory and of feeling shunned at senior health centers.  In a city known to have some of the strongest legal and mayoral support for queer rights, why was there a perceived lack of spaces for queer people?  How do spaces foster contact between and inclusion of people anyhow?  What is the current status of queer space in cities, and how do queer people feel in different spaces and why?

I was inspired in part by this experience and the questions it created, and it offered an important reminder that the spatial inclusivity of a place does not directly correlate with its rights-based claims of inclusivity.  Since then, I’ve been aiming to address two important omissions in planning and urban design research.  The first is the lack of planning literature on the LGBT population.  The second is more abstract, but is concerned with developing a better understanding of how buildings and public spaces communicate inclusive or exclusive messages and meanings, particularly for marginalized groups.

The Queer Image of the City?

Since 1998, by my count, four articles have been published in scholarly journals or books by planning academics on the topic of the profession’s relationship to the LGBT population as an urban constituency.  Why such a lack of literature in this field when ‘queer studies’ and ‘queer geography’ have thrived in comparison?

The queer population is a complex group to study, most conspicuously because there are no complete data sources of the population.  It’s simply not counted.  This is a significant issue for several reasons, including anticipating public health needs, breaking stereotypes about who queer people are, and proving “market demand” for the financing of projects such as LGBT elder housing.  Fragmented datasets do exist (discussed here) and begin to paint some picture of who queer people are.  In 1990 and 2000, the U.S. Census collected information on unmarried, same-sex partner couples.  Additionally, econometric investigations of the General Social Survey from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, conducted by Lee Badgett, have been helpful in obtaining some information on non-partnered queer people.

These datasets have allowed some primary analyses of the class and race/ethnicity of LGBT people.  An analysis of 1990 Census data by Lisa Keen and Lyn Stoesen found that the race/ethnicity breakdown of LGBT couples mirrors the race/ethnicity breakdown of the general population.  Marieka Klawitter and Victor Flatt’s analysis of the Census and the General Social Survey analysis have found that gay men and lesbians earn on average less than heterosexual men and women, although individual lesbians in domestic partnerships earn more than married heterosexual women.  From the imperfect information we do have, studies have found that, overall, the popular perception of affluent gays and lesbians has not been borne out by the most systematic research to date.  However, this perception persists popularly, sometimes within the LGBT population itself, and within the discourse of the planning profession.

Additional work has been done to estimate the needs of queer youth.  Based on a 2007 compilation of surveys, The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) found that 20-40% of homeless and runaway youth identify as LGBT.  A separate NGLTF attempt to count transgender folk in 2009, found that 26% have lost their jobs because of their gender identity. The latter study supports the high poverty rates commonly associated with the transgender population.

Lastly, several recent attempts have been made to survey the LGBT aging population, including a report released in March 2010 by Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, and Transgender Elders (SAGE).  SAGE finds that LGB elders are poorer, find it harder to maintain good health and access healthcare, and are more socially isolated than their heterosexual counterparts.  This last finding has been corroborated by local groups, like openhouse, a housing, community, and services nonprofit for LGBT seniors in San Francisco.  According to the founder of openhouse, Marcy Adelman, “We did a survey that was very enlightening, and primarily what we found is that a higher percentage of LGBT seniors than straight seniors are single, live alone and don’t have children.”  These findings point to particular housing types and services that LGBT elderly populations need access to, since the heterosexual elderly are more able to rely on children and spouses as their primary caregivers.

National studies and estimates are crucial in giving us an impression of who queer people are and in what city spaces they’re struggling – housing for youth, jobs for transgenders, housing and services for the elderly, and spaces of social connection and support.  They also direct us to ‘see’ queer people in all parts of the population, across race and class.  But the lack of easily accessible, accurate demographic data creates a significant hurdle for planning academics in going beyond localized, anecdotal case-studies to present a more comprehensive picture of how queer folks have impacted and are impacted by the planning and development of cities.

In a recent op-ed piece, Gary Gates opines that “Assumptions about people are flimsy; numbers are solid. The reality of our political system is that you don’t really count unless you are counted.”  Gates strongly advocates for questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to be included in all major federal surveys, from the Census to studies about health, HIV risk factors, youth, workplace discrimination, and so on.

What Sex is this Place?

There is a second concern I believe needs more exploration and is broadly relevant in urban planning, development, and design.  In a field seeking to influence the shape of the built environment, what do we know about how people experience space and, from them, what we can learn about how the spaces we create embody values and culture?[1]

In the introduction to Sexuality and Space, the published product of a 1990 Yale Symposium on architecture and gender, Beatriz Colomina asserts that the built environment is inherently representational and thus reflects socio-political attitudes, including those about gender and sexuality:

“It is not a question of looking at how sexuality acts itself out in space, but rather to ask: How is the question of space already inscribed in the question of sexuality?  Instead, architecture must be thought of as a system of representation in the same way that we think of drawings, photographs, models, film, or television, not only because architecture is made available to us through these media but because the built object is itself a system of representation.”

Understanding relationships between design, management, and spatial characteristics can shed light on how values about sexual orientation and gender identity are embodied in urban environments.  As can be inferred by the Cambridge town hall meeting, surely the values encoded in spaces contribute to the kinds of social isolation underlying a variety of queer issues – homelessness, health problems, unemployment, and lack of safety net. While intentional social isolation may not be the driving factor behind planning and urban design, a lack of awareness is. One of my favorite examples of this is a formally designed social space in downtown Kansas City, MO, which is part of a larger downtown redevelopment project underwritten largely through tax increment financing.  The site, called Kansas City Live!, is marketed rather directly to singles via the ad campaign slogan: “Get Turned On!”  I’ve observed a number of these kinds of designed social districts popping up in downtowns in response to the massive migration of young people into cities.  These districts capitalize on the disposable income of young singles, and create spaces to meet friends and lovers.  Through field work in Kansas City, I collected an overwhelming amount of feedback on the feeling of exclusion queer folks experienced at Kansas City Live! Reasons included a restrictive dress code, homophobic management, signage and marketing, and the expense, symbolized in part by its ‘mass-produced’ aesthetic in the context of a corporate downtown.

The Kansas City Live! example is simply to suggest that the design and regulation of urban spaces do carry specific social and cultural messages, largely of the dominant culture, and restrict other social and cultural practices and ways of being.  There is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ planning and design outcome.  When considering queer people as a constituency for new approaches to planning and design, practitioners and academics will benefit enormously both from better data at their finger tips and a critical and accessible body of research on the spaces generated by queer folks and the relationships between planners, plans, formal spaces, and queer experiences.


[1] My use of the term space here is to mean “everyday space.”  In this context, everyday space is hetero-normative space.  Michael Warner introduces the term in Fear of a Queer Planet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), xxi.  “Het[ero-normative] culture thinks of itself as the elemental form of human association, as the very model of inter-gender relations, as the indivisible basis of all community, and as the means of production without which society wouldn’t exist.”