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Queer Erasure: Why Is There No Space for LGBTQ+ People In Our Cities?

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

Is urban planning another sector to exclude the LGBTQ from?

Rainbow road to inclusion by Carly Lovas


Urban Planning: A Crash Course

Urban Planning is the preparation of plans for the creation, regulation and management of towns, cities and metropolitan regions. Planning ensures the protection of people’s general health, safety and welfare. Urban Design is the intersection of architecture and urban planning that is concerned with enhancing the quality and functionality of urban life.


Urban Planning and Design decisions shape the environment we live in, and they reflect as well as reinforce the systemic inequalities in our society. Modern Urban Planning is believed to have emerged in the 19th Century due to unsanitary conditions and public health concerns. Since then, Urban Planning and Design fields have been widely dominated by wealthy men, consequently alienating populations along the lines of gender, sexuality, race and class. In general, a city is designed with the “heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender man” in mind and thus fails to cater to women, sexual and gender minorities, and disabled people. A city without sidewalk ramps is not accessible to disabled people. A city without safe bus stands in deserted areas is not secure for women. Streets without adequate lighting may be traversed by able-bodied men but will be avoided by almost all minorities out of fear.

Planners and designers have created urban spaces taking the able-bodied, working male as the “neutral” user of the city, where men travel to work and women stayed at home. However in the current age, women work and have family-related duties, but zoning and transportation in cities simply do not cater to these new needs and add unnecessary burdens on women. As a result of such heterosexist assumptions, urban environments have become both products and drivers of inequities. A study conducted in Mumbai in 2007 showed that although public spaces were open to all, women and girls avoided them unless it was on their route, due to discomfort or lack of safety. Playgrounds were used extensively by men and boys but only used as shortcuts by women and girls. In fact, this study mapped the behaviour of office goers at lunchtime too- women bought their lunch and headed straight back to their cubicles, while men roamed around the vendors, lingered and stayed there for a while. What this study proved was that women only accessed public spaces if they could manufacture a reason to be there.


For queer people, the sense of discomfort and jeopardy can be even more severe due to the risk of violence and merciless harassment.


What Does This Mean for LGBTQ+ People?

The consequences of planning decisions made solely by one group are far-reaching, and ultimately affect every aspect of the day-to-day life of people in underrepresented groups.

There are 6 main areas where discrimination intersects with the built environment:

  1. Access to Public Spaces

  2. Mobility

  3. Safety from Violence

  4. Health

  5. Climate Resilience

  6. Tenure Security

Image from the World Bank highlighting the cycle of oppression biased urban planning perpetuates.

How Do These Factors Translate In The Real World?

Biases that are built into our environment directly contribute to oppressive structures. The lack of space dedicated to queer people results in a struggle to access employment, education, basic services, and social freedoms while also making it harder for the community to accumulate wealth and achieve economic independence.


In the US, 1 in 5 transgender people avoids using public services due to the fear of being harassed or assaulted. Across Europe, 50% of LGBTQ+ individuals avoid public spaces due to the same reason. All over the world, studies suggest that queer people tend to stay away from places where there is a higher chance of being surrounded by unknown people- this includes streets, squares, public transport, cafes, etc. Queer people also struggle to find community spaces due to homophobia and prejudices and are excluded from existing ones.


Moreover, sexual orientation is the third highest motivator for all hate crime incidents across the world. One study found that 90% of lesbian women in Quito, Ecuador suffered abuse on account of homophobia in their own neighbourhoods. In general, transgender people are twice as likely to face violence in public spaces.


Furthermore, since LGBTQ+ people are more susceptible to poverty and lower socio-economic status, with many living in shelters or at risk of homelessness, they are increasingly vulnerable to climate risks. If queer neighbourhoods do exist, they are often poor and financially restricted.



What Does an Inclusive City Look Like?

A city that is truly inclusive must be accessible, where everyone can access the public realm freely and comfortably. It must be connected, so everyone can move around the city safely and easily. It must be safe, in a way that everyone is free from dangers, and it must protect everyone from environmental health risks. It must provide security, enabling every inhabitant to secure work, housing and agency. Lastly, it must be climate resilient. No one must be at a higher risk of climate disaster, and everyone should have the resources to prepare for and cope with the disasters.


The city of Vienna was one of the first pioneers of inclusive urban planning. It let women architects design districts with female needs in mind, sold subsidised housing to women, made space for sports predominantly played by girls in parks, widened streets, installed ramps and built additional seating. Vienna made sure streets and parks were well and warmly lit, which increased footfall - and consequently deterred hate crimes. Today, urban planning is assessed with an inclusive lens in Vienna, and cities all over Europe are following suit.


When women were included in Kerala’s Urban Development Project, the results included increased safety and mobility due to road improvements, the establishment of biogas plants to recycle household waste, and better sanitation and access to water. The resulting ease of daily activities led to an increase in women in the workforce and women initiating their own income-generating activities. It stands to reason then, that if queer people are given a voice in planning their environments, the outcome will be greatly beneficial, and contribute towards repairing the decades of discrimination and decreased opportunities.


How Can This Be Achieved?

In order to undo the historical damage, practical and strategic needs should be addressed. Practical needs deal with the necessities and inadequacies a community faces. These have severe day-to-day impacts and need to be resolved, but they also provide a conduit for solving strategic needs. Strategic needs are the needs that sexual minorities face due to oppressive societal structures. Meeting these needs challenges the socio-economic position of LGBTQ+ people, and promotes their inclusion.


Other than this, the principles that guide urban planning need to be revised. Governments can undertake overarching commitments to make urban planning and design more inclusive by utilising practicable methods and setting inclusive guidelines for planners, such as creating community centres that welcome LGBTQ+ people and neighbourhoods that serve more than just heterosexual people. Most importantly, there is a need for financial investment and the inclusion of queer people in the planning and design process. It is crucial to elevate the voices of non-heterosexual and non-cisgender individuals, so as to truly make our cities a safe place for everyone.


How Does Inclusive Urban Planning Contribute to Sustainability?

To make cities more sustainable, the UN suggests conducting “urban consultations” for strategic urban planning. Inclusion is one of the main principles of urban consultations, where the opinions of all stakeholders, including underrepresented and vulnerable groups are considered and acted upon.


Making our cities accessible to the queer community contributes towards achieving several of the UN's proposed SDGs, namely the SDGs related to eradicating poverty and unemployment, reducing inequalities, establishing sustainable communities, providing quality education and healthcare for all and reducing gender discrimination. Moreover, since queer people are disproportionately affected by climate change due to poverty and restricted access to resources, inclusive urban planning is a step towards attaining environmental justice. Giving the community its deserved place in urban planning and sustainability conversations can only lead to a brighter, safer future.



References

Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design. (n.d.). World Bank. Retrieved June 24, 2021, from


Shroff, M. (2021). International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Amiga Press Inc.

(2007). Inclusive and Sustainable Urban Development Planning: A guide for Municipalities. Issuu.


Shilpa Ranade. (2007). The Way She Moves: Mapping the Everyday Production of Gender-Space. Economic and Political Weekly, 42(17), 1519-1526. Retrieved June 25, 2021, from


Emily L. Sanschagrin. (2011). THE LGBT COMMUNITY AND PUBLIC SPACE: A MIXED METHODS APPROACH (A Thesis).


How Vienna designed a city for women. (2017). Apolitical.

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