Planning Magazine

Why We Need Queer Urbanism

Heteronormative planning structures exclude and can even endanger queer people, especially those who are trans and BIPOC.

Article Hero Image

A pop-up queer bookstore in a free public space is an example of infrastructure that doesn’t require a visitor to have wealth, a traditional family structure, or a normative identity to be welcomed. Photo courtesy of CultureHouse.

Queerness is defined by public perception. One can only be queer — initially defined as "strange" or "odd" — in comparison to others. Though the LGBTQ+ community has reclaimed the word, it doesn't change the fact that queer people are systemically excluded from urban design. It's long past time for that to change.

What I call Queer Urbanism takes an approach to planning that centers identity, breaks norms, and gives people agency to adapt a space to meet their needs. This approach is most needed where queer people typically experience discrimination: in public spaces.

In his article "Planning as a Heterosexist Project," Michael Frisch, AICP, argues urban planning structures — from zoning regulations to public space design — promote cisgender and straight identities while suppressing queer people. These structures exclude through policies that assume heteronormative family and relationship structures as the only definition of normal. They erase queer people from public life and create an urban landscape that is decidedly cisheteronormative.

It's time for a change

LGBTQ+ Americans have lower incomes than the general population and are less likely to have children, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School. These factors are in direct opposition to the main forces shaping American urban areas: money and reproduction.

Much of our social infrastructure in the U.S. is pay-to-enter. Whether it's a cafe, a museum, or a barbershop, payment is required to participate in the space's public life. Of the social infrastructure that is free, much of it (parks, schools, and libraries) caters to people with children. Consistently, queer people have been excluded from family-oriented spaces with discrimination disguised as concern for children's safety. The other major public space is the street — but constant slurs and attacks can make it unsafe for queer people, especially those who are transgender and/or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color).

With much of the public space being discriminatory to queer people, private space is often the only place queer people can be centered. However, LGBTQ+ people are less likely to own homes and more likely to experience homelessness — locking many of them out of a primary place they can be safe.

Even in this hostile environment, queer spaces do exist. However, without structural change, they are never assured their continued existence. Frisch states that through structures set up to promote straight and cis identities, "Planners work to destroy . . . queer spaces and render them safe for heterosexuals." The results speak for themselves — there are fewer than 30 lesbian bars in all of the U.S. To create public spaces that are genuinely welcoming to queer people, we need to start with a new framework. As we build cities for the 21st century, we need a new lens to center queer people in public life: Queer Urbanism.

Just as queer people exist outside of the "normal" structures of society, Queer Urbanism follows principles that are outside the "normal" forces of urban development. It doesn't assume wealth, traditional family structure, and identity. Rather, Queer Urbanism welcomes and celebrates the identities of those who have not had a world made for them.

People who are trans and BIPOC face threats of violence in public spaces, making it urgent for planners to consider how to actively protect and include them. Photo by Kevin RC Wilson / Alamy.

People who are trans and BIPOC face threats of violence in public spaces, making it urgent for planners to consider how to actively protect and include them. Photo by Kevin RC Wilson / Alamy.

Make it intersectional

In every statistic, trans and BIPOC queer people experience more discrimination and barriers than cis and white queer people. In his article "Why do so many queer folks love urbanism?", Wyatt Gordon writes for Greater Greater Washington, "Too often the things that we have in common as queer urbanists — namely, our contempt for car dependency and aversion to heteronormativity — tend to distract from the ways in which systemic inequities of racism, sexism, and transphobia replicate themselves in our own niche sphere of society."

Dhanya Rajagopal, a planner and director of placemaking for the firm Mirabilis Advisory, interviewed Jah Elyse Sayers and John Bezemes for Design Trust for Public Space. Sayers, a doctoral student in environmental psychology and former Equitable Public Space Fellow at Design Trust for Public Space, shared, "As a working-class Black gender-nonconforming trans-masculine person, my experience of gay bars and nightclubs has included being ignored by staff, dealing with transphobia from other patrons, and being asked to leave because I haven't bought anything yet or in a while."

If we do not center BIPOC and trans identities in Queer Urbanism, we are setting up structures that are no better than the ones we inherited. Queer people are well-positioned to flip the script. According to a Pew Research study, LGBTQ+ people are "more likely to perceive discrimination not just against themselves but also against other groups with a legacy of discrimination." This perception, however, is not a given. As Kristen Jeffers, founder of the Black Urbanist, told Gordon, "Until white cis gay and straight men get OK with being uncomfortable, and even ask why they feel so much discomfort when there are people who aren't like themselves in the room, nothing will change."

Queer Urbanism realized

CultureHouse is an urban design nonprofit that works with communities to transform underutilized spaces into free-to-enter, pop-up public places that defy norms. We often describe our community pop-ups as indoor public parks, communal living rooms, and third spaces. The forces that guide our work at CultureHouse are rooted in Queer Urbanism. In past community pop-ups, we've partnered with local advocacy groups to celebrate Pride Month, hosted a queer bookstore, and developed a police policy that protects vulnerable visitors.

Our LGBTQ+ focus, however, goes much deeper than programming and design. As a queer-led organization, we use a lens that doesn't assume cisheteronormative identities — therefore creating infrastructure that doesn't enforce cis and straight norms. Instead of building spaces around money, our spaces are free to enter (we often have free coffee as well). Families of all forms with children use our spaces in tandem with those who don't have kids. We center BIPOC and other communities who are often not welcomed into public space.

There are several ways that planners can adjust their thinking and perspective to practice Queer Urbanism. In his article "Queer Urbanism" in Public Art Review, planner James Rojas describes how he found through a series of workshops that "the most powerful lesson . . . is a simple one: the needs and values of queers should become part of the discourse of urban planning and design." This begins by involving queer people of diverse identities in all levels of planning, from hiring them as planners to engaging them in project consultation and centering them during community engagement. On a project level, check to ensure plans don't assume a heteronormative family structure, plan for flexible spaces that people can adapt to their needs, and most importantly, ask queer people what they need to feel comfortable in a space and follow their suggestions.

While there will likely always be a need for places that are designed by and for queer people exclusively, public places that are geared towards the general public must also be queer inclusive. A good indicator of whether a place meets the principles of Queer Urbanism is whether people feel comfortable showing public displays of queerness — often through clothing, speech patterns, and affection — an indication that queer people feel like they don't have to code switch to be accepted. These displays create a positive feedback loop of representation and comfort.

Queering our spaces — operating outside traditional structures and forces — frees them from heteronormative expectations. This fundamental difference in the way CultureHouse (and ideally all of us in planning and design) approaches social infrastructure — not a rainbow flag (though we proudly fly one) — is what makes our spaces welcoming to LBGTQ+ visitors.

Aaron Greiner is an urban designer and social entrepreneur from Somerville, Massachusetts, and the founder and executive director of CultureHouse, an urban design nonprofit. Greiner adapted this article for Planning from his 2021 essay "We Need Queer Urbanism," posted on Medium.