Queer Urbanism

Incorporating LGBTQ perspectives in urban design is an idea whose time has come

James Rojas has led over 400 urban planning workshops, including LGBTQ planning workshops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Minneapolis.

Photo by Tim Adams.

I have a strong sense, rooted in my own life and my knowledge of queer lives in general, that queers experience urban space differently from others—and from this awareness I created Queer Community Visioning Workshops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Minneapolis. The workshops allowed participants to explore their visual, spatial, and emotional experience of the city through storytelling, objects, art-making, and play. The goal: to have queers reflect on their difference as a foundation for shaping (and healing) their communities.

Among the lessons learned: urban design needs to give queers a seat at the planning table.

The hour-long workshop I created takes participants on a journey of self-discovery that begins with personal memories. First comes a ten-minute icebreaker. Participants are asked to use objects to recreate a particularly powerful childhood memory: a moment when they felt or realized that they were different.

Manipulating the objects allows participants to loosen up by “thinking” physically and spatially, beyond words. The memory they are recreating may be painful, but since age and knowledge gives queers a new perspective from which to reflect on it, the recollected moment now becomes an opportunity for learning and bonding.

Once they have completed these physical models of their memories, each person gives their name, tells where they live, and shares their memory for one minute, using the models. Soon, even the shyest people are taking part in the discussion. For many in the group, it’s the first time they’ve shared this personal memory publicly. Common activities, locations, and shared emotional experiences begin to emerge from the stories. As each story contributes to a group narrative, empathy grows and queers of different ages, races, and incomes come to understand and bond with one another.

The memories reveal LGBTQ people’s struggle, confusion, and perseverance from childhood on—including how they developed a “sixth sense” for how to understand and navigate the heteronormative physical and social world, and to find spaces that welcomed them. This “sense” allowed them to coexist with others and understand the complexities of the people and places around them.

Ultimately, the icebreaker validates and equalizes everyone’s lived experiences. Participants realize that everyone will have something to offer as the workshop goes forward. At this point, teams are formed and a collaborative process begins.

The teams are asked to spend the next 15 minutes using objects again, this time to design queer-friendly spaces in response to prompts. The prompts might ask participants to “create a Queer-utopia” or to make a queer-friendly park, housing development, streetscape, transportation pattern, health facility—any urban issue, large or small, is fair game. The prompts are deliberately left open-ended to promote the teams’ imagination and sense of agency.

Ideally, everyone is now comfortable with the process and equipped with newfound knowledge of one another. It’s important that everyone understand that there are no right or wrong answers to the questions generated by the prompts and collaborations. The session is not a competition to prove some ideas better than others. Instead, the participants learn that planning is about how our ideas impact each other. Participants communicate and negotiate with each other, testing their visual and spatial concepts and building from each others’ insights to find common values and common solutions. New ideas emerge.

When the time is up, each team is asked to present its response to the prompt. Teams walk the rest of the participants through their gay-friendly designs, and the members of the other teams can ask questions. This leads to the final reflection and discussion: What did all of the teams have in common? And what did we learn about the LGBTQ community?

What emerges from the process? Well, in the three work- shops I facilitated, many of the designs embodied themes that are crucial for the queer community: inclusion, equity, nonjudgment, gender safety, openness, access, beauty, comfort, and living harmoniously with nature.

But perhaps the most powerful lesson of the workshops is a simple one: the needs and values of queers should become part of the discourse of urban planning and design.

Most planners uphold the status quo, making decisions every day based on mainstream, heteronormative values. Often those values include a strictly objective approach that rules out emotion, and a “siloed” process: issues like transportation, housing, and sustainability are addressed in isolation from each other and from wider contexts.

Queer planning, as I experienced it in the workshops and understand it in my own work, begins with embracing and celebrating difference—and for queers that difference is inevitably connected with powerful emotions. The confusion, hurt, and perseverance that have been a part of our lives have given many of us a desire to create a healing community. This is what has inspired me to advocate a healing-based planning process that takes a deep, holistic approach aimed at restoring all aspects of the environment, from human relationships to nature.

To bring queer perspectives into planning is going to take an outreach process. Creating a safe space for queers to be both forthright and comfortable discussing their experiences of difference, which may be painful, is key in that process and to any effective, meaningful engagement with the LGBTQ community. Also important is a comprehensive process of information-gathering and learning about queer values and cultural needs.

Queers can make an important contribution to a new vision of planning that begins with the lessons of difference and the experience of emotion (including personal pain) and moves forward to find planning solutions that address the whole human being and the whole human community.

Queer difference can make a difference—if we make room for it.

James Rojas is an urban planner, community activist, educator, and artist who developed Place IT!, a new communication tool that uses storytelling, objects, art production, and play for meaningful and authentic community engagement.

Featured in Public Art Review #57.

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