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MRCagney Blog

Sex(uality) in the city: Planning for queerer public space

Thu, August 19, 2021  | 

This post from Kiri Crossland, a Transport Planner at MRCagney, was originally published in the July 2021 issue of Planning Quarterly and is reshared here with permission. For the full issue, please visit the New Zealand Planning Institute Website.

In the spirit of Eleanor Mohammed’s NZPI 2021 conference address which called on planners to hear different ideas and distinct voices, I write from my perspective as both a Pākehā queer femme and a planner to consider how planners can make public spaces safer for queer communities.

Cities are full of secrets and surprises – it’s one of the things we love about them. But some secrets are hard to accept. In Aotearoa, one secret our cities have been hiding is that they aren’t really for everyone. Queer people don’t have the same opportunities to use and access public space in cities as our straight, cisgender counterparts. The heteronormative agenda of the late 19th century made sure of that. Over 100 years later, urban planners have been complicit in keeping queer people out of sight, and out of mind, when it comes to our cities.

Planners have considered gender in our work since at least the 1970s, following the rise of feminist theory and second wave feminist protests (Sandercock and Forsyth 1992). However, hawse have never gone much deeper than inequities between men and women in urban space. Even following the introduction of intersectionality to feminist theory, most feminist works relegate gender to an essentialist or binary concept where the only way for people to exist is as a man or a woman (Beebeejaun 2017; Butler 2011; Gieseking 2020; Jon 2020). It is time we recognised the spectrum of gender identities that exist in the communities we plan for, as well as the ways ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and class interact with gender to produce unique experiences of public space.

Enter Queerness:

Queerness is about subverting dominant culture and breaking down power structures, making it an ideal lens for tackling any of the current social inequities in planning. Recent work from Arup uses queerness as a framework to rethink how all historically marginalised people can be included in public spaces, rather than just people who don’t conform to gender and sexual orientation norms (Arup 2021).

The term ‘queer’ is used interchangeably with the acronym ‘LGBT’ by many academics in planning literature as an umbrella term for the multiple identities which exist within our community. Queerness also exists as a distinct sexual orientation and/or gender identity which is outside of both gay/straight and male/female binaries (Doan 2007; Nusser and Anacker 2013). To me, queerness goes further than just an identity, it is a commitment to challenging the power structures which enable any person to hold privilege over another. To be queer means supporting our Black, Brown and Indigenous whānau, our disabled whānau, our low-income whānau, our sex worker whānau and all communities who are fighting to have their rights recognised.

Intersectionality is a key tenet of queerness and queer history. Intersectionality refers to the idea that we cannot be reduced to a single identity. The way we experience space or are affected by planning occurs at the intersection of different aspects of our identities (Doan 2015a). The reclamation of the term ‘queer’ and indeed the queer rights movement itself, was led by Black, trans sex workers in the 1960s, people who existed at the intersection of multiple marginalised communities. It is essential that queer people and planners consider intersectionality when considering how queer people should be included in planning projects.

The ‘gay panic’ which accompanied the rise of urban planning has contributed to the exclusion of queer communities from the production of urban space, leading to poor outcomes for queer people.

Queer people experience harassment at a higher rate than cis-straight people1 and have less access to safe public space in urban areas (Irazábal and Huerta 2016; Veale et al. 2019). This is largely due to the heterosexual and patriarchal nature of urban space which reduces the physical safety of queer people and regulates their access to and behaviour in public (Gieseking 2020; Irazábal and Huerta 2016).

Harassment is closely linked with, and can contribute to reduced access to public space, however these should be considered two separate problems. Harassment exists because of factors external to queer people; it constitutes actions carried out by sexist, transphobic or homophobic individuals (Doan 2015b). The lack of access to public space is a more complex issue as it occurs as a result of internal factors like fear and the projection of fear onto certain spaces at certain times (Beebeejaun 2017; Gieseking 2020).

The physical, sexual and verbal harassment which queer people experience in urban spaces has recently been investigated by queer researchers here in Aotearoa. They found that 15% of trans and non-binary people have experienced verbal harassment while using public transport (Veale et al. 2019). The availability of more intersectional statistics on harassment is lacking, however multiple queer and feminist theorists have noted the intensified threat which sex workers, immigrants and people of colour face (Doan 2015b; Irazábal and Huerta 2016).

Access to public space is a more complex problem due to its relation to perceived safety by queer people (Gieseking 2020; Doan 2010). It is not enough for a space to be free from harassment or crime; spaces must be actively welcoming to people who are not straight men (Gieseking 2020; Irazábal and Huerta 2016). This is highlighted in statistics about trans and gender non-conforming people’s experiences collected by Aotearoa-based researchers. When waiting for/using public transport, 40% of trans and gender non-conforming people feel unsafe, compared with 40% of women, and 12% of men. When walking alone in their neighbourhood after dark, 36% of trans and gender non-conforming people feel unsafe, compared with 37% of women and 10% of men. While many people face their fear and enter public space, 18% of trans and non-binary people have avoided using public transport due to fears that they would be mistreated (Veale et al. 2019).

So, what can planners do? 

Planning can be improved through incorporating queer culture and experiences into planning practice. Since the 1970s, women have been recognised as an interest group who have different needs to men in urban spaces (Sandercock and Forsyth 1992). While urban problems for women have by no means been eliminated, the deliberate inclusion of women in planning has led to legislative and cultural changes to the way women are treated in public space.

Recognising and communicating with queer people as distinct interest groups will help to combat the exclusion which has produced problems for queers in urban space (Doan 2015a). Genuine communication with queer communities will enable planners to put specific measures in place to support queer people in a way that is appropriate to their local context. Irazábal and Huerta (2016) used tours of New York City and performances by queer youth of colour in their home environments to challenge city officials’ understandings of what it means to be queer. These tours showed that once city officials were exposed to their queer residents, they developed more empathy and understanding of the specific problems queer youth of colour face in New York.

Feminists and queer theorists use ideas of belonging when discussing the right women and queer people have to claim space in urban areas (Beebeejaun 2017; Doan 2010; Gieseking 2020). The everyday act of moving through urban spaces increases a woman’s knowledge of that space, affirming her sense of belonging there (Beebeejaun 2017). Similarly, for trans people, the rite of mall walking2 can provide a sense of gender validation in public space (Doan 2010). This claiming of space by people who have been excluded because of their gender is of itself a political act.

Spaces can be ‘queered’ by queer people spending time in a place and creating positive memories and associations tied to that place. Gieseking (2020) notes that queer women, trans and gender non-conforming people in particular are more likely to describe certain places as becoming queer in the presence of girlfriends, lovers and queer friends.

Planners can support queering space in this way through the introduction of queer-endorsed signs and symbols which recognise queer s or communities and encourage new social norms in the space (Arup 2021). Queer spaces are largely temporal as gentrification and heteronormativity disestablish commercial queer spaces, such as bookshops or nightclubs, both implicitly (Doan and Higgins 2011) and explicitly (Frisch 200). Some semblance of this queerness can be retained in these spaces, even after queer business has left the area, through recognition of this queer history (Doan 2015a). Small gestures like this are appropriate for addressing implicit exclusion of queerness. When supported by wider measures, signs and symbols are less likely to be tokenistic and can give queer people some validation that they belong in a space. However, there are wider conversations to be had on how to address explicit exclusion of queerness from public spaces – our influence on public space only goes so far.

When considering how to make city spaces safer for everyone, planners tend to rely on Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) principles – especially ‘eyes on the street’. It is time to consider the idea that while transphobia, homophobia and general bigotry are still present in society, queer people might not actually want eyes on them all the time. This is not because we want to commit a crime, we just want to be able to enjoy a public space dressed as our authentic queer selves, expressing our gender, and maybe even sitting snuggled up on a park bench with a partner without fear of stares, comments, or outright attacks. This concept is supported by recent research from Arup (2021) who describe public space as being policed to accommodate heteronormative ideals. Trans and gender non-conforming people are obviously excluded from public space, but so are gay men who dress ‘too feminine’ and butch lesbians who break the mould of what is expected from women.

The same research from Arup recommends providing ‘cosy corners’ in public spaces where queer people (or anyone visibly different and at risk of public bigotry) can see out into public space while retaining some privacy. Some spaces like this already exist if you know where to look or are forced to find them.

This bench in Hamilton’s Civic Square is a simple example of cosy corners which reduce the visibility of queer people, without compromising safety (Figure 1). The planters surround the bench on three sides: this reduces the angles that people sitting at the bench can be seen from and makes it more difficult for them to be snuck up on. People sitting at the bench provide ‘eyes on the street’ but do not face the same scrutiny and exposure as they would sitting on a free-standing bench. If planners take the first step in creating more of these welcoming spaces, queer people can carry out their political act of taking up urban space and claiming the city.

Figure 1: 'Cosy corner' benches in Hamilton's Civic Square

A final avenue for planners to explore is considering the effects of planning decisions on queer communities when assessing resource consents. This concept is in its infancy in the UK, with suggestions that the 2021 Equality Act be incorporated into planning guidance (Arup 2021). In the Aotearoa context, this could be done by expanding the meaning of ‘effect’ under the Resource Management Act 1991, or the upcoming Natural and Built Environment Act, to include the groups protected by the NZ Human Rights Act 1993. For projects which do affect marginalised communities, an equity impact assessment could accompany resource consent applications to ensure these communities are not disproportionately affected. 

Cities aren’t designed for everyone yet. However, planners have great potential to shift our practice to reflect the wants and needs of queer communities, providing a path to make our urban spaces safe for all people.

Planning has a history of change and growth; it is time to challenge ourselves to listen to voices which have been silenced for too long. Bringing these voices into our practice and acting on their recommendations is the first step in creating the inclusive future we say we want.



1. Refers to people who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth (cis, or cisgender) and are heterosexual (straight).

2. A public performance of gender which involves walking through the mall early in transition to test one’s ability to “pass” (Doan 2010).



Arup. 2021. Queering Public Space: Exploring the relationship between queer communities and public spaces. London: Arup and University of Westminster.

Beebeejaun, Yasminah. 2017. "Gender, urban space, and the right to everyday life." Journal of Urban Affairs 39 (3):323-334.

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. Florence: Routledge.

Butler, Judith. 2011. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 3rd edition: Taylor and Francis.

Doan, Petra L. 2007. "Queers in the American City: Transgendered perceptions of urban space." Gender, Place and Culture 14 (1):57-74.

Doan, Petra L. 2010. "The tyranny of gendered spaces – reflections from beyond the gender dichotomy." Gender, Place and Culture 17 (5):635-654.

Doan, Petra L. 2015a. Planning and LGBTQ communities: the need for inclusive queer spaces: New York, NY: Routledge.

Doan, Petra L. 2015b. "Planning for Sexual and Gender Minorities." In Cities and the Politics of Difference, edited by Michael A. Burayidi, 135-158. University of Toronto Press.

Doan, Petra L., and Harrison Higgins. 2011. "The Demise of Queer Space? Resurgent Gentrification and the Assimilation of LGBT Neighborhoods."  Journal of Planning Education and Research 31 (1):6-25.

Frisch, Michael. 2002. "Planning as a heterosexist project."  Journal of Planning Education and Research 21 (3):254-266.

Gieseking, Jen Jack. 2020. "Mapping lesbian and queer lines of desire: Constellations of queer urban space."  Society & Space 38 (5):941-960.

Irazábal, Clara, and Claudia Huerta. 2016. "Intersectionality and planning at the margins: LGBTQ youth of color in New York."  Gender, Place & Culture 23 (5):714-732.

Jon, Ihnji. 2020. "Reframing postmodern planning with feminist social theory: Toward “anti-essentialist norms”."  Planning Theory 19 (2):147-171.

Nusser, Sarah Parker, and Katrin B. Anacker. 2013. "What sexuality is this place? Building a framework for evaluating sexualized space: The case of Kansas City, Missouri." Journal of Urban Affairs 35 (2):173-193.

Sandercock, Leonie, and Ann Forsyth. 1992. "A gender agenda: New directions for planning theory."  Journal of the American Planning Association 58 (1):49-59.

Veale, Jaimie, Jack Byrne, Kyle Tan, Sam Guy, Ashe Yee, Tāwhanga Nopera, and Ryan Bentham. 2019. Counting Ourselves: The health and wellbeing of trans and non-binary people in Aotearoa New Zealand. Hamilton, New Zealand: Transgender Research Lab, University of Waikato.