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The Ring - CCxA

Are Public Spaces Ever Truly Public?

A queer perspective

Text by Mark Hillmer, OALA

Our public spaces are intended to be open for all to use. They are stages upon which our collective histories unfold. As designers, we strive to create places that are safe and welcoming for all people—though that may oversimplify the diverse range of experiences individuals encounter walking our streets or visiting our parks. In fact, for many marginalized groups, our relationship with public space can be complicated.

A rainbow-coloured bench in Toronto's Gay Village. IMAGE/ Jennifer Wan

A marginalized person carries emotional weight and an acute awareness of what “others” them from society. It can be their skin colour, their physical or mental disability, gender expression, or sexual orientation. When we walk through the street, sit in a park, have a picnic with friends, or share an intimate moment with a loved one, we are simultaneously assessing the world around us for potential threats.

The 519 community agency in Toronto's Gay Village on Church Street. IMAGE/ Jennifer Wan

Marginalized communities maintain a close connection to our collective histories of struggle for acceptance and on-going fights for equality. Many of these historic events are shrouded in violence and occurred in public places. 

Despite this, these same public spaces are often essential for many as places to connect, in lieu of having dedicated, safe spaces to gather. However, this can also result in clashes with majority users who do not understand the cultures of minority groups or feel a sense of ownership over public spaces, entitling them to define how they should be used. 

Trillium Park in Toronto. IMAGE/ Jennifer Wan

The queer community is one such group, with methods of expression that can result in conflict in public spaces. For instance, simple public expressions of queer love, or gender expressions that do not conform to conventional male-female binaries can put people at risk of public attack. Cruising—the act of people discretely seeking and engaging in public sex—is another example of a cultural behaviour that deviates from accepted norms. This can lead to conflict between individuals, but can also be more directly targeted. In 2016, police cracked down on cruising in Marie Curtis Park in Toronto (“Project Marie”). This was particularly sensitive for the queer community because the act of cruising has deep roots in our history. After-hours and hidden areas of public spaces were among the only places many queer men—both out and closeted—could engage with their true selves and authentic sexuality. Cruising continues to this day and morality raids like Project Marie have impacts far beyond the ticketing of approximately 75 men, as these high-stigma offences can lead to the break-up of families, depression, or other mental health issue

Mel Lastman Square in Toronto. IMAGES/ Jennifer Wan

While inequities remain, I suggest truly inclusionary spaces are an ideal that cannot exist without a fundamental shift in our societal attitudes towards marginalized people. I recognize we must ultimately confront things like our societal values system, rooted in colonial and Christian ideologies. Those ideologies inform our governance and planning systems, laws, and even the rules governing day-to-day use of our public spaces. These rules change and evolve over time, but, at the heart, there are limitations being placed that disproportionately impact certain user groups.

Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. IMAGES/ Jennifer Wan

Our approach to engagement with community members throughout the planning and design process needs reconsideration. Too often public consultation is seen as a requirement instead of an opportunity to obtain valuable input from all community members. One overarching problem with the process is the needs of the majority too often overshadow those of minority groups. This can lead to ubiquitous public spaces with similar program elements and compound the feeling among marginalized communities that their needs are less valid. Additionally, by holding meetings in large, open forums, minority groups may be uncomfortable sharing their thoughts for fear of backlash or dismissal from others. Instead, we should consider alternative and targeted methods of reaching out to different user groups, both in public and private settings, and offering opportunities for people to voice their opinions. When developing a public engagement plan, consider that some members of the public may not be able to access or navigate online virtual platforms, some may not be on social media, and may have language barriers.

The International African American Museum in Charleston, N.C. IMAGES/ Mike Habat

Another way designers can make public spaces more inclusive is to stop relying on Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) as a reliable design tool. Although the concepts behind CPTED may seem positive and make places safer from a policing perspective, the reality for minorities and marginalized groups can be quite the opposite. As an example, by encouraging surveillance of spaces by other members of the public, our societal biases and systemic racism can lead marginalized groups to feel uneasy because of general suspicion or distrust.

The John Robinson Jr. Town Square in Arlington, Virginia. IMAGES/ David Ross

We also need to start creating more spaces designed for marginalized groups, or in commemoration of their histories. The phrase “representation matters” is not just applicable to media or business: our ability to see ourselves reflected in the design of public spaces assigns legitimacy to our existences. Further, it challenges a majority—who may not wish to confront the attitudes and prejudices that continue to marginalize minority groups—to acknowledge our existence and our struggles. As an example, the Government of Canada recently ran a design competition for the creation of an LGBTQ2+ National Monument which acknowledges and pays tribute to members of the community who were discriminated against by the Government during the LGBT Purge. Landscapes like this give legitimacy to the damage caused by past discriminatory actions, help begin a healing process, and provide context for future generations to signal the importance of equity and inclusion.

But the acknowledgement or representation of marginalized groups does not have to be a grand gesture, it can take many forms, like artwork in public spaces. For instance, the work of Hood Design Studio in projects like the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, and the John Robinson Jr. Town Square in Arlington, Virginia brings to life the histories of Black Americans through the integration of narrative public artwork. 

Alternatively, we can consider subversive design work that breaks from traditional colonial and Christian-centric ideals to create diversity of spaces within public areas that support all manner of activities and groups of people. Take the work of Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Hargreaves Jones in their design of Zaryadye Park in Moscow, Russia, for example. In their approach, the design team considered the park design as being intended for the residents of the city, not the government. This was a simple but important shift in framing the project and offered a different lens through which to consider the design brief. The brief discouraged large open spaces as an effort to prevent public assemblies or protests. Hargreaves Jones as lead landscape architects therefore took the approach of reflecting various Russian natural landscapes throughout the park as a notion of national pride; but, in reality, they were subverting the traditional approach to public spaces in Russia, where access to softscape areas off of pathways and lingering were strictly discouraged. In this way, the Russian Government celebrated the design while, in practicality, the design team had managed to create a space the people could occupy and feel ownership over.

Zaryadye Park in Moscow, Russia. IMAGES/ Iwan Baan

While the Russian example is an extreme case, I believe we can learn something from it. For instance, our public clients or elected officials may not always have the courage to break from tradition or put more emphasis on the needs of the few over the wants of the many; but, as designers, we can still consider ways of pushing for inclusivity. As designers of public space, we have a responsibility to underrepresented and marginalized communities to create spaces where they feel welcome, safe, and free to be themselves.

BIO/ Mark Hillmer, OALA, is a Landscape Architect and member of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community living and working in Toronto.