Text by Michele Rafferty

The latest conversation in our Public Space series, Tracing Gender and Sexual Inequalities, examined how leveraging data, research, and informed collaboration can create more just public spaces that elevate rather than alienate marginalized communities.  The conversation addressed questions such as: At what point does public space become hostile to certain gender and sexual identities? How can reviewing existing data help us understand the absence of, and create more, opportunities around advocating for positive change?

“Societal attitudes towards public spaces have long been plagued by binary thinking,” noted Fauzia Khanani, AIA host and the founder of Studio Fōr. “Inclusive design offers a powerful tool for disrupting this cycle”—and for creating spaces that unify and heal.

Amy Rosen, a sociospatial designer with PLASTARC, asked, “What if architecture and design were void of gender, sexual, and racial oppression?”  Gender stereotypes shape the way we design our societies, and society often relies on these stereotypes to comprehend people and construct spaces, Rosen pointed out. But what if, instead of exploiting people, design embraced the variability of human expression?

“There is value in speaking directly to people, just as hard metrics help us get a picture of how people interact with spaces,” they said. “The value of data becomes clearest when we actually use it.” 

But, Rosen cautioned, data has limitations and must be approached thoughtfully and interpreted with context and nuance. Otherwise, “solutions” may be tone-deaf or address only symptoms rather than root causes.

A.L. Hu, a writer and design initiatives manager for Ascendant Neighborhood Development referenced Kevin Guyan’s book Queer Data: Using Gender, Sex and Sexuality Data for Action. Historically queer people have been counted mostly in data related to criminal acts, such as criminalized sex or cross-dressing, as well as in a corpus of data addressing illness and disease.  In relation to queer people, data was often collected to document evidence of what those collecting it considered to be problematic. Hu posed the question, what would a paradigm of data collection that serves the interests of queer people actually look like? “The big question of queer data is ‘who’s it for?’ and ‘who does it serve?’” they emphasized.

The 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, a fight between trans women and police at a 24-hour cafe in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, is an example of blurring the boundary between public and private space, as well as safe and unsafe space.

The police saw the riot as a violent disruption by a group of “crossdressers.” But for the queer community, the drag queens who frequented the cafe were reacting to long-running harassment from the police which had been happening all summer.

“The riot was as much a reaction to the situation in that cafeteria that night, as it was to years of queerphobic policing throughout the city of San Francisco,” said Hu. The fact that the riot spilled out into the public setting of the street underscored that the conflict was not just a private matter between the customers and the management of the cafe, but a public one between queer people and the city…The public show of queer solidarity and care in the streets made it queer vigilantism. The riot called into question [whether] queer people are ever safe, in private or public, who gets to take up space, and who gets to be part of the public.”

The research of Victor Gonzalez, a recent graduate from Colorado University Boulder and the Executive Chair for the American Institute of Architecture student JEDI committee, focuses on sexual racism in public spaces. Gonzalez found there was a consistent pattern of sexual racism at queer bars and clubs in Denver. Sexual racism, is the “set of negative sexual attitudes, sexual exclusion, or fetishization of those who are non-white,” he said. Physical spaces cannot be racist in and of themselves, but they can provide spacial and territorial conditions for sexual racism to thrive.

There are no quick fixes for the problem but Gonzalez discovered some correctives that can be integrated into the built form itself, to counteract the effects or dissuade the presence of sexual racism.  One bar, called Pride & Swagger, had posters at its entrance condemning racism and other forms of discrimination. This set a tone about the type of space that would exist inside the building.

Jennifer Gardner is a design strategist who works at the US Office of Personnel Management, a government agency that uses human-centered design to help other agencies privilege human needs in policy and service design. “What makes a vibrant public space?” she asked. “Why do we even want to be in public spaces in the first place?”

She has frequently used an ice-breaking activity where she shows a series of pictures of public spaces to people, in order to understand what appeals to them about these spaces.  Many people liked the warmth and color of an environment or the closeness of the people in the images. In some cases, what drew them to the scenes were that the people in the photos reminded them of their own family. “This sort of observational data is essential for urban design,” Gardner said. 

Planners play an important role in making public spaces accessible to those who aren’t typically present or visible. This is also an important consideration for community-based organizations, led by and advocating for groups typically left out of the decision-making process, when they lobby for investment to support their self-led programming.  Data about public space can be a powerful tool in this evaluation process

Gardner is currently designing a “public life data protocol,” which could enable the wider use of data to inform public spaces, with the goal of shifting historic biases against people-centered design in policy decisions. This data-collection tool, which will be open, adaptable, and usable by anybody, should encourage more democratic participation in public space, illuminating blind spots we may have by informing our decision-making through evidence, rather than anecdote.

Brittni Collins, assistant director at Times Squares Arts, offered an example of an inclusive use of public space—a three month installation in Times Square called  “A Fountain for Survivors” by the artist Pamela Council.  The “Survivors” in the piece’s title is left open for self-identification, and the structure itself is 18-feet tall, a cocoon-like hooded shell, filled with exuberant color, housing a fountain. For Council, fountains function as “living sculpture” and make unique contributions to public spaces through “working in culture’s meeting places, as gathering places, and places where people make wishes, giving people this buoyant sense of hope…”

When collecting data, researchers must attempt to observe and understand behavior without judging the people engaged in it. This is inherently challenging, but according to Gardner, her open protocol is designed to guard against biases. 

“There are some huge ethical questions around surveillance, period,” said Gardner. To illustrate, she discussed how one company that uses visual capture to build data profiles of spaces may use invasive data, such as faces, whereas another may use more nondescript identifiers, such as the width of shoulders. 

The responsible use of nuanced data to create more inclusive and safer spaces is a key concern of these panelists, as is cultivating a genuine sense of community rather than, in Rosen’s words, “a pandering, even if well-intentioned, one imposed from above.”

According to Gonzalez, it’s important for designers to avoid egotistically making the final decision on what a space should be, ignoring the input of the communities that inhabit it.  “I think that’s where a lot of the errors happen,” he said.  “Just as important as all your data analysis and preparation before building a space, is to leave those final decisions to the communities you’re building for.”


Want to get involved?

The AIANY Social Science + Architecture Committee meets regularly. Meetings are open to the public and typically occur at 8:30 am on the last Thursday of each month.

Jennifer Gardner is an urbanist and civic designer whose work promotes equity and opportunity through sustainable, human-centered design and policy. Gardner works as a design strategist at the Lab at OPM, an interdisciplinary team of consultant designers supporting federal government organizations to transform their programs, processes, and people through human-centered design. Gardner has an MS in City and Regional Planning from Pratt Institute and a BA in English Literature from Cornell University.

Victor Gonzalez is an emerging Mexican architecture professional currently practicing in Denver, Colorado. He currently serves on the AIA Colorado J.E.D.I. Committee and as the executive chair for the national AIAS J.E.D.I. Taskforce.

A.L. Hu is a queer, nonbinary, transgender Taiwanese-American architect, organizer, and facilitator who lives and works in New York City. Hu was a 2019-2021 Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow and they are currently Design Initiatives Manager at Ascendant Neighborhood Development in East Harlem. Hu writes the not-so-regular Queer Agenda newsletter, and provides brainpower and energy for Queeries, an ongoing community-building initiative for and by LGBTQIA+ architects and designers. They received a Master of Architecture from Columbia University GSAPP.

Amy Rosen applies integrated design methodologies to everything they do—seeking opportunities to tie architecture into systematic and fluid urban networks. Rosen is an advocate for the power of design to inspire, to unify, and to heal. Using their architectural education as a backbone, Rosen incorporates equity and social sustainability into their design process. 


About the Author

Michele Rafferty is a freelance content coordinator working with PLASTARC, a consultancy dedicated to increasing the flexibility and desirability of space using social research and occupant engagement.