Anyone who went to the Pride in London Parade on 8 July will have witnessed this year’s theme, “Love Happens Here”, in action. Over 26,000 marchers and almost one million supporters took to the streets to make a big statement about equal rights for the LGBT+ community.
That’s not the only way Pride in London (the organising group) used the city’s public spaces to create an impact. The group also teamed up with Google this year to produce a ‘Love Happens Here’ map. The public were asked to share the location of somewhere they’d fallen in love, along with a short story, and these stories were then marked on the map for everyone to enjoy.
Reading the anecdotes and examining the spatial patterns, the map actually holds some interesting lessons for people like me who work in urban development. And I couldn’t help but think that a very human dynamic, like love, should be considered more in the way we plan and design our cities and public spaces.
Here are a few things that the Love Happens Here map can teach us about cities and the LGBT+ experience of the city in particular:
The green and blue spaces in cities are important for quality if life. On the map, many people fell in love in places that connect them with nature. The Thames, parks and canals all feature as places where people created love stories. This reinforces the importance of these “shared gardens” in dense cities like London as places where we relax and enjoy the outdoors with friends and partners.
People make more than just rail connections at train stations. Though less romantic than the airport scene in the film Love Actually, train stations are places where couples are saying goodbye or welcoming loved ones home. Excellent design (like King’s Cross Station) and the growing popularity of leisure offerings in train stations make them more of a destination—a more pleasant space for those important farewells and hellos.
‘Gay enclaves’ like SoHo still matter. SoHo stands out as a neighbourhood with many LGBT+ love stories, but we know anecdotally that other LGBT concentrations like Hackney, Shoreditch and Clapham have strong clusters as well. I want to elaborate on this point in particular.
The agglomeration of LGBT+ venues has long been important as a way to create safe spaces and a density of nightlife and leisure activities that is required to serve the relatively small market. But, a range of broader economic and social forces – including rising London rents, the proliferation of dating apps, the growing acceptance of the LGBT+ community in “straight” bars and the “gentrification” of historically LGBT+ neighbourhoods – have led to a reduction of London’s LGBT+ pubs and bars by 50 percent in the past decade. This raises a question as to whether we need to protect gay enclaves as a part of cities, and if so, how to keep them thriving.
Amy Lamé, London’s Night Czar, has long supported the LGBT+ community and has been working with the mayor to protect the most important LGBT+ venues (among others) from redevelopment and the threat of closure. And for good reason: research from UCL notes that such venues serve “a wide range of important welfare, wellbeing and community functions.”
The 2015 book Planning and LGBTQ Communities has shown a process of LGBT enclaves becoming gentrified, which can either lead to them moving to another part of the city or getting absorbed into the wider community:
Whether London’s gay enclaves are losing ground to a typical process of gentrification or there are particular macroeconomic challenges facing them, like rising rents or changes in social tastes, is a question that should be explored further. If cities like London attract talented workers and create new ideas because of their diversity and inclusiveness, we must also bear in mind what attracts and retains diverse communities in the first place.
Though the Love Happens Here map is a relatively small sample of how people experience the city, it opens up an interesting opportunity for urban designers, planners and policymakers. If we regularly collect more information on how LGBT+ communities and other minority groups experience public life in cities, we can start to understand how to attract and retain the diversity of backgrounds and talent that makes cities interesting, liveable, innovative and successful.
Zach Wilcox is a senior consultant for Arup’s city economics practice and UKMEA chair of the Arup LGBT+ network, Connect Out.