Simon Brooksbank shares his idea to use placemaking – imaginative street art and furniture – to help create a sense of place and identity for London’s gay neighbourhoods.
A ‘gaybourhood’ is a geographical area with recognised boundaries frequented by large numbers of people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT). Gaybourhoods often feature a higher concentration of LGBT businesses, venues, community facilities or cultural attractions.
Even though we live in a society that is much more accepting of homosexuality than it used to be, gaybourhoods have faced significant challenges in recent years. Many have lost a significant proportion of their LGBT venues. A study by UCL Laboratory, published in 2017, found that in the past 10 years, 58 per cent of LGBT venues in London have closed The reasons are complex but, as society changes, gaybourhoods should remain an important part of the social framework of our cities, providing spaces where LGBT people can meet and be themselves, and where LGBT culture is celebrated.
Exploring ways to keep LGBT venues from closing is an important aspect of protecting gaybourhoods. Another is through placemaking, using imaginative street art and furniture to create a sense of place and identity. This has already happened in West End areas like Chinatown and Theatreland, where the urban form has been modified to celebrate and protect the respective Chinese and theatrical aspects of urban spaces.
Soho is the most famous gaybourhood in London; and Old Compton Street, with its many LGBT venues, is widely recognised as its centre. Unlike nearby Chinatown and Theatreland – where street signs have been modified to make people aware of these distinct places – Old Compton Street is devoid of street art or furniture celebrating its culture and heritage. Indeed, such is the extent of the closure of LGBT venues and the lack of distinguishing street furniture in Old Compton Street that you could almost be forgiven for not realising that you are walking through a gaybourhood at all. So, my idea is to use street and street furniture to celebrate the area’s cultural heritage.
In cities such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago, gaybourhoods have been protected and celebrated through street art and street furniture. From rainbow-coloured zebra crossings to the use of rainbow flags and statues, these innovations have given their districts a distinctive feel. Any street art in Soho would have to be sensitive to the surrounding area and involve good design, but a similar approach is certainly possible.
Elsewhere in the world, successful placemaking has made gaybourhoods tourist destinations in their own right, thus helping the local economy. In London, such a move could draw extra business to LGBT venues, further protecting the character of this aspect of Soho.
The LGBT influence on Soho is an intrinsic part of what makes it one of the most special and vibrant neighbourhoods in London. Imaginative and distinctive urban design would not only protect the LGBT character of Soho, but also celebrate it.
Simon Brooksbank is Co-Chair & Co-Founder, Planning Out.