Photo: Mercedes Mehling, Unsplash
A group of people dancing.

Designing With Purpose: Safe Spaces for a Growing LGBTQ+ Population

Today, more Americans than ever identify as LGBTQ+, reflecting a broader acceptance of diverse sexual and gender identities, especially among younger generations. However, as a historically marginalized community, LGBTQ+ individuals have relied on “safe spaces” — environments where they can express their identities without fear of discrimination, judgment, or harm — for community, self-expression, and acceptance. Recent growth in this community, alongside ongoing resistance against LGBTQ+ rights, has elevated conversations about the continued need for such spaces and how they can evolve to meet changing needs.

At Gensler, our roles and responsibilities extend beyond designing and constructing spaces; we aim to develop environments where all individuals, including the LGBTQ+ community, can thrive. Our work encompasses architecture, design, planning, and strategy, providing diverse opportunities to shape the environments where people live, work, and play. By integrating flexible design elements and embracing new technologies, we ensure these spaces remain accessible and welcoming for all.

Last June, Gensler’s Baltimore office hosted a panel to discuss the importance of safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community. The event brought together a diverse group of speakers from public and private institutions, emphasizing the multifaceted approach needed to foster inclusive environments where everyone feels safe, respected, and included. Panelists shared insights on the challenges of establishing safe spaces, practical design considerations, and aspirational intents. Even a year later, the lessons we learned remain relevant today:

  • Gender-neutral amenities: While more organizations adopt these amenities, significant challenges persist, including cultural resistance and regulatory hurdles. Practical design considerations include ensuring privacy, accessibility, and visibility. Thirty percent of the global population lacks adequate restrooms. Normalizing gender-neutral amenities promotes inclusivity and respect while enhancing safety for non-binary, transgender, and gender non-conforming individuals.
A person walking through a hallway.
Photo by Connie Zhou.
  • Clear and inclusive signage: The current trend focuses on using simple, respectful, and affirming language, along with universally recognized symbols, to make spaces more welcoming. Through strategic placement, the goal is to create environments where everyone feels welcome, raise awareness about the importance of inclusive language, and engage the community in the design process to meet their needs.
A room with a table and chairs.
REACH LA, Los Angeles
  • Flexible and adaptable spaces: These spaces, designed with modular furniture, movable walls, and integrated technology, can be easily reconfigured for various events and activities. A prime example is the Frisco Public Library in Frisco, Texas, which transformed an existing warehouse with soaring ceilings into a civic cornerstone for the community. This project’s adaptability promotes a sense of agency and well-being, aiming to create inclusive, community-centric spaces that evolve to remain relevant and useful.
A group of people sitting in a room with colorful chairs.
Frisco Public Library, Frisco, Texas. Photo by Connie Zhou.

While these tangible guidelines are a crucial starting point, the conversation must go deeper. Safe spaces remain vulnerable to political pushback, highlighting the urgent need for design firms to engage with communities and influence policies to support and strengthen these precarious environments.

Suggested priorities include:

  • Engaging the community and influencing policy: Effective community engagement and policy influence require a multifaceted approach. This involves regularly hosting events and discussions to keep the conversation alive and evolving. Staying informed and actively participating in dialogues about laws and policies affecting the LGBTQ+ community is crucial. Collaborating with stakeholders — from local organizations to governmental bodies — ensures a holistic approach. Increased involvement and ownership in the process can instill trust between partners and enhance the success and resilience of shared spaces.
  • Investing in public infrastructure: Working on safe spaces as isolated nodes is insufficient. We must advocate for safety to extend beyond the walls we build. Investing in robust public infrastructure is crucial for enhancing safe spaces and creating safe pathways for the LGBTQ+ community in the public realm. High-quality public infrastructure, such as accessible transit systems and well-designed public spaces, ensures that safe spaces are interconnected parts of a broader, inclusive community. This makes it easier for individuals to reach community centers and events, advancing a sense of belonging beyond these nodes.
  • Embracing technology and virtual spaces: Integrating physical and virtual spaces offers another opportunity to establish resilient pathways. By designing environments that seamlessly connect the physical and digital realms, we ensure that when one is stressed or compromised, the other can provide support. This interconnectedness allows for continuous engagement and access through in-person gatherings or online platforms, creating a robust network of safe spaces that can withstand various challenges. Emerging technologies bring additional opportunities to enhance how communities engage with each other, creating inclusive environments that transcend physical limitations.

As we celebrate Pride Month, we must recognize the significance of physical and virtual safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community. With the community’s growth, the number of voices and the power to speak up have also grown, strengthening a collective generational memory that was once deprived.

While we take pride in our design standards as the building blocks for inclusive placemaking, we must deepen our conversations about safe spaces to embrace community engagement and legislative advocacy to maintain and protect these environments. This commitment to inclusivity and resilience is at the heart of Gensler’s design philosophy, shaping environments that meet today’s needs and are prepared to adapt and grow with the community for years to come.

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Cedric Al Kazzi
Cedric is an architect in Gensler’s Baltimore office. Contact him at .