Researchers have investigated, at great lengths, both the experiences of women and LGBTTQ+ individuals in public spaces. As authors of this piece, we have often experienced the impacts of sexual harassment, discrimination and prejudice in city spaces first-hand.
For example, when we have expressed affection for partners while out in the open — it has been hard not to ignore the significant role that design and planning have played in the enjoyment, comfort, safety, and sense of belonging in our urban landscapes.
In Sex in the digital city: location-based dating apps and queer urban life, Sam Miles argues that cities have historically "constituted vital spaces for sexual difference and queer communities, from the Victorian flaneur and cruiser to the ‘gay villages’ of the Global North" — but today, these spaces are few and far between, likely due to the evolving nature of sociality.
More people are turning to online dating apps to develop personal connections. Is that because of a widespread embrace of technological change? Or because our public spaces have turned on us, becoming less safe and less able to support spontaneous interaction and gathering? According to Miles, contemporary cities are becoming privatized, and "urban space is losing is centrality as a site of encounter, including queer encounter."
With COVID-19 restrictions, opportunities for spontaneous connection and dating in public space is even further reduced.
Meeting online through a dating app might make it easier and more efficient to establish connections with like-minded or similar individuals, sometimes through a filtering of preferences. For LGBTTQ+ people, it might be easier to locate others online, rather than in a public space — spaces that have been largely designed for heteronormative experiences. In cities where public spaces are not equally accessible, where people do not feel like they belong, going "online" is often the ubiquitous alternative — helping many to find a sense of place, and to develop community connections.
In Miles’ study, 36 gay men who use location-based dating apps such as Grindr and Tinder, were interviewed on topics of sexuality, community, technology and spaces of encounter. These participants noted how dating apps allowed them to filter potential dates based on their location and proximity. For example, dating app users would rather connect with individuals living near to them. Miles’ interviews showed a consensus amongst the men: that dating apps allow users to more easily identify other gay individuals in their city, moreso than they would be able to in public spaces — thereby reducing the chance of mistaking heterosexual individuals as gay — an occurrence that was noted as happening quite often, resulting in feelings of embarrassment and a perceived lack of safety. When asked about where they meet, participants noted how "urban public space is increasingly subject to surveillance and access reduction" — leading to many users meeting in private spaces for the first time.
How do these online experiences conflict with a city’s growing desire to become more inclusive, more safe, and more accessible for people of all backgrounds, gender identities, sexual orientations, ages and abilities? When dating app users go from "online" to "offline" and have no public spaces to meet and feel comfortable, how does that potentially impact personal safety and well-being? If public spaces are designed to accommodate only heteronormative experiences and identities, what does that say about a city’s support for LGBTTQ+ communities?
A woman, who asked to be anonymous, shared with us that she used dating apps such as Tinder and Bumble to explore and learn more about her queerness, and to be able to meet other racialized LGBTTQ+ people in a safe space.
"My experience in a lot of queer spaces ‘in real life’ are often not in sober spaces, instead, they are in bars and clubs," she said. "It can feel really insular. A lot of queer folks go online because they don’t feel safe ‘offline’ — these spaces can feel really overwhelming for ‘baby queers’ who are just learning and exploring their own needs, wants, and boundaries for space."
When asked about alternative meet-up spaces, she said that many LGBTTQ+ individuals create space for each other in a do-it-yourself fashion: in each other’s homes. This migration to privately owned spaces seems to suggest that public spaces currently lack amenities, services and opportunities to nurture a sense of comfort and safety for people in the LGBTTQ+ community. In cities such as Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, LGBTTQ+ districts are becoming the norm — offering both public and private spaces for a wide variety of expression, whether that be passive recreation or evening hospitality.
We can learn a lot from the behaviours of people who use dating apps. When people meet online, then eventually decide to meet in person, they may consider factors that include location, proximity to their home/neighbourhoods, comfort/convenience. Gender and sexual identity may also play a role in determining where to meet — likely public spaces that feel more safe. What do people consider when making the decision to meet someone offline? Where do they meet? How do they get there? Do they feel safe?
For many women, the location of the first date is limited by both practical and serious considerations. One woman, who we will identify as Emma, met her husband Ryan on Lavalife. When deciding to meet Ryan in person, she noted, "Safety was my No. 1 consideration. Meeting in a public place is a must. Midday for lunch on a weekend was preferable, as it was the safest, especially in winter with the shorter daylight hours."
At a restaurant or café, a woman also has a built-in safety net if things go wrong. One woman, who we will call Amanda, told us about meeting up with a man for the first time in person after initially connecting on Tinder. He showed up to the date drunk, and became increasingly belligerent as they sat at a table for a half-hour. Amanda went up to the bartender and explained the situation. He told her to excuse herself and go to the restroom, and to stay there until he came to get her. When the bartender returned, the situation had been resolved: he and another staff member had asked the man to leave.
The design of a public space plays a big role in where users might meet, Emma noted.
"Ensure public spaces are safe, thoughtfully designed and well-lit. Decrease blind spots and provide fun activities for offline dates. I took the bus, and so it was important for the meeting location to be relatively central, a place like The Forks." When these constraints are considered, central locations with good access to transit and taxis come out on top. Main streets downtown also have more potential meeting spots such as cafés, restaurants, bars, and public squares. Activities that include public markets, live music and live theatre are usually located in central areas or on main streets.
When considering Emma’s experience, we could not help but think about how young people, who live outside of the downtown, might navigate "online to offline" dating scenarios. Without transportation options, how do young people meet up?
For those living in suburban areas, using a car to access meeting locations is critical because they are more dispersed, but the availability of ride-hailing apps removes this barrier. The availability of potential dates may be more limited in small towns. Dating within small communities is spatially simple — the local bar or café may be the only place to meet in person. In Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg noted that those in smaller communities and rural areas used dating apps, but admitted that the dating pool is much more constrained because everyone knows each other and their dating histories. Young people in these communities are content to date and settle down with someone within this limited dating pool — a marked contrast to those in cities such as New York, where the seemingly unlimited pool of potential dates contributes to a person’s inability or unwillingness to focus on one partner.
For those who are in their 40s, 50s, or older, dating apps are one of the few ways to meet people in their age range. That’s because they are less likely to live centrally, where a lot of casual meeting places are located, and they have few single friends within their social circles, where long-term partnerships are often the norm. Dating apps are also ideal for winter cities, where people tend to hibernate for several months. In-person dates allow interaction with people and areas of the city that they may not visit in their daily lives, particularly those with children, who may be completely occupied with work and child care.
With dating apps becoming the norm, are businesses experiencing an uptake in visitation? Have there been positive economic spin-offs? It is easy to observe the impact on local businesses: at a Halifax Brewery Night event in the historic waterfront, our friend Claire noted that she could spot lots of Tinder dates around us. She used to work as a bartender, and had spent years observing people on dates. At a recent dance event held at Haliente, a Halifax dance studio teaching in salsa, bachata and African dance, one participant told us that she was on a first date. In a city rumoured to have more bars per capita than any other in Canada, Halifax has a lot to gain from those who want to meet their online crush in person. In Winnipeg, heavily frequented food halls such as The Forks and Hargrave Street Market, have many businesses seeing green as more and more online connections evolve into public encounters.
So what is a city planner to do?
In Toronto, a condemned building located at 519 Church St., was converted into The 519, a City of Toronto agency that provides space for communities to meet, to organize, and to work towards their goals. Counselling services, resources and support are designed to respond to the evolving needs of the LGBTTQ+ communities. Perhaps Winnipeg and other cities might benefit from creating similar sober spaces like these — offering many to meet and feel safe.
The Calgary Institute for the Humanities recently launched a map, as part of The Calgary Atlas Project. Developed by Mark Clintberg and Kevin Allen, it highlights early histories of Calgary’s LGBTTQ+ communities. Perhaps additional layers, stories and information could be added to a map of this format — sharing with readers and users the safe, comfortable and convenient places for people to meet and gather?
Dating apps might be the domain of the private sector, but planners can facilitate spaces for people to meet and socialize. Public parks or recreation venues like the Halifax Common and waterfront boardwalk in Halifax provide opportunities for people of all ages to meet: they’re free and offer a variety of activities, such as ice-skating, concerts and people-watching. Downtown’s redesigned Argyle Street ensures safety with well-lit patios, a high level of pedestrian traffic and pedestrian prioritization over cars in key areas; the numerous bars, restaurants, live music venues and the Neptune Theatre provide a range of meeting places. Planners should expand these high-quality streetscapes and meeting places to key suburban areas as well, such as transit interchanges or regional shopping centres. If Winnipeg and other cities become eager to "swipe right" to improvements to the public domain, it might mean increased opportunities for meet-ups, connections and inclusivity.
Jason Syvixay is an award-winning urban planner and public relations professional currently completing his PhD in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Alberta. He has worked as the managing director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, a planner with HTFC Planning & Design, and more recently, has joined the City of Edmonton to lead and support the implementation of its Infill Roadmap.
Dr. Ren Thomas is a researcher, writer, and instructor who is passionate about planning, with a focus on housing, transportation, growth management policies, and governance. She is an Assistant Professor at the School of Planning at Dalhousie University, where she teaches a course on social justice and leads research on non-profit housing, rental housing policy and transit-oriented development.