Cincinnati talks sex in city planning during recent Speaker Series

In a media week that saw enough raunchy sex talk to make a sailor blush, Cincinnatians took a different — and decidedly more productive — approach to the topic, as Soapbox’s Speaker Series continued Oct. 12 at UC's Niehoff Urban Studio with “Love in an elevator: sex + city planning.”
The public discussion focused on race and gender sensitivity in developing community spaces and featured a panel of experts that included Cincinnati City Councilmember Chris Seelbach; Amy Lind, head of UC’s Department of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies and Molly Wellmann, celebrity mixologist and owner of Wellmann’s Brands.
The discussion was moderated by new Soapbox editor Pamela Fisher, who introduced the panelists by asking them about their favorite places to meet and mingle around Cincinnati — lists that included popular favorites Findlay Market and Washington Park, as well as a few unlikelier spots like Over-the-Rhine’s Artichoke, which offers high-quality kitchen supplies and cooking classes.
An overarching question soon set the tone for the conversation: Can smart city planning help Cincinnatians forge more meaningful personal and professional relationships?
From Councilperson Seelbach’s standpoint, it’s not just possible; it’s already happening in Cincinnati. “Take the streetcar for just one example,” Seelbach said. “By virtue of its very design and function, the streetcar has invited residents to step outside their comfort zones and get a little closer to one another — both literally and figuratively.”
Frank Russell, whose foundational efforts to develop UC’s Community Design Center and Niehoff Urban Studio prompted the ongoing regional conversation, agreed that we’re currently seeing a shift in the way our cities and buildings are laid out. Historically, Russell said, most buildings have been designed from a white, male perspective. But as global attitudes continue to evolve with regard to race and gender, so must our spaces change to support the needs of diverse groups.
That’s one angle that Russell encourages his students to consider in the projects they produce at Niehoff Urban Studio, which is described as “a unique interdisciplinary initiative undertaken to address urban issues that challenge the quality of life in Cincinnati.” The studio was founded in 2002, and has since partnered with more than 100 community-based organizations on projects of every size and scope.  
But beyond the design of buildings themselves, how does one go about engineering a space that a broad cross-section of humanity will find comfortable and welcoming?
“Alcohol helps,” Wellmann said, laughing, but in all seriousness. "I love the history and the taste of booze, as well as the respect it's given. But the thing I love most is the way alcohol can lower inhibitions, allowing people to sit and relax. It lets you enjoy your surroundings and talk to people you might not engage with normally."
Wellmann’s local establishments include Japp's, Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar, The Famous Neon's Unplugged, Myrtle's Punch House, Bottle & Basket and Melt Eclectic Deli. All but one of her venues have something in common: the absence of televisions.

Spaces designed to cultivate conversation

“I chose not to install TVs in my venues because nothing kills a conversation faster," she said. "When you remove that distraction, people have a much better chance of engaging with the person sitting next to them and having some really interesting conversations.”
Professor Lind takes that notion one step further. “If you think about the type of programming that’s usually on TV, especially in bars, we’re talking about sports or shows that focus on heterosexual families," she explained. "As a big old queer, I’m going to walk in and see that and immediately know that I’m in a place that doesn’t understand or recognize my values or my reality.”
Moving the conversation momentarily away from a gendered perspective, Wellmann wondered openly why public spaces — restaurants and bars, in particular — don’t make more of an effort to consider the physical needs of diverse people when renovating historic spaces. She offered the example of Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar, one of Wellmann's newer venues located in Covington’s Mainstrasse Village. Due to local preservation constraints, Wellmann is prohibited from widening the doorways of the historic building, which often creates problems for those in wheelchairs and with other mobility challenges.
Next steps in Cincy’s smart urban plan
That’s but one example of the myriad of obstacles in public space planning.
According to Councilperson Seelbach, we’ve made great strides in recent years, with Cincinnati banning conversion therapy for gay and transgendered minors, for example. But there’s much work still to be done, he said. He believes one important first step is electing leaders who more closely reflect the values of those outside the power group.
“There’s still a lot of anti-gay bias and discrimination,” Seelbach said, who made Cincinnati history in 2011 when he became the first openly gay politician elected to city council. “Our laws often change quicker than our hearts and minds. If you look at the average age in Congress, that doesn’t represent our population. The racial mix of the Senate doesn’t represent our population. Diversity in elected officials is so important; that’s one major step that will result in approving measures to make our spaces less hostile and more friendly to people from different backgrounds and perspectives.”
Lind expounded on this idea when, at one point in the discussion, an audience member highlighted the all-white speaker panel and asked about Cincinnati’s plans to further integrate its communities.
Lind reminded the audience that the cultural lens of minority perspective extends beyond gender, race and social status to include single mothers, people with disabilities and other underrepresented groups. She suggested those involved in planning and building public spaces assume alternative cultural perspectives and at each possible turn, ask themselves, “Would ‘x-y-z’ person be comfortable in this space we’re creating?”
Support for the Soapbox Speaker Series “Love in an Elevator: Sex + City Planning” was provided by Niehoff Urban Studio/ Community Design Center and The University of Cincinnati. Prestige AV & Creative Services is Soapbox's official Technology Partner.
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Read more articles by Hannah Purnell.

Hannah Purnell is a lifelong Northern Kentuckian who writes extensively about regional issues related to arts and culture, politics and economic development.