Exclusivity and Inclusivity in Cities: London Mayfair

Architecture defines and orchestrates the ways in which we navigate in the city and its public and private spaces. Urban spaces have pivotal roles in constructing and reproducing identities; how the citizens perceive themselves, relate to one another, occupy and utilise space and feel a sense of belonging (or displacement). Identities, ideologies and relations also produce symbolic spaces. Historically, cities have been designed by and for able-bodied men, which is still evident today how the public areas and urban innovations are built without considering the cities non-male users. The built environment is not neutral. Women and sexual minority groups navigate in a city that does not meet their needs or safety standards. Intersectional feminist and queer theory encompass a gender or sexual identity and class, ethnicity, and race. To what extend can we as citizens utilize, take over, shape, or even enter into the public spaces? Is there an emergency to claim the city and use it as our own? How crucial has it been, and still is, that cities host and enable places for certain groups to meet? And as the power dynamics shift and become more equitable, what type of spaces are needed today?

In ‘The Pursuit of Pleasure’ Jane Rendell looks at the eighteenth-century architecture through the lens of feminist critique, paying close attention to the private clubs in London West End as stages of displaying exclusivity, public patriarchy and the act of rambling, a form of “incoherent movement or a walk without any definite route or pleasure” (Rendell, 2002). Rendell writes that architecture and the spaces it creates are continuous but that architectural spaces a constitutive element in and not the container of identities. She writes about how the rambling played an integral part in “producing a public display of heterosexual, upper-class masculinity.” According to Rendell, the male rambler represented the shared features of a new kind of urban masculinity: the mobility, visuality and urbanity of a young, heterosexual, middle- to upper-class male consumer. Sex, class, gender, race and ethnicity all intervene together. Further, Rendell talks about the threat of female presence in public space and the male ambivalence (simultaneous feelings of fear and desire towards female sexuality) and how it placed emphasis on “the surface, the tension between display, what was being revealed, and secrecy, what remained hidden.” Places occupied by women, such as the bow windows of shopping arcades, the boxes of the opera, and carriages in the park, were represented as sites of intrigue and deceit.

“The good citizen when he opens his door in the evening must be banker, golfer, husband, father; not a nomad wandering the desert, a mystic staring at the sky, a debauchee in the slums of San Francisco, a soldier heading a revolution, a pariah howling with skepticism and solitude.” ― Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting (Woolf, 1927)

The male rambler or loiterer is the main character in Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Street Haunting’ written in 1927, where she reimagines the lives of the citizens. In the essay, Virginia Woolf describers about the pleasures of discovering the city in central London. As she steps on to the streets in Oxford Street, she imagines the lives of other city’s inhabitants from prime ministers to the homeless and the spaces these individuals occupy. She marvels about the act of walking aimlessly in London, similar to how the male ramblers defined the cities and themselves in the built space. 

As I stepped on to the streets of Mayfair on my quest to research the site surrounding the May Fair Hotel, I discovered the absence of loiterers. The area’s soundscape is filled with the sharp sound of high heels on a concrete floor, honking horns, posh accents, and rolling suitcases. What is evident is the area’s exclusivity and closeness, which the dweller is reminded around the area in multiple signs stating ‘Gentlemen’s Only’ ‘No Smoking’ ‘No Entrance’ and ‘No Parking’. Even many of the area’s art galleries have a ‘Closed’ or ‘Appointment only’ signs at their doors. The Mayfair area, only a stone’s throw away from Oxford Street and St. James that Woolf and Rendell both describe, is known for its thick fabric of high-end hotels, private clubs, fine art galleries, and auctions. Historically, there have been many places in the city where women have not been allowed to enter. Today, still such clubs exist in London. 14 of the 54 private clubs in London are exclusive to men only. In recent years, and since the opening of the first female workspace AllBright in Mayfair, there has been a boom for the female exclusive workspaces in the city. At first glance, the same-sex spaces may seem like taking a step back in time. Haven’t our mothers and grandmothers and ancestors fought hard for the right to enter and access all places? In an ideal world, all spaces and environments would be inclusive, equal and equitable. From an individual perspective, equity and inclusivity perform with different aspects of urban living where we navigate, discover, take part, and belong to spaces, sites and areas. We perform, rehearse and reimagine our roles continually as citizens.

An occasion like this happened to me on one Sunday afternoon during my site-research in Mayfair. After walking through Berkeley Square, a public park, I passed by an enormous glass-windowed building, which seemed like a private gallery. Inside the space, I could see a painting by one of my favourite artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat. I slowed down to take a peek of the space through the glass windows. Unconsciously, I didn’t even think about entering in. The size of the building was monumental; the entry echoed of exclusivity and wealth. They would not let me in. After walking around the corner, my curiosity took over. Who am I to tell myself I wouldn’t belong somewhere? I turned around and walked back to the entrance door. The vinyls on the window read, ‘Public Auction on Sundays.’ Still, I hesitated. Public auction by appointment, probably? As I walked closer, a security guard opened the door and smiled, letting me in. I quietly thanked myself for wearing high-heel boots and black leather gloves—the semiotic details of class or status. After walking through the metal detectors, I was quickly followed by a gallerist who kindly told me she was there to help me, whether I had any inquiries. I felt like playing my part in a role-play; me, pretending to be someone who could potentially invest in a Basquiat—feeling both included and excluded at the same time. 

In cities, the lines between public and private areas blur. The terms ‘public’ and ‘private’ do not exist as mutually exclusive categories; instead, their relationship is dependent and open to changeIn London, many parks, courtyards, and shopping malls are both public and private in the ways which they allow and monitor the users of these spaces. For example, in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, a person can enjoy the park’s facilities at any time of the day or night under surveillance; however, one cannot fly kites, take photographs, or smoke a cigarette in the area, according to The Park’s Bylaws. Moreover, even when we are allowed to enter a space, we may feel intimated. Cities and neighbourhoods have hierarchies and forms of urban islands. Having exclusive spaces does not mean automatically that all exclusivity is wrong, bad or discriminatory. The pockets of micro-communities are the very fabric that constructs metropolitan cities. It makes the cities able to function and form places one can call home. The communities thrive with football and bookclubs, playgrounds, gay clubs, and caring homes. In London, one can always be an observer and get a sense of non-belonging by visiting different neighbourhoods and getting leisurely lost in a new area. Safety is another critical aspect of exclusivity; queer and women-only spaces make both the women and LGBTQIA+ community safe, vital and able to survive, outside of the heteronormative society and its rules. Until we fix issues of violence, rape, and discrimination, the spaces are needed. There are places where exclusivity and same-sexness are necessary and vital to reveal society’s inequity that does not provide the same opportunities for all. 

Claiming space is crucial to our existence, especially in cities built by and for white-able-bodied cis men. Gentrification has made the everyday lives of women, especially low-income women, even more difficult. (Kern, 2020) Women get paid less for the same jobs, and still, women do the vast majority of the world’s unpaid care work. According to the book Invisible Women, (Criado Perez, 2019) 75 per cent of the UK families on low to middle incomes work outside standard hours. Many companies, especially global chain restaurants and cafeterias such as Starbucks, use algorithm-produced scheduled tools to plan their schedules. The book points out a case study of a woman with two small children living in San Diego, involved working until 11 pm on a Friday, starting at 4 am on Saturday and starting again at 5 am on Sunday. The work shifts leave a little (or no) room to schedule and plan childcare. The work conditions are precarious for all, but especially when you add the invisible unpaid care work at home. In addition, women on irregular or part-time/zero-hour employment contracts have been found to be more at risk of sexual harassment. The current work conditions work in favour of the white man. The list is long: from unpaid work to sexual harassment, unfair conditions to unpaid work, and lack of leadership positions and visibility and inclusivity of women, especially women from Black and Ethnic Minority backgrounds. In this light, exclusive spaces play a crucial role in women, gender-conforming and sexual minority and ethnic groups. 

How would the urban spaces look and function if it were to consider women and gender-conforming citizens’ needs? And not only consider but to actively work to change them. What does a safe city look like for all its members? Is it possible to establish a city where the invisible, queer, women, and Black and Ethnic Minority groups, become central? Perhaps by challenging the power structures, we can sense what truly inclusive cities look like. Whether it happens by temporarily claiming space through walking or occupying the city in ways that we are not used to, we can start revealing layers of prejudice and invisible hierarchies. By creating cohesive, consistent and constructive changes, we can become a part of the public spaces’ planning and from exclusivity and draw the attention to inclusivity. Cities may not be neutral, but they belong to us all.  

(Listen to my ‘Mayfair Soundscape’ here.)


Perez, C. (2019). Invisible Women Exposing Data Bias In A World Designed For
. Chatto & Windus.

Kern, L. (2020). Feminist City.

Rendell, J. (2002). The Pursuit of
Pleasure: Gender, Space and Architecture in Regency London
. The Athlone
Press London.

Woolf, V. (1927). Street Haunting:
A London Adventure

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