I’ll start with an admission. I’m a white, middle class, able bodied male in my 40s. And I’d like to talk about inclusivity in the public realm. No, seriously.
Our public spaces are designed for people like me, by people like me, following consultation with people like me. No wonder they’re filled with people like me. Although these spaces can be lively and engaging, the users don’t always represent an accurate cross-section of society. Where are they? Perhaps it would help if we were asking the people who aren’t using public spaces what they’d like to see. But how do we ask people who aren’t here, why they’re not here?
The lack of ramps, clear wayfinding, seating, public toilets and weather protection have all been cited as reasons why our spaces aren’t more inclusive. Up to the age of seven, boys and girls use playgrounds equally, but users of spaces designed for older children are 80% male. What can we do to change this?
Bringing planning consultations to the people
Our engagement and consultation exercises should be proactive. Instead of putting on a passive exhibition in a community centre and expecting people to come to us, we should be actively engaging with a diverse range of local people, right from the outset of a project, seeing development through their eyes. New technologies such as VR give us the opportunity to put people in the spaces we’re designing to see how they react. Such early stage interactions can engender long-term involvement, giving the community ownership and providing wider social benefits.
Projects like White Arkitekter’s, ‘Places for Girls’ have shown how engagement practices unintentionally ostracise sections of society. The combative nature of design competitions and seemingly authoritarian developer led consultations can be unappealing, switching people off from the engagement process. If these groups are listened to effectively, our public spaces start to look quite different, with places for intimacy, observation and interaction.
Similarly, the refurbishment of Alexandra Park in Manchester consulted with older local residents and gave them the opportunity to feed into the park’s design. The results included more ramps, benches and public toilets, and it is now the city’s first ‘age-friendly’ park.
These proactive engagement practices are proof that the design of our public spaces shouldn’t be led by people like me. And given the lack of diversity in the construction sector, they probably shouldn’t be led by you either.
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