Designing in Diversity: Fresh ideas for creating inclusive places

Designing inclusive public spaces means involving a diverse group of people – particularly the people who live there – and thinking about journeys as well as destinations.

Most of all, diversity and social inclusion need to be part of the design process from the start of the project.

These are some of the conclusions of our recent seminar, which considered how the built environment sector can create more inclusive places. The event was part of our Design in Diversity programme.

Following a panel discussion in July, which asked the sector to reflect on how inclusive we are as a workforce, this seminar on 29 September 2022 focused on the places and spaces we create.

We explored what practitioners need to consider when designing inclusive places, asked whether it’s possible to design for everybody, and showcased several inspiring examples of genuinely inclusive design.

Our speakers were (in alphabetical order):

  • Imogen Clark, Make Space for Girls
  • Patrick Devlin, Pollard Thomas Edwards
  • Cyreeta Donaldson, Royal National Institute of Blind People
  • Teri Okoro, TOKA Architects
  • Nuala O’Sullivan, Arup
  • Rachel Wooden, LB Richmond and Wandsworth

You can watch the video of the event above and look at the slides here

What we learned

To create an inclusive space you need to:

  1. consult a diverse group of people
  2. consult with the people who live there
  3. gather the right data
  4. think about ‘inclusive journeys’ as well as ‘inclusive places’
  5. design inclusion in from the start
  6. design for all.

Consult a diverse group of people

Patrick Devlin kicked off the morning with his insight into the Seven Kings Community Hub in LB Redbridge. He stressed the importance of consultation, particularly co-design, because unless the people who are going to use the place or space you’re designing have a say in the design process then it won’t be inclusive.

“Consultation is key to inclusive design.”

Patrick Devlin

This was echoed by Cyreeta Donaldson, who gave several examples of common features of the public realm (such as Zebra crossings and public benches) that can make a space or a journey inaccessible to a blind or partially-sighted person. But she was also keen to stress that blind and partially-sighted people are not a monolithic group.

“There is a spectrum of site loss so there is a spectrum of needs. Built environment practitioners need to engage with a wide range of people and make sure consultations are both meaningful and accessible – the latter is a legal requirement but it doesn’t always happen,” said Cyreeta.

Cyreeta Donaldson, Royal National Institute of Blind People

Consult the people who live there

Nuala O’Sullivan explained that when London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) brought Arup in to analyse the results of a consultation into women’s safety, one of the things they found was how ill at ease women felt walking past poorly-lit construction sites lined with hoardings – of which there are many on the estate. This highlighted the importance of not simply applying general recommendations – such as improving lighting – to a particular space. “You need to talk to the people who live there, who know the space,” Nuala said.

Similarly, Imogen Clark stressed the importance of asking teenage girls how they use local spaces and how they feel about them. Sharing details of a project Make Space for Girls did with Countryside and LSE at Astley Cooper School in Hemel Hempstead, she explained that an early idea for a ‘highline’ project on a former railway line near the school was dismissed by the girls who felt unsafe there and hated the deserted space. Through a series of workshops, which included mapping and collaging, the girls came up with a number of ideas that would make the new public spaces in the nearby redevelopment feel like they were ‘for them’.

“Intersectionality means looking at a range of different characteristics and being aware that some, when they work together, amplify people’s experiences.”

Teri Okoro

Gather the right data

To know what makes women and girls feel unsafe and, more broadly, to know who feels excluded from a space and why, we need better data. Online consultation can give you large amounts of data – which the sector does not necessarily have with regards to inclusive design – but gathering it is far from straightforward. Imogen has found that teenage girls are reluctant to share their email addresses, which can prevent them from using online consultation platforms. Similarly, LLDC had a low turn-out from young women and girls in their digital consultation into women’s safety.

There’s also the question of whether the data has come from a diverse group of people. GDPR rules often prevent us from gathering demographic data (often for good reason) but this can make it hard to find out, for example, whether women from particular ethnic groups feel more or less safe in a space than their white counterparts. But these barriers need to be overcome.

Think about inclusive ‘journeys’ as well as inclusive places

As Cyreeta pointed out, it’s all very well if Place A and Place B are both inclusive and accessible to blind and partially-sighted people, but if the streets, spaces, transport hubs and so on between them are inaccessible then going from A to B will be extremely difficult.

“One of the biggest concerns from our community is inclusive journeys; which is really anything that affects a blind or partially sighted person as soon as they leave their home. That’s why every street and every development needs to be inclusive,” she stressed.

From left to right: Cyreeta Donaldson, Anna Odedun, Rachel Wooden and Teri Okoro.

Design inclusion in from the start

Rachel Wooden shared with us the impact that having an occupational therapist (OT) in a housing team can have. About 10 years ago, LB Richmond & Wandsworth had OTs working in children and adult social services who would visit new housing developments and find the homes weren’t accessible. They then had to spend money to adapt these homes, which cost, on average, £25k per home.

“Inclusive homes work for everybody.”

Rachel Wooden

So the housing team decided to have three of their own Specialist Housing Occupational Therapists. Their role is to champion inclusive design and accessible homes. They intervene early in the design process, thus avoiding costly retrofitting, and does a lot of research into beautiful, contemporary products so that wheelchair users don’t feel like their home looks like an institution or, worse, a public toilet.

Design for all

Addressing the complex issue of intersectionality, Teri Okoro urged us to design for all. “We get information about users in silos – their race, their gender, whether or not they have a disability – but that’s not how we experience the world. So we should design for whole people,” she said.

To design for all, she suggested asking who benefits from a particular design – but also reviewing a design through the lens of those who might be disadvantaged by it. She also stressed the importance of designing flexibly, to benefit as wide a range of people as possible, and offering people choice.

Like the speakers at our July seminar, Teri called for more diversity in the sector as this will result in a much broader range of perspectives and experiences through which we interrogate designs. “We all come to a project with implicit biases,” she said. “But my experiences alone can’t be the filter through which I judge a design.”

Attendees at Designing in Diversity: Creating Inclusive Places on 29 September.

Conclusion

Inclusive design benefits everybody. And what this event made clear is that all of us in the sector have a role to play, whether that’s through the way we engage with people or how we incorporate more flexible design features into London’s built environment. As Teri said, “Inclusion should be the golden thread that runs through everything.”

Help us make our events more inclusive

Running these two seminars has made us realise that we need to do more to make FoL events as inclusive and accessible for everyone. If you have any suggestions about what we can do better in future, please get in touch with Anna Odedun.

Thanks to Pollard Thomas Edwards for hosting us.