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GLASS-HOUSE CHATS: Designing Equitable Spaces for All

Posted on 14 December 2021

Written by:

Jake Stephenson-Bartley

This month’s chat, Designing Equitable Spaces for All, aimed to explore what designing equitable spaces means in the contemporary landscape, along with the key considerations and approaches that will help us achieve this to make great and inclusive spaces a reality for all.

Place equity has come increasingly under scrutiny over the last couple of years, with the Covid pandemic, Black Lives Matter and other key social movements that have highlighted and brought further attention to the disparities and differences between what different communities experience and have access to.

Key questions raised

Key themes

We were keen to explore what place equity meant for those of us who participated in this chat, the barriers to achieving this and the conditions for making progress towards place equity. Place equity held a myriad of facets in its meaning for each of us and it was often tied to our own personal sense of community and the networks that we operated within. To make progress towards a more equitable place for all,  three clear provocations emerged. We talked about spaces for connection and the importance of designing places with people in mind, with inclusive design that allows for connection both across generations and social and cultural groups. We discussed how pivotal this is for these spaces to become equitable, and that these spaces for connection must reflect the diversity of communities and voices that define what we/they called place. This intersection of voices and its complexity is to be embraced, and having perhaps difficult conversations about some of the things that make us different from one another can actually create space for opportunity. Finally, we agreed on the importance of investing time in these early conversations with those the design affects, in order to embark on the journey towards creating equitable places.

Spaces for Connection – the complexity of space

We all share place and we all share the need for it.

Inclusivity and access to facilities, which includes housing, green and public space are also important aspects of place equity. We recognised the significance of these spaces for connection to encourage intergenerational interactions and use of space across different age groups. 

This also translated into the design of the physical space which supports these interactions, designing with and for those with specific or varying needs, that can contribute to bringing people together as part of place equity. Not every single space is going to be equitable for everyone. So how do you create that tapestry of equity, how do you look more holistically at place and how do you fill the gaps? Is it by thinking about the role of care, how we care for our space, the environment and for each other (strangers and friends). Is it by considering how we can champion certain types of places to increase their visibility and importance, for example, that of green space, parks, and getting away from your phones and into nature?

All these points highlight the value of spaces to provide connection but also to make space for conversation about place equity.

Diversity and Inclusivity

An important question is not just about how people are brought into the conversation but also who has invited them in.

You cannot be what you cannot see. It is important that our spaces, and our designers, reflect and celebrate the diverse communities that surround us. The design of place largely through the lens of the built environment profession is to a great extent dominated by white males. Without the inclusion of diverse voices, the equity of our places will be defined by a single demographic’s experience. 

We felt that our ideas of place and what each of us have access to, can have a significant impact on the formations of our identities (especially on the younger generations).  Bringing a range of voices into the design process can also bring in a variety of textures, creating spaces in which people see themselves reflected.

A critical facet of place equity is knowing that space is for you, that it feels safe, welcoming and inclusive.

This also draws on ideas of empathy and its influence in developing connections, intertwining realities and expanding on the meaningfulness of what it means to be part of a community. Within The Glass-House, role-play is employed as a design tool which allows people to step into someone’s else’s shoes and defend the needs of others. This creates a platform for empathising and considering views beyond your own concerns. The consideration of diversity and empathy was discussed as a significant facet to improving place equity.

Time and Collecting Evidence

Time is consistently seen as a barrier to collaborative and meaningful engagement in the design of a place. We established the importance of spaces for conversation and the diversity of voices that should be included in that space too. Meaningful engagement to help achieve this takes time, and in our experience of the built environment, there is often a challenging tension between the monetary consideration of timelines and process versus the time and space for meaningful engagement. 

To take an example of the RIBA plan of works, there is an argument that it fails to consider the processes of meaningful engagement in the strategic definition of any project. The successful integration of engagement is often a result of the council or architect who wishes to take a more collaborative approach when it comes to investing time in place equity, rather than on what is set out in the RIBA stages. As a group, we recognised that investing in early-stage conversations with people will avoid (or at the very least help mitigate) poor design decisions and the mismanagement of place and for this reason, meaningful conversations should be sustained throughout the design journey. This would be an intrinsic contribution towards moving our city to one that designs equitable spaces for all.

You can view our past Chat takeaways here.

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You can sign up for our next Chats via our Events page.