Can design make cities more equitable?

There are many ways in which the built environment not only reflects but reinforces social inequity. Does the way we plan and design cities need to change?

June 2021

Words by Joey Gardiner

“The goal is equality, but to achieve equality we might have to focus on the group that is excluded, and be comfortable with that”

Viktoria Walldin, White Arkitekter

Cities illuminate inequality. Almost by definition, they draw in both wealth and poverty — a gravitational centre for capital and commerce on the one hand, and cheap labour and migrant communities on the other. Also by definition, they do so at heightened levels of human density, with the powerful and powerless working and living side by side. 

But the urban realm is also the place where social change can and does happen. In his recent book Building and Dwelling, the urban theorist Richard Sennett describes how people have always gone to cities to escape or challenge the restrictions of traditional, closed communities. The medieval German phrase Stadtluft macht frei (“city air makes you free”) remains apt today, he says. 

So if cities are such fertile ground for both social equality and injustice, is it possible to design for one and not the other? This is the thorny question that many designers and planners are increasingly seeking to answer. Events such as the global Black Lives Matter protests and the women-led Reclaim These Streets vigils in the UK have highlighted how disparate elements of the built environment — from street lighting to public statues — can affect people’s experience of the city, and potentially reinforce or exacerbate inequity.

Le Corbusier’s Le Modulor proportional system used the dimensions of a 6ft-tall man as its basic unit. The system had a huge influence on postwar design, dictating everything from the shape of door handles to the size of city blocks

Logically, then, urban design should also offer part of the solution, even if the scale of the challenge is daunting. This is far from virgin territory and laden with history, emotion and politics. Today’s cities are the legacy of centuries of back-and-forth attempts to exclude or welcome, of bold experimentation followed by efforts to reverse unwanted effects.

Creating more equitable places will mean embracing that complexity, seeking to understand the circumstances and needs of many different communities, and designing in such a way as to level up the landscape.

Invisible and voiceless

A first step is to get to grips with how city planning has failed in the past. There are plenty of examples of design that is deliberately intended to segregate, marginalize or simply keep people away, from the extremes of apartheid-era South African cities and the infamous “peace walls” that separate Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland, to devices that prevent homeless people from sitting or lying down in public spaces.

But most inequity in design is unintentional, the result of a lack of consideration or awareness rather than conscious discrimination. Poorer areas in cities across the world are generally less well provided with services and amenities, have poorer air quality and less access to green space — factors with a range of knock-on effects for health and educational outcomes. Deprivation correlates with low life expectancy and poor life chances overall.

But this only locates inequality on a map, rather than revealing the extent to which the physical environment actually contributes to urban poverty. For this, it is worth exploring the many studies of specific challenges faced by marginalized communities. For example, US researchers have found that the majority Black neighbourhoods that suffered from disinvestment due to the practice of “redlining” in the first half of the 20th century have fewer trees and green spaces today and, thus, hotter summer temperatures. This has been posited as one explanation for the fact that the detrimental impact of hot days on exam results appears to affect only Black and Hispanic students.

Separately, a Belgian study of more than 300 pairs of twins published in the journal Plos Medicine reported that children in “greener” areas had a measurably higher IQ. The Covid crisis has presented further grim evidence, with emerging statistics appearing to show a strong link between deprivation and incidence of the virus — according to the UN, overcrowding in low-quality housing is likely to be the key determinant.

Gender inequality can also be exacerbated by characteristics of the physical environment. The World Bank’s Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design found that, across the world, women were 15% less likely to use public space. Among the contributing factors it includes poor sightlines, a lack of amenities such as play facilities, and overcrowded transit. The World Bank is in no doubt that the environment is not only reflecting inequality but perpetuating it: “This pervasive yet often under-perceived lack of comfort within public spaces leaves many women and sexual and gender minorities, especially if they have a disability, invisible and voiceless in the public realm,” it says.

New York’s Lower East Side in the 1960s, which author and activist Jane Jacobs battled to save from the bulldozers. She argued that planners failed to recognize that “blighted” slums targeted for urban renewal were in fact vibrant, functioning communities just in need of investment. Photo: Collection of Village Preservation

A matter of trust 

For those seeking to make a difference, one challenge is that previous interventions, even when well-intentioned, have sometimes alienated the people they were intended to help. US author and activist Jane Jacobs famously argued that places assumed by planners to be badly designed slums were often vibrant, functioning communities, just suffering from a lack of finance. Sometimes, the worst thing that could happen to them was to be singled out for improvement: “People who get marked with the planners’ hex signs are pushed about, expropriated and uprooted much as if they were the subjects of a conquering power,” she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961.

"Residents are rightfully sceptical, as there are too many examples of them being disenfranchised due to their race and/or class"

Stacey Matlen

Today’s planners may still struggle with this legacy. As a WSP employee, Stacey Matlen was seconded to the City of Detroit as a senior mobility strategist, developing transportation solutions in a way that met resident needs. “We found it has been difficult to build trust,” she says. “In Detroit, a city that has a long history of racial and economic injustice, residents are rightfully sceptical, as there are too many examples of them being disenfranchised due to their race and/or class. So it makes sense that they should be mistrustful, particularly of me as a young white woman working in a majority Black city.”

Similarly, François Mancebo, director of the International Research Center on Sustainability, has written that when he was growing up in the 1970s in a deprived quarter of Paris, government attempts to regenerate the area by constructing parks, gardens and libraries were resented by the locals, in the absence of any wider effort to improve housing or reduce crime. “The population stuck to its usual way of living,” Mancebo says, “as if these amenities were not for them. They were perceived as vague threats, put there only by the will of planners and local moguls, rather than opportunities for a richer life. […] The people decided not to use them because they considered that they didn’t belong to their world.”

François Mancebo wrote about growing up in the disadvantaged La Goutte D’Or neighbourhood in Paris in the 1970s. When the city council initiated a programme of urban renewal without engaging with the local community, the residents ignored the new amenities as if they “were not for them”. Photo: Joao Bolan/SOPA via ZUMA Wire / Alamy Stock Photo

Consultation that works

How can we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past? Jacobs and many subsequent researchers and practitioners have pointed out that we need to learn from communities themselves — and especially the disenfranchised — before devising plans that will affect them. Genuine dialogue and co-creation should be the ambition, rather than simply rolling out a consultation exercise after a whole load of assumptions and design decisions have already been made. 

This may be far from straightforward to marry with the commercial interests of landowners (and their shareholders), or the political priorities of public authorities. WSP’s work with Aboriginal Australian communities provides one template for how it could all fit together. Michael Hromek, technical executive for indigenous design, says that the country’s built environment has left Indigenous Australians — whose culture is rooted in a deep connection to the land — utterly “invisible in space”, and often cut off from access to traditional practices and culturally important sites. “There’s been a pretty strong message that their culture, their heritage, doesn’t matter. The built environment doesn’t reflect them,” he says.

In an attempt to address this, his team works to identify traditional knowledge-holders, then involves them in in-depth co-design sessions that identify important sites and routes that should be preserved, drawing out stories and cultural heritage to inspire the design response. The community is also paid as a consultant, with opportunities for indigenous artists to win commissions, so gains a direct benefit from the process. On a rail project in Melbourne, a site was set aside as a traditional Yarning Circle, a space from which local elders have been able to conduct cultural tours. Another project — yet to be implemented — has seen Aboriginal Australian family groups in Perth come together to co-design a pedestrian bridge inspired by a spear thrower, the woomera.

Far from being uncommercial, this process usually results in places that work better for everybody, says Hromek. “It is a bit trickier to do, it does involve a few more steps, and there’s a lot of politics and emotion in it. But what we do is follow a set of principles — that are Aboriginal-led and community-involved — to navigate that, to ultimately get the right design and hopefully address that inequality. That’s something that both communities and clients want.”

WSP supported a community-led design process for three districts in West Baltimore, including Penn North, that were historically disadvantaged by the practice of “redlining”. Residents came together to develop their own vision for the revitalization of the area, of “investment without displacement”. Photo: Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/TNS/Alamy Live News

Another example is the pro-bono community-led design process in West Baltimore for the Penn North, Druid Heights and Upton districts, which were severely disadvantaged by historic redlining designations. Here, WSP’s role has been to help the three communities come together to form a united vision for the area — distinct from the municipality’s plans for it — of “investment without displacement.” 

"We used the documents and the plans and the priorities that the neighbourhood groups had already identified for themselves, and spent years and years creating"

Heather Martin, WSP

“We specifically chose to use a community-first approach,” says Heather Martin, a former City of Baltimore planner who is now a transportation planner with WSP. “We used the documents and the plans and the priorities that the neighbourhood groups had already identified for themselves, and spent years and years creating. We talked with these groups and explained how they would be so much stronger working collectively around a unified vision that we could co-create together. That’s what private funders and the government are looking for — a collaborative effort that really makes a difference.” A local politician involved in the process has recently introduced a bill to set up a redevelopment authority for West Baltimore, and has invited WSP to support the revitalization planning, building on its efforts in the area.

Inviting participation in planning is only the first step. As with the right to vote, people still need to be persuaded to exercise it. Traditional consultation efforts tend to result in the over-representation of a certain subset of the population — usually retired, often well-educated, with time on their hands — because others are too busy or too beaten down to engage.

The best practice is to consciously look for a range of perspectives, as White Arkitekter in Sweden has done: “We go and talk to people, seeking them out instead of expecting them to come to us,” says Viktoria Walldin, a partner and anthropologist at the firm. “When you expect people to come to a regular consultation, it’s usually old white men showing up, it’s not a diverse group.”

The Riverside Youth pop-up park in Nelson, New Zealand — an example of “tactical urbanism”. Small-scale, temporary changes that local residents can experience and feed back on before they become permanent. Photo: Tim Cuff / Alamy Stock Photo

Inclusive strategies

A lack of diversity in design teams themselves compounds the problem, adds Courtenay Northcott, team leader in landscape architecture and urban design at WSP in New Zealand: “When you’ve got cisgender men designing the world, they design what they know and what they feel is important. So you get one part of society designing society, and it’s not fit for all. That’s what’s happened in the past.” Her projects have a major focus on gender inclusivity in play space and the public realm, and she says that it is necessary to actively target certain parts of the community, such as women’s shelters and refugee groups, to ensure their voices are heard. 

"Quite often we’ll only realize afterwards that we didn’t engage the right people. With tactical urbanism, the people who use the space every day are the ones experimenting with it"

Courtenay Northcott, WSP

Something that is increasingly used almost as a proxy for consultation is “tactical urbanism”: temporary and small-scale changes such as pop-up bike lanes or parklets. “The point is to force the local community to use these new streetscapes without making permanent changes and then to monitor the reaction,” explains Northcott. “Quite often we’ll design something and put it in and only realize afterwards that we didn’t engage the right people or build it in the right way. With tactical urbanism, the people who use the space every day are the ones experimenting with it.”

The answer is sometimes less strategic and more prosaic. Inclusive design is often simply about incorporating the practical facilities that older people, pregnant women or people with health conditions cannot do without, such as sufficient and sufficiently comfortable seating, shade from the sun, public conveniences and drinking fountains, to name just a few. In Vienna, strategic urban planner Eva Kail has been involved in more than 60 projects related to gender-sensitive planning in cities, including the creation of a 240ha suburb, Aspern. The principles she helped to develop are now the basis for every public space design or redesign in Vienna. At the heart of it, she says, it’s about meeting these basic needs: “You need decent lighting. You need clear routes that give eyes on the street, increasing the feeling of public safety. You need public toilets, drinking water. It’s very banal but it really makes a difference. For some it is just nice to have, but for others it’s a necessity.”

Nadia De Santi, senior project manager in WSP’s planning and urban design unit in Canada, has come to a similar conclusion through the specific lens of age-friendly design, aimed at ensuring people of all ages and abilities are catered for. Interventions can be as simple as those supported by the StopGap Foundation, a charity that installs temporary ramps in shop doorways or street crossings to allow those using wheelchairs or pushing small children to use them.

A constant concern is about the provision of public conveniences. “It’s the fear of not having access to a washroom, or not knowing how far away they are,” she says. “Those who have that anxiety or certain medical conditions will not use those spaces. So you can build the best, most beautiful park, but if there is no consideration for public washrooms, those spaces won’t be fully used.” This isn’t just a moral imperative, it’s an economic one too: “If you can’t get people to come to a place or an event, then people are not participating in their community, or supporting city or community events, or using civic spaces.”

Vienna’s 240ha Aspern suburb was designed in accordance with gender-sensitive principles, which are now applied on developments throughout the city. Photo: Viennaslide / Alamy

Tough choices

If the solutions to many of these problems appear to boil down to good placemaking, that doesn’t mean that any of this is easy. There will inevitably be a tension between the demands of different city users — and even the provision of public washrooms poses questions around maintenance and safety. Inclusive design specialist Ross Atkin (in The Possible 06) points out that decluttered, car-free spaces — while ticking a lot of placemaking boxes — can have a negative impact on visually impaired people. “In recent years, one of the first things that places have done to improve their public realm is to get rid of guardrails. But guardrails can be really important for helping people with sight loss to find crossing points. The designers have often had very good reasons but they haven’t necessarily understood all of the consequences. And they’ve ended up making life more difficult for a certain set of people.”

A key issue is how facilities tailored to appeal to a particular group of people can co-exist with the demands of the majority, and the assumption that public spaces should be universally usable. It is a dichotomy that White Arkitekter grappled with when designing an outdoor recreation space aimed at girls in Upplands Vasby, Sweden. This could be justified by considering the extent to which cities already unconsciously exclude teenage girls from many parks and public spaces. “Some people say, ‘why a park for girls, what about the boys?’” says Walldin. “But the goal is not to make a park for girls, the goal is to make a park for girls and boys. The goal is equality, but to achieve equality we might have to focus on the group that is excluded, and be comfortable with that.”

"If you know more about the needs of your users, you can better meet them, and you get a better outcome for the resources that you invest. So you not only have a fairer city but a more efficient city"

Eva Kail, City of Vienna

Kail says the only way to balance these tensions is with good, detailed design. “It should really be this intelligent mixture of the universal and the specific,” she says. “If people feel more invited, whether by using their local plants, or referencing their culture, it creates an identity or a feeling that they’re welcome. That is really crucial.”

She echoes De Santi in pointing out that inclusive design doesn’t just benefit those who might otherwise be excluded. “Taking into account the needs and wishes of different users in a systematic way also makes sense from an economic perspective: if you know more about the needs of your users, you can better meet them, and you get a better outcome for the resources that you invest. So you not only have a fairer city but a more efficient city.”

Urban designers cannot banish inequity from our cities alone, but they can certainly do more to treat its physical manifestations. And as awareness and understanding grows, it is becoming clear that this is not only a question of social justice, but about creating successful cities full stop.

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