Kay Hill asks if it’s possible to create public spaces that truly cater for human diversity
LOOK AROUND the public spaces you pass through on the way to and from work – the parks and the station, the open squares and the narrow alleyways. If they feel neutral and comfortable, if you never feel the need to lower your eyes, or move to the side, or grip your keys tightly in your hand, then the odds are – according to campaigners for diversity in public spaces – you are probably a white, non-disabled, cisgender, heterosexual male, and most likely a tall one at that.
In the absence of a specific alternative client group in mind, the argument goes, most architects will inevitably design for themselves – and as most architects, both historically and to some extent currently, fall into those categories, then they simply won’t be aware that what feels comfortable to them may be deeply uncomfortable to others.
Seating makes life easier for everyone, especially the elderly, parents with children and those with disabilities who may need to rest more frequently. Forumtorget in Uppsala, near Stockholm, is a new public plaza in the business district with a dramatic 65m stretch of seating by White Arkitekter, which provides a focal point, a place to rest and bridges the differing ground levels of the square. As day shifts to night, the bench, which is made from 3,500 unique water-cut elements, is illuminated with a warm glow that helps to create a safer environment in the square. Design: White Arkitekter Client: Uppsala Municipality. Image Credit: MÅNS BERG
Traditional anthropometric thinking reinforces the problem – Le Corbusier, a modest 5ft 8in in real life, based his 1955 Modulor scale on a perfectly proportioned 6ft male, inspired by descriptions in crime novels of the typical English policeman. The need to make buildings and spaces as convenient as possible for this imaginary hero has shaped the modern world, from the position of door handles and the scale of staircases to the length of city blocks, despite the fact that even today, the average Frenchman, Englishman or US male is only 5ft 9in. The Barbican exhibition How We Live Now, running until Christmas, shows that dissatisfaction with this state of affairs is not new. Starting with a retrospective look at the work of radical 1980s feminist architecture co-operative Matrix, the exhibition questions who our shared spaces are really designed for, and who is excluded. At its launch, Jos Boys, one of Matrix’s founding members, explained: ‘A persisting reliance on “standards”, “universals” and “norms” that often continue today, reinforce stereotypes about what certain people do and how they should behave – that a “woman’s place should be in the home”, for instance, or that it is possible to “be in the wrong place at the wrong time”.’ Curator Jon Astbury added: ‘These stereotypes have, and continue to result in built surroundings that do not take account of people’s very different needs and desires. This might be as obstructive as a lack of wheelchair access, as obvious as a “poor door”, a separate entrance for a housing block’s socially rented tenants; as seemingly innocuous as the way a door is hinged to control a room’s privacy; or the height of a kitchen worktop or chair. These decisions affect what types of buildings get funded and built, and who feels comfortable or able to use them.’
The Tide, an elevated linear park on the Greenwich peninsula, combines practical pedestrian links between new neighbourhoods with a place to walk, jog or just sit and enjoy the pocket gardens and river views. Eventually forming a series of landscaped islands, the already open section features native trees, public art and a viewing promontory, while the steel structures form pavilion spaces below, partially sheltered from both the weather and the public gaze. Wayfinding is both clear and decorative, with a striped pattern marking the path of The Tide in a thin layer of epoxy for elevated portions and granite Portuguese paving stones at ground level. Gentle illumination maintains both safety and comfort at night. Architects: Diller Scofidio & Renfro and Neiheiser Argyros Client: Knight Dragon Elevated walkways: Cimolai
Landscaping: Gross Max Contractor: Mace Group. Image Credit: JEFF MOORE
The issue is particularly acute in public spaces, where it’s more than just comfort at stake. A new report from the University of Westminster and Arup, called Queering Public Space, notes that fears over safety lead most LGBTQ+ people to modify how they present in public spaces to avoid being targeted, while trans people frequently avoid whole areas altogether. The report adds: ‘Nor are they the only minority who can feel this vulnerability – a vulnerability reinforced by a steady rise in misogynistic attacks, hate crimes and incidents also directed against disabled people and religious and ethnic minorities in the UK in recent years.’
Women are not a minority, but their lived experience of public spaces is one of being constantly on high alert. Her City, a digital toolkit from UN-Habitat to encourage more sustainable, equal and inclusive cities through urban planning, notes that from the age of eight, girls begin to withdraw from the areas where they have played happily as young children, leaving 80% of public spaces dominated by boys and men. ‘Women become victims of crime more often than men. They experience sexual harassment more frequently, and therefore have a higher need for security… If public spaces are safe for women and girls, they are likely to also be safe for other vulnerable people. If women and girls avoid using certain public spaces because they do not feel safe, these spaces will become more insecure for women, girls, and other users.’
Exchange Square is being developed as a major new public park for the City of London, suspended above the tracks of Liverpool Street Station. Previously a corporate environment popular only with male drinkers, very few women wanted to use this public space and children were totally absent. The introduction of landscaping and seating by DSDHA has meant it is becoming busy every day of the week, including on Sundays when it used to be almost deserted. Historically, people have moved very quickly through the unwelcoming space, but the new design has deliberately created duration, encouraging people to spend more time there and creating a safer more diverse feel to the space. Design: DSDHA
Client: British Land Contractor: Maylim. Image Credit: DANIEL FISHER
Linda Thiel is an expert in gender inclusive design and partner at White Arkitekter, which initiated a research project called Places for Girls to find out how to accommodate girls in the city; now part of the Her City toolkit. For her, making the public realm safer for everyone starts quite simply: ‘The most important aspect for safety is definitely to achieve eyes on site, front doors of homes at ground level or local shops, which activate the ground floor so you aren’t walking past dead frontage. People must be able to move around safely on foot at a neighbourhood level – there might not always be public transport and they might not be able to afford to take an Uber or own a bike.’
Federica Buricco, associate at global architecture, planning and design firm CallisonRTKL, identifies the same key issues: ‘It should be a given that we all feel safe in our built environment and can move freely, even after dark. The headlines and statistics regarding lone women make for uncomfortable and upsetting reading and should motivate us to think more creatively about safety and inclusivity for all when curating public spaces. I believe that public art, lighting, greening, wayfinding devices, active frontages and the use of residential self-surveillance through the orientation of homes to overlook primary routes are all key to the creation of safe public spaces. Early in the design process, we can mitigate future risk by reducing the number of dead ends and the need to take long isolated walks to reach common destinations. Clear lines of sight are paramount, as are spaces designed for passive surveillance. Often overlooked, these factors should be considered from the outset.’
Clear wayfinding is vital for the comfort of those travelling through public spaces. The 12 unique Milestone Markers in the Lesnes to Crossness section of Thamesmead, designed by Untitled Practice, not only give a clear sense of direction and place, but provides a place to hang out and be seen, a selfie moment, a seating option and impromptu play. Design: Untitled Practice Client: Peabody Trust Contractor: Blakedown Landscapes SE Image Credit: BARRY WILLIS
It is encouraging that many urban regeneration projects are learning these lessons – at Eastman Village in Harrow, Barratt London’s mixed-use redevelopment of the old Kodak factory site, industrial buildings with inert frontages are being replaced by the lively natural surveillance of homes, shops and business that make for safer streets. This kind of surveillance has been shown to work – at Royal Winchester House, a regeneration scheme in Bracknell city centre by developer Comer, replacing decaying office buildings with new homes and an improved public realm saw the local Police crime figures fall by 68% in two years.
One of the largest UK regeneration schemes is the 85-acre Wembley Park. Julian Tollast, head of masterplanning and design at developer Quintain, had the particular challenge of not only creating everyday safe spaces, but allowing for the massive influx of visitors on event days. ‘Historically, Wembley was all about an event destination – before the old stadium was demolished, all the residents got was disruption and no benefit. When we designed the space it was so that it would be comfortable and safe to use for 365 days each year, whether it was for residents and shoppers or in event mode. We are guardians of the public realm for everybody. The questions we should be asking are, would I feel safe to go there? Is it safe and well lit, and has it got good visibility? Would I be happy to live, work or park there?’
‘Legibility is vital,’ continues Tollast. ‘I don’t mean lots of signs – it’s better to design an environment where you don’t need signs to tell you where to go. The further you can see down a street the more likely you are to go down it, but if it looks like a dead end you won’t go down there, which also means we can design streets to look like dead ends to avoid event day traffic going into residential areas.’
Pollard Thomas Edwards’ masterplan for Barratt London’s Eastman Village, the former Kodak factory site in Harrow, includes active frontages and passive surveillance from homes at street level, helping to make streets and public open spaces safer by design. Developer: Barratt London Masterplanning architect: Pollard Thomas Edwards Collaborating architects: Piercy & Company, East and Makower Architects
Tollast has also tried to cater for the often forgotten minority – teenagers. ‘Planning rules say you have to provide safe spaces for children, but it loses its way when the kids become about 14 years old until they are about 25,’ he says. ‘Groups of youths lack spaces, which are not designed with a specific aim in mind – places they can just hang out.’ Deborah Saunt, co-founder of architecture, urban design and research studio DSDHA, agrees: ‘We are becoming increasingly aware of spatial justice in terms of teenagers – there has been a hostile environment created regarding them.’ Instead of trying to force them out of sight into teen shelters, she aims to provide areas where they can be themselves, whether that’s impromptu parkour on giant rocks or just watching the world go by.
While there are some features that clearly make public spaces safer for everyone, there are complications. ‘There are so many different needs,’ says Fenella Griffin, co-founder of architecture and landscape practice Untitled Practice. ‘We try to create a common ground that everyone can share and can be themselves in, but shared living can be really contested and that can bring conflict.’ For example, while neurodiverse people appreciate a calming environment without harsh changes of colour or texture, such things are vital to help those with visual impairments navigate the city; while wheelchair users appreciate the step-free convenience of shared paths, guide dogs are trained to use kerbs for safe crossing.
It gets even more complex. Her City, for example, advocates ‘general visibility of the entire space, free from hiding places where a person could wait unseen, clear paths where users can easily see each other and good lighting so that users can see and be seen’. Queering Public Space, on the other hand, notes: ‘Wide thoroughfares – with their increased visibility and echoing soundscapes – are among the points where self-censorship occurs… For most public spaces are male spaces. It is men who do the looking in such spaces and whose voices carry and dominate their soundscapes, while marginalised groups tend to seek invisibility within these spaces or avoid them altogether.’ For those who are really nervous of the public gaze; dimly lit, quiet corners can feel safer than brightly illuminated busy squares. The question of lighting is similarly divisive – the woman walking home alone through the park longs for the safety of bright lights, while the gay couple smooching, the teenagers chatting and, of course, the wildlife, possibly prefer something that still allows what Saunt calls the ‘magical and intriguing’ nature of darkness.
Market Square at Wembley Park has extensive informal seating and a shady cover of trees that helps keep the city cool in times of rising temperatures and provides a safe, sociable place to sit for anyone and everyone. Developer: Quintain
Masterplanning architect: Flanagan Lawrence Landscape: LDA Image Credit: CHRIS WINTER
Broadening diversity among architects would inevitably improve awareness of such issues (ARB figures show that 70% are male, and of the 68% who gave their ethnic background, just 1% are black), but in the meantime, the RIBA’s newly appointed head of diversity, Marsha Ramroop, is setting up six groups of ‘lived experience’ covering LGBTQ+, race and religion, women, socio-economic diversity, younger and older people, and disability, to create a bank of knowledge to help designers create buildings and spaces that are suitable for all. ‘Partly it’s a training issue at university,’ adds Linda Thiel. ‘You focus so much on the technical aspects of architecture that you don’t learn much about looking at things from other people’s perspectives other than a session rolling around in a wheelchair. The most accessible places are good for everybody and places where everyone can feel safe and comfortable.’
Lack of personal lived experience can be remedied by consulting as widely as possible. According to Fenella Griffin: ‘If you spend a decent amount of time trying to speak to the hard-to-reach groups you have a much better chance of having a deep and effective influence on a project. It should never be about box-ticking; your project will be genuinely richer for it and local people are more likely to protect it rather than abuse it. It’s an investment in the long term.’
At DSDHA’s project in Somers Town, female designers used links with a local school to persuade Muslim mums to take them on a walk around the area with their buggies and children. ‘We learned that having a dog-free area is not just about dog mess, it’s about feeling comfortable in your own culture,’ says Saunt. Meanwhile, of course, pet owners still need public spaces where their four-legged friends are welcome. ‘One of the challenges is you don’t want to make a universal space that nobody loves,’ says Saunt.
Central Somers Town in Camden is an area of high deprivation, where residents have felt ignored by previous developments. DSDHA took time to consult with hard-to-reach groups which shaped a new public realm that tries to meet a range of very different needs, from dog-free areas where Muslim mums feel safe, to boulders for teenagers to practice parkour – all with gentle zoning that feels inclusive rather than exclusive. Masterplanning with landscape focus: DSDHA Client: London Borough of Camden Image Credit: DSDHA
So is zoning the solution? Saunt believes that ‘character areas’ can work in the right circumstances. Working on a Somers Town park, she notes: ‘Originally there was a fence around the children’s area, a fence around the adult gym area and it was really defensive. We now have boundaries that are really soft and speak of welcome rather than of go away. In the same way, at the British Museum, rather than a 2m high fence, we made a dip and filled it with prickly plants and it doubled as a rain garden. We made swales and had a bridge over the swales – making a necessity into something people found enjoyable.’
But, warns Fenella Griffin: ‘There’s a danger of theming things so they feel exclusive – you don’t want people to feel alienated. We try to deliver the best solution for the majority of people – it’s supporting their lives if it’s giving 70% of what they need, and the things that unite us are more important than the things that divide us.
‘If you can draw out the things that everybody is going to benefit from – tackling climate change, sport, physical health and wellbeing, diversity – these are the big seams running through the whole and they cross boundaries. The way we experience spaces is personal, but public space provides an opportunity to transcend the personal and address the collective.’