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Design for Diversity – Why does it matter?

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Turn on the news these days and you are likely to see stories about migration and diversity in cities that often lead to tension rooted in racial and cultural differences. An increasing number of people are migrating for a range of social, economic, political and environmental reasons. It is critical for cities, and those who love and live in them, to find ways to be more welcoming to newcomers, to be more inclusive, and design with diversity in mind. If they don’t, we face spreading intolerance, and potentially, outright xenophobia.

Public spaces are essential to healthy cities and are a perfect place to explore what we call Design for Diversity. They are important catalysts for intercultural connection as places that everyone can access and use based on their individual needs. Once people have a sense of belonging, we found that they are more likely to interact with others and take ownership of a space.  If we design with the intention of making public spaces more inclusive, bringing people together through shared experiences like a meal or a game of pick-up soccer, there is an opportunity to build bridges between communities.

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Traditional urban planning tends to focus on the macro built environment and not specific tactics to help foster integration between people of different cultural backgrounds. From a global perspective, Toronto has been forward thinking in its approach to integration and has embraced its tremendous diversity. Nearly 50% of Toronto residents are born in other countries and even the City’s motto is “Diversity our Strength.” People of diverse cultural backgrounds still face systemic issues in Toronto and other cities. But on the whole, Toronto has been successful in welcoming newcomers and celebrating their contributions to the city at large.

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To understand how to design for diversity, we looked for vibrant public spaces in Toronto where different groups of people mix and interact despite barriers that typically separate them like culture, income and language. We chose six sites for our review including an animated district and a community center clustered in the downtown core, a library and a park located west of downtown as well as a park and a mall in the city’s northeast side. Each site evolved to become inclusive places organically and were not intentionally designed with diversity in mind. These public spaces are not Toronto’s most refined or recognized destinations but we found that they exemplify design that fosters intercultural connections.

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Inclusion and diversity can deal with many issues ranging from immigration and settlement policy to accessibility. Our work specifically focuses on public space design in terms of culturally diversity. We carried out site visits, submitted our work for peer-review, challenged our own assumptions and conducted over 20 interviews with site organizers and visitors from a range of ages and cultural backgrounds. Based on our findings, we developed a set of guiding principles to help others design for diversity. We hope that our work enables planners and city-lovers to use a more thoughtful approach to creating spaces that promote inclusion. Diversity isn’t just our strength in Toronto, it can be a point of inspiration for cities around the world.

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Anjuli Solanki has a background in community engagement, public programming and urban research. She has a passion for public spaces and has done extensive research on public spaces in Kigali, Rwanda. Anjuli is currently working on research and community engagement projects in Toronto with several organizations including OpenCity Projects, STEPS and the Toronto Public Space Initiative. Her favorite public spaces in Toronto are its streets.

Top image courtesy of chensiyuan.

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