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Design for Diversity – Promote universal themes

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At OpenCity, we have spent the last seven years learning about what motivates diverse people to spend time in a place and connect with others. Design for Diversity is a new way of viewing, planning and designing public space through a lens of inclusion and diversity. Over the coming weeks we will unpack the Design for Diversity manifesto to ease planners and city lovers into the practice. In this post, we address the importance of “promoting universal themes” – the seventh point in our manifesto. 

Typically, planners and designers only focus on defining the physical layout of places. Physical amenities are often chosen based on their low cost and easy maintenance. Less thought and planning goes into considering the details of future users’ experiences; how will the space be used, how will it be perceived from the street; how easy is it to navigate, etc. Providing opportunities for interaction is a key ingredient to creating good intercultural public spaces. It gives people a common purpose to come together, engage in dialogue, play and learn. When designing for diversity, applying universal or unifying themes can help you to reach your goals and apply themes that cut across cultural and linguistic differences.

Everybody eats. Food is obviously essential to our existence but it can also be a social experience. This experience can be deeply personal and is often associated with home, family and security and speaks intimately to a person’s identity. By eating together in a space, you are actively sharing and participating in an activity that transcends culture and identity.

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Dufferin Grove located within Toronto’s west end is bordered by a busy retail street, shopping plaza, and secondary school, and is connected to a mixture of low-rise social housing and affluent housing. Although historically a Portuguese neighbourhood, there is a rich cultural milieu of residents that includes people from East and South Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Programming at the park includes Friday night dinners laid out on community picnic tables that facilitate direct interaction through sharing a meal.

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RV Burgess Park in north-east Toronto is nestled within a densely populated multicultural residential tower community. Unique to RV Burgess Park is a recently installed tandoori oven. Local women work together to make tandoori rotis for sale to both local residents and the wider community who visit specifically for a taste of the delicious bread but stay for the atmosphere, engagement and community feel.

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The enjoyment of nature is another universal theme that most people share. Access to green spaces and fresh air has been linked to people’s satisfaction with their neighbourhood. Programs that offer an opportunity to engage with nature can also help to unify a community. The Gone Fishing Program offered at the Scadding Court Community Centre is just one excellent example of the activities that draw people of different cultural backgrounds and ages. Every year in June, the indoor pool is filled with live, freshwater trout. For 4 dollars, anyone can catch a fish, have it cleaned and take it home or have it cooked by one of the vendors at the market. Gone Fishing brings nature into the city, making a much-loved outdoor experience more accessible.

By promoting universal themes such as food and nature in the design or the improvement of public spaces, you can create an instant appeal among users that can translate into a sharing of the space that will lead to communication, engagement and cultural acceptance.

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Niki Angelis is addicted to good urban design, investigating emerging trends in planning and people-centred public spaces.  Niki currently works in community engagement in Toronto and has participated in several projects dealing with alternative design guidelines, participatory planning and capacity building in both developed and developing city contexts.

First and third photos by Wendy Gold,  second photo by Niki Angelis and fourth photo by Shinya Suzuki from Flickr CC

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