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Design for Diversity – Speak their language

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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 “speaking their language” – the sixth point in our manifesto.

Consider for a moment all the spoken and unspoken rules that shape how a public space is used. Is it permitted to walk on the grass? Is it socially acceptable to spit on the street? Can you drink in a park? Smoke? Host a barbeque for your extended family? Sometimes the rules of a space are clearly indicated, but more often than not there is an assumption that what is allowed and what is prohibited is obvious. These assumptions become ingrained as expectation and any transgression is frowned upon regardless of the ignorance of the transgressor of those unspoken rules. These unspoken rules can often leave people unaware of these rules feeling disenfranchised or unwelcome.

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The situation becomes especially problematic in situations where expectations are clearly indicated, like when a posted sign lays out the rules for a public swimming pool, but cannot be understood by the users of the amenity. This creates a barrier to participation in the form of anxiety or uncertainty at the best of times, and outright exclusion at the worst of times. For many, it is easier to choose to remain close to their communities of choice, those with shared language, culture, or history, than to engage in spaces that can feel alien. In order to spare the embarrassment of asking for help – if you can even speak the local language – or of being reprimanded for breaking a rule you didn’t know about, it’s unsurprising that isolation would be preferable to experimentation.

In order to create an environment that lowers the barrier to entry and encourages participation, designing for diversity means making sure that a public space speaks to its users in a way they can understand. At one end of the spectrum that can mean including signage that uses images rather than words to communicate and at the other, ensuring that design elements reflect the backgrounds of the local community such as the reflexology path in Leitchcroft Park or the diverse representations in the street art of Kensington Market.

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Beyond making sure that a diversity of users are able to understand the rules and see themselves in the spaces they move through, “speaking their language” is a design for diversity principle that can also be taken literally. At the Parkdale Library, reading material is offered in languages like Tamil, Tibetan, Polish, and Vietnamese that are spoken by large parts of the local community. This small gesture acknowledges the needs of residents and implicitly communicates that difference is not only accommodated, but celebrated.

First photo by Gilles Klein from Flickr CC, all others by Wendy Gold

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