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 “tapping local talent and diversifying your team” – the second and third point in our manifesto. Before the trees are planted and the benches installed, all public spaces begin as an idea. Often that idea is created by urban planners and designers, landscape architects, and other professionals in boardrooms and on computer screens in consulting firms and government offices. Although they may have all the latest software and years of experience, these design teams will still fall short of truly designing for diversity if they are themselves not a diverse team. Even the most well-intentioned designers and acclaimed architects have blind spots that will shape how a space functions and how a place feels to the eventual users.
Since public spaces are intentioned to be used by a broadest range of people possible – the public – the design of a new park, square, or plaza should be influenced by a diverse range of people as well. A space designed exclusively by men, for example, will inevitably fall short of creating an optimal experience for women. Similarly, a playground designed by a committee of adults will fail to consider the unique needs and desires of the children for whom it is being designed. Designing public spaces for a diversity of cultures is no different. The greater the diversity of the design team (influenced by gender, class, race, religion, language, and other intersectionalities), the richer and more relevant the design process and outcomes will be.
Beyond integrating a diverse professional team, designing for diversity also means incorporating the views of primary users as well as those who live near the public space in consideration, and who intimately understand its context. Tapping local talent to join the design process will invite participation from the community and incorporate its needs from the outset. Incorporating local knowledge creates opportunities for a more thoughtful process and builds consensus for a project. In contrast, when designs are simply submitted to the community for feedback, it is a token gesture of engagement rather than a genuine collaborative process. When designing for diversity you begin by designing with a community, instead of designing for them.
Exploring this principle in practice, the architecture firm BIG enlisted the local community to help it design the Superkilen Park in Copenhagen. Located in one of the most culturally diverse communities in the city, the new park is a vibrant amalgam of the ethnicities and backgrounds of its residents. From a fountain echoing Moroccan courtyards, to palm trees from China, and a literal red square paying homage to those of Russian extraction, the elements that define Superkilen are as diverse as its users. As an added bonus, the organized chaos becomes a draw in itself, attracting not only locals but tourists from all over the world eager to see themselves reflected in the park’s design.
In a more local context, a diversified team that incorporated local knowledge was a prime objective in the design process for Leitchcroft Park in Markham, Ontario. The participation of members of the community’s sizeable Chinese community helped shape the design of this suburban public space, resulting in the inclusion of a traditional reflexology path. This walkway composed of variably shaped and sized rocks that massage the feet as walkers pass over, is commonplace in public spaces across East Asia, but are rarer here in Canada. Its inclusion is more than an expression of the local community’s shared history and culture, it is a way to signal that this space belongs to everyone, newcomers and longtime residents alike.