Inclusive design? Let's ask the experts

“Know your place”

I love cities. In particular, I love the way they connect people, history, identity, style, and function, all expressed in three dimensions. However, the vast majority of cities and towns in the UK and globally do not promote or prioritise inclusion, whether by intention or lack of thought, and this must change to ensure the built environment is fit for the future.

Exclusion and inequality are so often embedded in the societal norms of the time or culture, so it makes sense that the way we think about others is captured in the way we design and plan the buildings, spaces and place we use. Examples of this can be found throughout history and in current decision-making and it’s possible that you will have experienced or witnessed this.

For example, if you are travelling with children, who are too young to walk long distances, and found out how few places and routes are designed for or can accommodate a pushchair? Or noticed confusing social housing layouts (typically with their own  “you are here” map), so separate from the language and pattern of the surrounding context that they become physical and social “no go” areas?.

For me, navigating space following surgery back in 2013 gave me a very small glimpse into the challenges faced by anyone who is infirm, when using stairs or pulling on heavy doors! For the elderly (who by the way are soon to be the majority of the UK population), it must have a huge multiplier effect on being able to safely navigate the city, and so too for disabled people - making it difficult to access education, transport, leisure, work or appropriate housing.

Inclusive environments are places that work better for everybody - whether that place is a school, office, park, street, care home, bus route or train station.

Design Council, Inclusive Environments Hub

The Imagined Majority

Historically the built environment as a series of interconnected places and spaces has been created for an imagined majority, which has been able-bodied, relatively young and male. Interestingly this has tended to mirror the majority of the people involved in developing the built environment, until relatively recently.

There has been a lack of diverse voices involved in the commissioning and design of buildings, and there still is! Diversity data from the CIC’s A Blueprint for Change report 2016, reveals that only 14% of consultant professionals are female and 4.8% declare a disability.

By not including a wider range of perspectives, as experts, I believe our sector is missing out on valuable input in how the real majority use and understand space. Expertise, which is included at the earliest stages of brief development and design could help designers challenge notions of the imagined majority, and critically interrogate received wisdom.

It is estimated that at least 80% of the UK’s built environment already exists and will continue to contribute to the make-up of our cities for the next 30 years or so; making a change in this context is challenging but not impossible.

Encourage a wider talent pool for better outcomes

There can be little doubt that inclusive environments benefit all, and anything that makes life easier and more equitable is a good idea. Currently, projects such as CIC’s IE Award, the BEPE project, the Inclusive Environments Hub and the CPD project are doing great work in raising awareness, addressing systemic issues such as education, and providing new CPD for those already in the industry.

To build on these efforts and ensure better outcomes for all, we are going to need to go beyond training existing professionals and take more positive steps to encourage wider perspectives into commissioning and design.

We need to address any barriers to inclusion, in built environment education and employment; these can be cultural or social (as well as physical), and because they are often so deeply embedded, can be difficult to see, if you are not directly impacted.

From education and training opportunities, through to attraction and retention, each part of the skills eco-system needs attention or,not only will we continue to build places which are difficult to use for many, but, we will also see a continued rise in the skills gaps which could threaten our ability to keep pace with demand.

Construction and the built environment will reap the rewards of a much wider talent pool, and I for one cannot wait to see how a more diverse cohort of commissioners, planners, designers and constructors will create cities fit for the future.

Useful Links

Accessing Architecture - guidance for people with disabilities on careers in architecture by the RIBA