Addressing the Need for Inclusive Cities

This month’s guest blog is from Stephanie Edwards: Architect, Urbanist and Co founder of Urban Symbiotics

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As designers, our curiosity is sparked by people. We want to find out what drives them and to understand how changes to their environment can help alleviate their fears and support their aspirations. This challenge has motivated us (Urban Symbiotics) to set up our multidisciplinary design practice.

We are interested in how space can respond to user needs. For example, a local market is a tailored environment that is constantly in flux, adapting to meet the needs of its users. Traditionally a place of commercial exchange, it has been a platform that responds to its local ambient conditions- concurrently evolving as places to socialise, meet, eat and be entertained. They can also operate as culture hubs, providing a space for minorities and youth movements alike, free to be represented both commercially and socially. It’s the intrinsic flexibility of the local market, with its survival dependent on meeting the needs of its user that gives it the ability to develop and adapt alongside changing neighbourhoods and communities - an aspect that has inspired our approach to design.

To design spaces that are inclusive, we try to understand the current and future needs of the users and larger community. This is typically done well when designing a home for an individual where, as architects, we often help to formulate the brief directly with the user. This is achieved by asking questions, evaluating the current space, offering solutions and expanding the mind of the client to the great magnitude of possibilities that modern design offers; the result is the creation of a space that meets the exacting needs of the individual. As the scale of the development and its users - covering a range of socio-demographics - increases, the input from the user can slowly fade and be replaced with complex and often detached client briefs.

So we say - let’s bring back the user! Let’s engage with them from the beginning to help us inform development briefs, simply by spending time to ask questions, to watch, listen and make informed evaluations. We don’t want to use standard engagement techniques that focus solely on design and aesthetics, but to seek an understanding through questions, data and social trends surrounding current and desired lifestyle attributes and choices instead. Targeted engagement is also key in determining a true reflection of the community- we enjoy ‘going to them’, instead of waiting for them to ‘come to us’. Valuing engagement as much as design, we take into consideration community needs with the same care and attention as an individual homeowner, hoping to lead to the creation of better places and the empowerment of people by actively including them in the process. 

Whilst this approach of user insight, paired with development goals help to create inclusive places, we are also aware that we need to do more to ensure that it also meets future, unanticipated needs. Whilst that future user group may not exist as yet, we still try to support future needs by designing spaces with spatial flexibility and agility that can be defined by the developing user group. This requires the physical design of a flexible environment and a platform that allows the facilitators of the space to continuously engage with their user group – forming a symbiotic relationship.

We used this approach for the design of a student accommodation development, whose initial client brief was focussed on maximising capacity and rental returns. We persuaded the client to come on the journey with us, convincing them that to maximise capacity and rental yields they needed to offer a product that students actually wanted. The project was initiated with an engagement strategy that involved student focus groups, campus interviews and a social media campaign-asking the student body to help us to help them.

The results and final concept were astounding. The client established a new company focussed on supplying demand for a student-centred product and the site and future sites were primarily managed and operated by an online portal and the students themselves. Operational costs were reduced by more than 20% when compared with similar developments and the student body was empowered, supported and inspired by their residence. The final product integrated architecture with way-finding, brand, technology and service provision – creating a unified and complete environment. The development company created a steering board made up of current residents allowing them to continuously feed their needs and aspirations into the evolution of both the building and business.

So how can we wholly address the mixed narrative in our spaces? This is our take:

  • Interrogate the brief 

  • Engage the user 

  • Design with agility

  • Current needs aren’t future needs – give the future a voice

All in all, we believe that addressing the need for inclusion in our cities shouldn’t be a choice but a necessity. We should follow the model of the local market to ensure that our cites are resilient, sustainable and flexible but most of all a place for people. As designers we shouldn’t be creating spaces that aren’t suitable or inclusive based on assumptions alone; instead, we should be creating platforms and spaces for endless possibilities -allowing spaces to be eclectic, vibrant and inspirational.

Follow Stephanie Edwards on:

twitter: @urbansymbiotics | @stephurbansym
Instagram: Urbansymbiotics