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Cities for all: Why inclusivity matters to planners

‘If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity’, said President John F Kennedy. More than 50 years on, the need for inclusive urbanism across the globe is even more pressing. Francesca Perry, editor of Thinking City, explains

Much like ‘sustainable’ and ‘resilient’, ‘inclusive’ has become a buzzword in planning. The UN’s New Urban Agenda, agreed at Habitat III last October, commits to addressing global inequality through inclusive urbanism. Similar to a new year’s resolution list, the agenda paints a utopian picture – but as we well know, the reality can fall short. Without rigorous implementation, each member state can interpret inclusivity in their own way. So what should it look like, and why should planners pay attention to it?

“Accessible, inclusive cities allow everyone to participate equally,” says Dr Victor Pineda, president of disability rights organisation World Enabled and adjunct professor of city and regional planning at the University of California at Berkeley.

“Les Grands Voisins demonstrates that social, economic and cultural projects can be mutually beneficial”

As an expert on disability rights, policy, and planning, Pineda established the Global Network for Disability-Inclusive and Accessible Urban Development, mobilising 130 organisations to lobby UN members for explicit commitments on accessibility. The built environment can be enabling or restrictive. Some 15 per cent of the global population lives with a disability, but the world is still not fully accessible. 

“Cities often burden people who have difficulties walking, hearing, seeing or remembering, [and prevent them] from participating equally in public life,” says Pineda. “The problem is not with the person, but with the way the environment is designed. Planners must engage with a diverse set of people with disabilities – and there should be a strong commitment to universal design as well as robust enforcement and monitoring mechanisms.”

Borås in Sweden won the European Commission’s 2015 Access City Award, having committed resources to achieving “a Borås accessible for all”. 

Here, accessibility of public facilities is guided by a dedicated strategist and advisory officer, working alongside a disability advisory board. Public transport is free for disabled and older people; buses and bus stops are accessible to people with mobility and vision difficulties; pedestrian crossings have level access, acoustic signals and tactile guidance, and a specialist mobility service is provided. The municipal government provides subsidies to make private housing accessible for people with disabilities and a scheme to install digital ‘locks without keys’ in 3,500 apartments and 2,000 entrance doors gives greater personal security to older people. 

A model for inclusivity

But inclusion is more than access. An inclusive place ensures that all people – regardless of age, race, faith, ability, income, gender or sexual orientation – are catered to, and their rights respected. It is a flexible place with safe and accessible healthy public spaces, widespread and affordable public transport, adequate play provision, safe space for cyclists and pedestrians, walkable neighbourhoods, wheelchair and buggy-accessible public realm, public seating, gender-neutral public toilets, visual and aural navigation for those who are blind and deaf or have dementia. It is mixed-tenure development, affordable housing, and community facilities that respond to a diversity of needs. It is a place where design takes well-being and mental health into account, and where socialising is encouraged. 

Some groups can feel more excluded from the built environment than others, so planners need to think about including these more vulnerable populations. Socially marginalised migrants and homeless people often experience disproportionate difficulties accessing basic services and housing. 

Les Grands Voisins (great neighbours), a neighbourhood project launched in 2015 in Paris, has rehoused more than 300 formerly homeless people, as well as 300 West African migrants. The project – managed by non-profit organisations Yes We Camp, Aurore and Plateau Urbain with permission from the city municipality – transformed a disused hospital “for the common good”. Aware that housing alone cannot foster integration, the project acts as a community hub with social spaces, inclusive events (such as open-price communal meals), a public campsite and affordable workspaces for 200 social enterprises and artists. 

“Stockholm is in part a segregated city… We need to make sure the city’s development is inclusive – and urban planning is a key tool in this”

Les Grands Voisins aims to be a model of a truly inclusive community, where groups of people with varied backgrounds can thrive in a neighbourhood that supports them and their skills. But the project is not permanent; it closes at the end of 2017. The area is being developed into an ‘eco-neighbourhood’ (part of a wider city programme of green residential districts that support economic development and social diversity) with 600 housing units (50 per cent social housing), public facilities and shops. Some emergency housing will be relocated – a permanent 75-bed shelter is planned – but most will have to move out.

Jean-Baptiste Roussat, president of Plateau Urbain, explains: “Les Grands Voisins was conceived as a temporary occupation, and we are working with the developer of the new project and the public authorities in order to learn from the experiment and think about what could be replicated in future.” 

Meanwhile projects cannot deliver longevity, but they can harness the risk-taking power of temporary occupation to demonstrate the case for different forms of planning. “Les Grands Voisins demonstrates that social, economic and cultural projects can be mutually beneficial,” adds Roussat, “and a new kind of collaboration between public authorities and private actors is possible.”

“Stockholm is in part a segregated city… We need to make sure the city’s development is inclusive – and urban planning is a key tool in this”

Planning for dementia

In the UK, 850,000 people live with dementia, and the number is rising. In 2013, the Alzheimer's Society and Dementia Action Alliance launched the 'dementia-friendly communities' scheme, publicly acknowledgeing places for becoming more inclusive.

A more dementia-friendly built environment is distinctive, legible, familiar, accessible and walkable. "To tackle the challenge of dementia in cities, city design should ensure neighbourhoods retain ttheir unique identities and landmarks to help those with the disease to better recognise their surroundings," says Help Age International.

Read the RTPI's practice advice on Dementia and town planning (pdf)

Local voices, local lives

Involving a diverse and representative mix of communities in planning also helps support inclusive places. Listening to all local voices not only helps make a place that supports a diverse range of people, but also creates a strong sense of co-ownership, contributing to better use and maintenance. 

“Inclusivity is about a wide range of people feeling a sense of belonging in a place, feeling connected to it emotionally and that they have permission to use it,” says Catherine Greig, founder-director of participatory design studio make:good.

“Participation is the route to fostering these feelings, so the more inclusive the participation, the more inclusive the place.”

“We need a multitude of perspectives in participation to ensure we are building inclusive cities"

Vulnerable or minority groups are often victims of assault in public space, so safety is critical to supporting inclusivity. The Because I am a Girl urban programme from Plan International, Women in Cities International and UN Habitat, holds workshops with girls and women in cities around the world to identify and map what could enhance their sense of safety. The findings inform planning policy.

“We need a multitude of perspectives in participation to ensure we are building inclusive cities,” says Kathryn Travers, director of Women in Cities International. “It’s crucial that women and girls are consulted. Gender gaps in cities lead to exclusion in public spaces. In some cities, up to 90 per cent of women experience daily sexual harassment in public space.”

Outreach enables diverse participation: a poster inviting feedback is not enough – sensitive, face-to-face engagement helps ensure that a representative spread of people are listened to, especially those who tend to be excluded by traditional planning processes. 

A Stockholm suburb attracted attention recently for a so-called ‘feminist urban planning’ initiative, based on listening to residents, which is making the neighbourhood a much safer place (see Making Husby safer for women, below).

“The same approach won’t work with every demographic,” says Greig, “but if you use a range of activities you can reach a diverse audience and build a much broader understanding of what is needed for local people beyond the usual suspects. Planning needs to be more than public meetings and exhibitions for it to be truly inclusive.”

Making Husby safer for women

Husby, a suburb in north-west Stockholm in Sweden, has attracted attention for its ‘feminist urban planning’ approach to public safety. A project centred around 600 new homes and improved public spaces was developed in close dialogue with 2,000 local residents – and addressed a gender imbalance in public space created by a low sense of safety among women. 

The city council’s housing arm held workshops with female residents to discuss where and how they felt unsafe and what they wanted to see change. As a result, improved street lighting and pedestrian walkways will help create safer routes through public space.

“Stockholm is in part a segregated city,” mayor Karin Wanngård explains. “We need to change this. We need to make sure the city’s development is inclusive – and urban planning is a key tool in this.”

A mixed profession

Diversity of the profession itself is also crucial. “Professions that mirror the diversity of the society they serve have a much greater chance of creating a built environment that suits that society,” states Design Council Cabe’s ‘Inclusion by Design’ guidance (pdf).

A diverse industry also improves the diversity of participation, as it helps breaks down notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’. “Promoting inclusivity is good for all of us,” says Chris Ricot of Planning Out, a forum set up in 2016 for LGBT+ professionals in UK planning. “We want to build on the planning sector’s reputation for inclusivity and acceptance.”

According to 2010 census data, 81 per cent of American planners are white. 

“If we value diversity, if we value all human beings equally, then we will build our cities in a way that reflects these values”

“Generally African-American and Latino planners are vastly underrepresented compared to their presence in the population,” says Leonardo Vasquez, of the American Planning Association’s Latinos and Planning division. “But organisations that are inclusive of diverse perspectives inspire their workers to share insights and work together to create solutions.”

Currently 8 per cent of the RTPI membership is BAME. But last year the RTPI Trust created four bursaries to increase diversity in the profession by helping high-achieving students from diverse backgrounds or living with a disability to study planning and gain chartered membership.

Inclusion is not a strategy that can be signed off and forgotten about: as our society changes – and technology plays a bigger role in it – exactly how we ‘include’ people has to be continually interrogated. It is not just planners’ responsibility, but the profession has a powerful role in influencing policy. 

Momentum is building: in April, a parliamentary report called on the government to take a lead on improving access and inclusion in the built environment. On 21 June, world experts will meet at the RTPI Planning Convention to address how planners can help to build a more inclusive future. 

“The built environment is shaped by our social values, so our cities are the physical manifestations of our values,” says Pineda. “If we value diversity, if we value all human beings equally, then we will build our cities in a way that reflects these values.”

Francesca Perry is founder and editor of Thinking City and will be hosting a session on planning and the media at the RTPI Planning Convention on 21 June