The role of inclusive human-centred design in creating equal experiences.
For a recent Urban Planning university assignment, I had to analyse the Australian Bureau of Statistics Census data to find development opportunities. It was an interesting exercise, not only because it made me reflect on the future, but because it revealed a shocking reality that Australia has become a less equal country.
In ‘Glimpses of Utopia’, Jess Scully, Deputy Lord Mayor of Sydney, talks in-depth about these alarming statistics and suggests actions to try avoid the path many other countries have taken. According to ABS, ‘the average wealth of the richest 20 per cent households is more than 70 times higher than the average net worth held by the households in the bottom 20 per cent of the wealth distribution’.
This got me asking; what role does design and architecture play in creating equal experiences for people regardless of their social status?
These days we often apply the term ‘human-centred design’ in relation to this question, but how inclusive does an architectural or urban design approach need to be for it to truly be ‘human centred’?
Let’s take an example from my personal experience. When I first came to Sydney, I lived in a studio apartment with one small window and a view almost entirely blocked by an ugly exterior steel shade. In short, my apartment wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, I didn’t have the opportunity to work in a lovely office, and I couldn’t afford to stay in a nice holiday house. This could have had a highly negative impact on me if I hadn’t found my way to the Opera House stairs, where I used to sit for a couple of hours a week reading books. Being close to a beautifully built structure helped me connect to my new city and brought me a sense of peace and hope.
You might have been in similar situations when you first experienced an iconic state-of-the-art building, a gorgeous landscape or a beautiful house with astonishing views. Is it fair to say that something had slightly changed in you after you left that building or place? You experienced something bigger, better, richer than what you were used to. From then on, your everyday surroundings looked just that little bit different. This is what I describe as an enriching human-centred design for the built environment.
I believe that creating this type of environment is how designers fulfil their responsibility to society. By creating a deeper connection between people, space and place, designers can help create a more inclusive and happier world.
Back to my point about economic inequality, I keep wondering whether everyone has the same opportunity to experience being inside an iconic building, an architecturally designed office, or simply put a beautiful space?
Consider someone living in the less advantaged suburbs of Sydney, who may be part of the 40% of the population earning less than $800 a week. According to the ABS they most likely work in industries like manufacturing, retail trade, or warehousing and with a role such as a machinery operator or labourer. As a result, they likely spend their working hours in spaces that were built around certain functions or operations, with little consideration given to the experience of that environment. Their home may have less natural light, air flow or green space. Plus, long working hours and other obligations might not leave much time for them to visit the inspiring public spaces which are mostly located near CBD. Does this person have the same chance of being able to experience a life-affirming design?
With this in mind, what is the first step to inclusive design? There’s an abundance of academic literature exploring how inclusive design starts by including the citizens in the decisions about their neighbourhoods and cities. An excellent example is the 2014 participatory experiment that a group of academics undertook in a fast-growing region of the southwestern United States.
The neighbourhood was a low to middle-income Latino community of mid-to-late 20th-century single-family homes located along a canal. In this experiment, residents were given the opportunity to engage with the planners through multiple meetings, workshops, interviews and other participatory techniques. The public feedback was then assessed against a set of sustainable factors that planners had already identified in collaboration with community leaders, with the aim of improving the neighbourhood viability and community happiness.
The result was a series of interventions, including a canal beautification project and a safety and education program. Additional plans call for improving lighting, introducing solar power, reducing water loss, and carving out a social space for residents.
Another study measured the effect of the built environment on the elderly with neurocognitive disorders. Academics found that the environment can play a significant role in enhancing the results of medical treatments. The result showed that nursing homes with natural light and finishes produce a warm, homelike appearance, creating a calming effect on patients who were receiving occupational therapy or neurocognitive simulations. In short, the study found that if the built environment of the nursing homes projected a friendly, homely space, it could have a significantly positive impact on institutionalised patients and their families.
Manuhuia Barcham, Designer and Associate Professor in Arts and Design, defines inclusive design as ‘decolonial design’. Based on his definition, an inclusive design actively works to create worlds that are respectful and welcoming of connecting [our] differences without subsuming one world with another. As Jane Jacobs suggests, to create an intelligent urban system with minimal malfunctions, a combination of three factors should be employed: zoning for diversity, trueness of public buildings, and competitive diversion across various building uses in an urban structure.
There’s an inspiring paragraph from the United Nations sustainable development strategy:
‘One of the strengths of cities in both poor and wealthier countries is the initiative and inventiveness of their citizens. One way information does not fulfil the contemporary requirement for the quality standards of citizen involvement. People have to be given the possibility to become the key resources of cities. Citizens need a supporting infrastructure; places for people to meet and get organised, an attentive media to communicate their concerns, and tools, processes and channels to create initiatives and communicate.’
As designers, it is our responsibility to advocate for design approaches that increase the opportunities for our citizens’ social engagement and create a sense of security in the city.
Our city-shaping projects should allow opportunities to transform our urban environment into places that embrace individuals and create a sense of protection. We should all benefit from places that enrich our lives equally, regardless of whether the ‘human’ who is ‘experiencing’ them is advantaged or not.
References Jess Scully, Glimpses of Utopia, Pantera Press (Australia, 2020)