Social Justice and Urban Design
‘We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us’ (Winston Churchill, 1941)
The way we form our urban areas, the spaces they enclose and the values they embody have a profound effect on the quality of people’s lives. Planning is an allocative mechanism, influencing who gets what. Urban design is a tool of the planning system that influences the experience people have of their surroundings and the needs it enables them to meet. These needs might be to get to education, to access healthy food, to get exercise, to access relevant and stimulating employment opportunities, to enjoy nature to find solitude or interact with other people, amongst others. These factors and others influence what people feel they can do and whether they feel stifled or nurtured by their surroundings.
The way urban design is undertaken can contribute to ensuring fairer access to these opportunities and is essential to help create the circumstances that allow people to make well informed decisions, stay healthy and participate in society.
Despite the committed efforts of people in the fields of planning and social services, many people growing up within our most disadvantaged communities have their life potential diminished as their economic disadvantage is compounded by environmental disadvantage, poor access to appropriate housing, limited recreational opportunities, inadequate nutrition, social stigma, limited transport choices, car dependency and limited choice and quality of social interaction opportunities amongst others.
For these people, life expectancy is lower (seven years lower than the Australian average), they are typically more exposed to the vagaries of interest rates and the price of petrol, do less well at school, miss more days through illness, are more dependent on welfare and are more likely to be employed in jobs that are in ‘at risk’ sectors. They are also more likely to suffer from the ‘urban epidemic’ of cardiovascular disease, Type II diabetes and cancer as a result of being overweight or obese.
The impact of these existing issues of social exclusion and economic instability will be further compounded in the future by climate change, peak oil and other emerging challenges. For example, communities locked into car dependency, as many peripheral disadvantaged communities are, will find themselves not just with lower job security but simultaneously isolated from education and training opportunities. These same characteristics isolate people without access to cars from recreational and social opportunities and increase their dependence on the few nearby shops that often sell a limited range of food.
An essential component of addressing this unfairness is to ensure everyone can enjoy surroundings that make it comfortable, safe and pleasant to engage in the activities necessary to meet their needs. We are all fundamentally emotional beings and our cognitive reality – our understanding of the world – is informed by our values and experiences. This in turn informs how we respond to our surroundings and our sense of whether that environment welcomes us and supports our wellbeing, or makes us feel unwelcome and disadvantages us.
Opportunities to meet our needs are rarely comprehensively denied, rather they are deterred (e.g. if a park offering your favourite sport is 15km away and you don’t have a car and the timing isn’t compatible with the bus, while it might be theoretically possible to walk – it is unlikely). In these cases, the benefits are not perceived as worth the cost in terms of time, fares and possibly an elevated and unacceptable exposure to risk. In other cases, the setting within which a need is met may have a negative association or stigma that may deter people and so, their need goes unmet, as can occur in uses as diverse as drug clinics and welfare offices.
At other times a place is perceived as having been appropriated by a section of the community such as those of a particular age, members of a particular ethnic group or street dwellers to the exclusion of others. This may discourage other people from occupying that space or passing through it.”
It is important to note that everyone sees their surroundings differently – what is welcoming to someone may be threatening to someone else. Age, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status and personal experience all influence a person’s interpretation of their surroundings and the opportunities it offers.
However, experience suggests that some aspects of our surroundings are typically interpreted the same way by many people, and it is within our power to design places that can provide people with the opportunities to do what they need to do to support their well being, develop their skills, forge social bonds and live lives congruent to their principles. Failure to provide these opportunities, either deliberately or accidentally, risks fundamentally compromising the quality of people’s lives. Such environments offer people few and/or poor opportunities to meet their needs and so are hostile to them thriving and reaching their potential. In these cases people get by despite and not because of their surroundings.
“Some key components of a more equitable public realm are:
They make the uptake of sustainable living more attractive, something to be embraced because of the opportunities it offers.
They promote active transport, the public realm makes walking and cycling, the most accessible forms of transport, preferable, not just possible as a means to get to all the places a person has to go.
They are food secure, when everyone has access to opportunities to access fresh, tasty and healthy food. They offer transport equity, when a lack of a car is no barrier to getting to where you want to go.
They offer quality open spaces, when parks, squares and other open spaces are nearby and offer a wide range of qualities and experiences, to play sport, to enjoy nature, relax and gather.
They embody the values and highest principles of the people who share them, providing people with a chance to participate in their design, implementation and management. The people who live there can be proud of their community, investing emotional capital in their surroundings.
They are designed not just to minimize the potential for appropriation by one group but to ensure as many people as possible, with diverse needs and priorities can share the same spaces. Land uses and densities respond to the scarcity of land and conflicts are mitigated.
The characteristics of interventions that can achieve a supportive environment are well known to designers and academics. Mandating these characteristics will not be without its challenges but, if we can, it is possible to ensure interventions in our built environment incrementally move to create ‘human habitat’ – mitigating unfairness rather than compounding it.
Ref: Jenny Donovan, Australian Fabian News, 2009
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