Tuesday 23rd April 2024

David Hawkins on inclusive design: ‘surround yourself with people who know more than you’

PRP survey revealed that 3 out of 10 people don’t find their local public space inclusive.

David Hawkins on inclusive design: ‘surround yourself with people who know more than you’

March 28, 2024

PRP survey revealed that 3 out of 10 people don’t find their local public space inclusive.

‘The word ALL is now more and more vital in what we design.’ Angeli Ganoo-Fletcher, Director of Landscape at PRP says. Since the introduction of the Equality Act in 2010 a number of policies and regulations have been published proposing inclusive design of public spaces. However, we still find ourselves having to advocate for inclusivity when designing. Those who are not affected by the lack of inclusivity tend not to notice, while those who are have been conditioned to accept non-inclusive spaces. Implementing inclusive design has become a need in order to create a successful public realm.

Inclusivity in Public Spaces 

Inclusivity means different things to everyone depending on how they experience the world. While it’s incredibly difficult to make a public space perfectly inclusive for every user group, it is vital that as an industry we try and accommodate everyone in a space via thoughtful design. ‘Even if you can't see our landscape, you can smell it or you can feel it’ Patricia Brehmer, Assistant Landscape Designer at PRP, explains describing her ideal public space.

Imagine your favourite park in London, but with wheelchair accessibility, areas for children and dogs, benches to sit, public facilities and spaces to gather at all times of year for all festivities, an array of plants to touch, see and smell, shaded areas to socialise and places for sport just to name a few. ‘When they say the public, that really should mean everyone and that user groups are not forgotten’ Jasmin Reeve, Architectural Assistant at PRP added.

Perhaps most importantly is to remember that not all barriers are visible. A truly inclusive public space would be free of any physical or perceived barriers. ‘We should be the authors of our own identity’ David Hawkins, PRP Architect and ED&I Champion comments.

In an ideal, inclusively designed world ‘if we are designing for ALL the words disability, Disability Discrimination Act compliance, neuro-diverse, gender neutral should not even be mentioned’ Angeli Ganoo-Fletcher thinks.

















Illustrations by PRP. The cartoon illustrations showcase routes and spaces designed to include people living with Dementia.


The Unfortunate Reality

Since 2010, local authority’s spending on public toilet facilities has halved in Britain. While this might not seem like a matter of inclusivity to many, The Royal Society for public health noted that 43% of those with medical conditions who need access, frequently feel restricted to areas around their homes because they’re unable to find public facilities. This is just one example of how public spaces are diminishing in inclusivity but most remain unaware.

Many things can be credited for the lack of inclusivity in public spaces, among these are the simplification of what it means to be ‘inclusive’ and the lack of inclusivity in the industry itself.

The term ‘inclusive’ is often misinterpreted to mean: including those with physical disabilities. ‘We tend to forget inclusivity isn’t just about physical disabilities’ Patricia Brehmer said. ‘We are encouraged by policy and design panels towards generating active frontages, creating attractive destinations to draw people and supporting more footfall.’ Craig Sheach says in his recent article in Building Design about designing for diversity, ‘The problem is that a large number of Neurodivergent people see these spaces as places of discomfort or even, in the extreme, to be avoided at all costs’ he continued. By limiting our terminology we’re unintentionally limiting the inclusivity of our designs as well. ‘Being able to celebrate and embrace this diversity, rather than stigmatising or pathologizing individuals with different cognitive traits, helps create a more inclusive public realm’ Angeli Ganoo-Fletcher adds.

‘Who lives around us isn't quite reflected in who [architects] are as a group of people,’ David thinks. In fact, according to the ARB Equality and Diversity data (as of February 5th, 2024), 68% of architects in the UK identify as male which is significantly higher than the UK population at 49%. 88% of architects in the UK identify as non-disabled, while only 76% of the UK population do according to the Department for Work and Pensions' Family Resources Survey. The ARB also found that geographically, the profession is not evenly spread across the country, with 50% of respondents living in London and South East England.

‘A lot of the inclusive issues we have in public spaces today, are there because they were designed when the industry lacked representation and was heavily dominated by males’ Jasmin believes. ‘They're very much systemic issues that are common across a lot of industries and I think a big barrier to architecture is socioeconomic and cultural’ David added.

 'We can't challenge those sorts of unseen perceived barriers in public spaces without more diverse teams, because it's really hard to be sensitive to those perceived and felt barriers when you’re not part of that identity’ David argues.

Following a survey conducted by PRP, it has become evident that spaces are not proactively designed for those who live there. One respondent said that while the village they live in has a ‘high proportion of older people’ that’s not reflected in the inaccessibility of the public spaces. Similarly, one respondent highlighted the ‘lack of appropriate lighting, crossings and unchecked, hidden corners do not help to make spaces be perceived as safe, especially for women and children.'


‘Designing for inclusivity should be part and parcel of what we do’ Angeli Ganoo-Fletcher thinks.

‘It’s not enough to think about inclusivity…you have to consciously make an effort to really try to push some boundaries’ Urban Planner and past Research Fellow at Harvard University Natalia Garcia Dopazo explained. While taking the step to consider inclusivity as a concept is essential, it’s also necessary to make changes to processes. It all comes down to ‘thinking about the different people who are going to be using the space’ Jasmin says. ‘Designers should think beyond the suggested policies, formulas and matrices to have a better understanding of how to design for those who need it’ Patricia thinks.

‘But it's really hard for one part of a design team to be the driver for everyone else,’ David said, ‘it needs everyone to come into a room with a baseline level of curiosity and ambition.’

‘The teams you build change the methodologies that you use to understand problems and also probably change the way you produce solutions’ according to Natalia. Advocating for change and representation within your projects but also the industry itself is essential to be able to create a more inclusive environment which then in turn leads to more inclusive designs.

‘Working with a team of people with different identities to yourself, different backgrounds, working with consultants that are more knowledgeable than you and constantly learning’ is crucial to understand inclusivity in design David explains.

Illustration by PRP. Cartoon illustration showcases an inclusive design for an outdoor, public space. 


On a Large Scale

While legislation and policies do exist in the UK they’re commonly considered suggestions rather than law, or restrictions that have to be met rather than baseline opportunities to grow upon. Saying ‘legislation tends to try and capture the really dynamic, nuanced way we live and turn it into like a written code which they can print in black and white’ David suggests this simplified version of how we live in a space is dumbing down what is expected in terms of inclusivity. Currently, this process is very much based on a rigid tick box exercise, and the sooner we move away from this the more open and influential we can be.

Many of these regulations and policies are written by those who haven’t engaged with these spaces or experience the same barriers as those who use them. This can cause disparities between implemented inclusivity and actual inclusivity.

‘Where we try and speak for others we can often inadvertently reinforce a perception of what that person wants, but we will generate more authentic design solutions if we listen to what they need.’ David agrees. ‘We try and speak beyond our own experience and we make too many assumptions so the spaces aren’t authentically inclusive anymore.’ Those in charge of creating and advocating for these policies should consider the lens in which they do so. Be this speaking to locals, bringing in team members from different backgrounds and different life experiences to aid in the process or going and spending time in the area themselves. The disparity between policy makers and those living in and using spaces is huge and is something seen day in and day out by design advocates.

While we know that there’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure we are continuously inclusive within our designs, it’s reassuring to see PRP’s clients taking steps in the right direction. ‘Local councils and clients are looking for a strong consideration of how we live on site, how people live together and their quality of life.’ David says, ‘We’re building in a way that adds to or supports that existing culture.’


Botanical Place in West Byfleet is an example of how PRP works with the clients, local authorities and county councils to push for inclusivity and diversity in their designs. The public square at the heart of this scheme was designed to be inclusive and easily accessible all year long. The landscape design aims to encourage the wider community to safely and securely socialise, play and relax both now and far into the future thanks to the adaptable nature of the design. The designs include public seating of a varied nature to accommodate all, shaded and sheltered areas, drinking fountains, pedestrian only zones and opportunities for seasonal activities like ice skating in winter months, water features in summer months, pop-up markets and an effective lighting scheme that helps encourage a safe environment.


But the most important things to do?

Natalia: ‘Walk, listen and be humble’

David: ‘Accepting that you don't know everything, the one assumption that you should make is that you don't know enough.’

Jasmin: ‘For me, it's about challenging my own perspective, and engaging with a diverse range of people, as an integral part of the design process.’

Patricia: ‘Step back, use common sense and reflect’

Angeli: `Listen….and then bring joy to ALL.’

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