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Inclusivity in urban design: Five things we learnt about enhancing liveability for all

Our places should be designed to enhance liveability for all. Are we succeeding?

Steven Matz, Thought Leadership Coordinator
17 February 2022

Reduce speed

Streets designed for and dominated by cars are not inclusive and can be intimidating for pedestrians and cyclists. David McKenna is Landscape Architect at Street Spirit Design. He says, “streets are primarily designed by transport planners and highway engineers to move motorised traffic, so inclusivity is often an afterthought. Bringing urban designers and landscape architects into the process would help make the design of streets more empathetic to all users’ needs. But the one thing we absolutely must control in towns is speed”. Lowering the speed limit to 20mph in urban environments would reduce the severity of accidents and make for a more pleasant and civil environment.  Data cited by Transport for London [1] supports David McKenna’s views. A person is five times less likely to be fatally injured if hit at 20mph than at 30mph. In March 2020, TfL introduced a 20mph speed limit on all its roads in central London, with the goal of not only saving lives but also making streets in the capital more appealing to walk and cycle around.

7% is the magic number

If we want to encourage cycling, good street design is paramount, with separation between pedestrians, cyclists and motorised traffic. Cycling streets are also good as walking streets, so it works for both walkers and cyclists, says Jonathan Flower, Research Fellow at the Centre for Transport and Society, UWE Bristol. According to Goel et al. (2021) [2], when cycling reaches a 7% mode share at least 50% of all cyclists are women and better representation is achieved among children and older people. When the mode share drops below that figure, cyclists are predominantly younger adult men and involve journey to work trips. Only when the environment and street culture feels safe and comfortable enough for everyone to consider cycling as an option does diversity of cycling happen, he says.

Creating more inclusive spaces that people want to visit also helps lower crime rates.

Eyes on the street

Accessible environments are confidence building. They promote independent people and promote physical activity, explains Anna Kealey, Project Director and Architect at McBains. “We need to improve the pedestrian experience on our streets, with surface treatments, colour contrasts, steps, ramps and seats assessed for accessibility and mobility requirements”, she says.

Creating more inclusive spaces that people want to visit also helps lower crime rates. The more people in that space, the safer it is. Eyes on the street, or natural surveillance, is the best form of street security, explains Anna Kealey. Lower speed limits and motorists driving slowly can further add to eyes on the street. It is much better than motorists speeding by with no perception of what's happening around them, adds Jonathan Flower.

In September 2021, the UK introduced a pilot scheme called StreetSafe [3], an online mapping tool allowing the public to anonymously flag areas where they don’t feel safe to the police. Reasons include street lighting not working, vandalism or experience of antisocial behaviour. Anna Kealey explains that data from the scheme is kept as part of the government's agenda to tackle violence, against primarily women and girls, but not exclusively. What happens next with the pilot and its data is still to be determined, but hopefully it can be used to inform future urban planning that is much more inclusive.

Greater diversity needed

A Design Council [4] report published in 2018 revealed that 78% of the UK design workforce was male, whereas men comprise 53% in the wider UK workforce. This is despite women accounting for 63% of all students who study in creative arts and design courses at university. Ann Kealey states “this is an issue that needs to be addressed by the profession if we are to move forward to ensure our streets are truly designed to meet the requirements of everyone”. Where there has been greater diversity in the designers, transport commissioners or mayors of cities, things tend to be done better and safer. This is particularly so where women have been involved, such as in the design of Barcelona’s superblocks, comments Jonathan Flower.

Creating a sense of place

A sense of place in the public realm can be broken down into three elements: the built infrastructure surrounding the public realm, the history of the space, and the future functions of that space, explains David McKenna. The Elephant Park project in London is a good example of how well-designed inclusive spaces can create a vibrant neighbourhood, says Anna Kealey. The transformation of a once deteriorated area is testament to a design-led and participative approach from project teams, local authorities, and existing communities. “It shows a clear understanding for the history of the area and the diversity of the local communities and will be well loved and used for years to come.”

“The time and hard investment required to bring such regeneration to life can be an inhibiting factor, but a sense of place can also be created through events. It's not just about the built environment, it’s about the memories that you generate in a place – an event that lasts half a day can provide memories that can last for years and years” says David McKenna. “It’s also about designing spaces that can accommodate events”.





Inclusivity in urban design – enhancing liveability for all

Cities have diverse populations with both overlapping and different needs. Age, gender and mobility all affect how people experience towns and cities. What considerations are given to these different needs? How, for example, can good urban design make women feel safer at night or make pedestrian environments friendlier for older people or those with young children?