Inclusive communities need to be designed that way

The Chicago Riverwalk, recipient of the 2018 AIA Regional & Urban Design Award, is an accessible public space for residents and visitors alike. Photo credit: Kate Joyce Studios.

By Kathleen M. O’Donnell

The various spaces that make up a city— from our schools and hospitals to government buildings and cultural institutions — all shape our way of life. Civic leaders are responsible for ensuring public welfare, and a safe, comfortable built environment supports that mission.

Creating spaces where all members of a community can thrive requires consideration for their different needs, abilities, and voices. “Our community leaders and governments are supporting their constituents. That means everybody, not just a specific group of people,” says Greg Burke, FAIA, a Florida architect dedicated to diversity, inclusion, and civic engagement with over 40 years of design experience. “In order to be fair and inclusive, you have to make accommodations for everyone that will use a facility, whether it’s a public park or governmental office building.”

As you think about the future of your city, keep these things in mind so your civic spaces are more inclusive.

Include many voices in planning

To create a space that serves the full range of community members from different backgrounds, generations, economic and social circumstances, an inclusive design process is key. Architects and designers are proponents of participatory design exercises, where community members, civic leaders, and designers all have a seat at the table.

New Orleans-based architect Jose Alvarez, AIA, believes that designers can help communities achieve design solutions that work for everyone. “Through community-based participatory design, an architect can facilitate a process to open channels for communication within a community that is typically focused on their differences and not their shared values and goals,” he says.

Burke believes that the role of an architect can be to facilitate inclusive decision making and consensus building. “Architects deal with a diverse constituency of people over many years. We have a wealth of experience in coming to understand what their wants and needs are and what will make it easier for them to go through life,” he says.

When many voices are included in planning and design, gathering spots, downtown areas, and even entire neighborhoods can be transformed for the greater enjoyment of all.

Prioritize accessibility and safety

It goes without saying that each community has unique needs. Issues that affect your city may not necessarily affect a neighboring one, but two things that must always be accounted for are accessibility and security.

For years, Burke has worked with the American Institute of Architects to create a more inclusive architectural workforce and champion the contributions of architects who, like himself, overcame disabilities. He sees that civic buildings often have a long way to go in being truly accessible to those with differing physical, mental, and emotional abilities.

“We need to make facilities that accommodate all types of people,” Burke says. “Our government buildings are the ones that need the most attention. They get a lot of traffic, just based on their very nature of serving the public.” Complying with ADA accessible design standards or universal design standards are where civic leaders should start when working on new facilities or renovating existing ones. And Burke thinks that’s imperative. “After all, we are the ones who pay for those facilities as taxpayers,” he says.

Public spaces are often enjoyed for their openness and variety of access points, but there are serious considerations that must go into planning them. Top of mind for any leader is public safety, and thoughtfully designed spaces can help reduce the effects of a traumatic event — whether the cause is human or environmental.

“It’s hard to quantify and justify how you make spaces inclusive. As much as we want things to be open, they also have to be secure,” Burke says. “Design’s challenge is to make buildings welcoming and open, but at the same time, to protect those that use them.”

Learn from others

Look at the communities that inspire you. By identifying similarities and differences between your city and others, you can learn what safe, accessible, and inclusive design solutions might work for your city. Here are some common design challenges and award-winning solutions to get you thinking.

Affordable housing options

To aid LA County’s homeless population, Michael Maltzan Architecture and Skid Row Housing Trust built Crest Apartments, a 64 home facility that includes comprehensive on-site support services.  View the AIA Film challenge Grand Prize-winning film, Community by Design: Skid Row Housing Trust.

In New Orlean’s Irish Channel, OJT architects designed 3106 St. Thomas, the first unit in the speculative development a plan for Starter Home*, which seeks to meet demand for single-family affordable housing.

Riverfront revitalization

The City of Chicago and Ross Barney Architects partnered to serve residents and visitors alike with the Chicago Riverwalk, a 1.25 mile civic space that has resulted in significant economic and ecological growth.

Pedestrian fatigue

To shade pedestrians from the desert sun and increase connectivity, Howeler + Yoon Architecture, LLP and the City of Pheonix developed Shadow Play, a dynamic canopy structure on a former traffic median.

Accessibility solutions

Students and professors at the Louisiana Tech’s School of Design worked with Camp Alabama in Choudrant, LA to redesign camp facilities for young people with disabilities. View the AIA Film Challenge-winning videos Arch 335: Rebuilding MedCamps and Pisces.

Learn more about working with an architect in your area, by contacting an AIA chapter near you.