Design Commission for Wales
We have known for centuries how to design and develop places that prioritise people.
Right now, a public health emergency is illuminating just how far away from this we have moved in recent decades. Overnight we are reminded that our homes, places and neighborhoods are not just ‘property’. Good urban design and architecture helps create places that are well connected, distinctive, able to encourage cohesion and provide homes that contribute to healthy communities. The importance of this is now in sharp focus.
Years of angst about design for live-work and culture for work-life balance have changed overnight too. The extremes of a public health threat accelerated change in a manner previously considered impossible. But inequalities are still with us. Change has proceeded at glacial pace to date and despite the pandemic highlighting poverty, ethnicity, gender, living conditions and connectivity as key structural inequalities, we have scarcely seen more than a nod to raised awareness.
For much of 2020 our daily exercise and ‘time out’ has meant that many of us have come to know a patch of our locale or neighborhood intimately and experience it as we have never done before. Thousands have walked, jogged, skated, cycled or scooted when previously the car would have been the default.
As this mix of uses has increased, the quality and capacity of our public realm and who can access it, has been illuminated. Homes and public spaces have been critical to our physical health, our social and psychological wellbeing. The worst affected people have been those in poor living conditions with restricted access to outdoor areas close enough, large enough and safe enough to spend time in.
The ‘new normal’ was supposed to be different. Work and lifestyles have changed – the importance of the spaces between buildings is perhaps better understood as a result. The way we think about these has yet to catch up. New types of local amenities are needed for people who can work more remotely but still need some separation between work/life, want a shorter commute or still need to juggle the children.
A walk around any environment in the company of someone just about a metre high is instructive – instantly we get the perspective of a smaller person, a child perhaps experiencing traffic fumes, obstructions in the streetscape, noise and the confusion of signage and lights. It’s easy to forget these impacts on children, on someone frail, or easily fatigued; someone with hearing or sight impairment. More time is spent on design for vehicles than for human beings – and we are definitely non-standard models!
It is still the case that women and children use our environment, public transport and services most.
We need to better respond to this to design for a greater sense of safety, with front doors on streets, gardens, good routes and connections, well located and easy to access services. As more individuals and families are working from home, with disrupted childcare and schooling arrangements, how flexible and adaptable are our homes? Who takes the lion’s share of care and domestic chores etc? You can see where this is going can’t you?
There is not enough urban and greenspace in our towns and cities and it is not nearly accessible enough. This is especially the case in areas of greater deprivation where better access to good spaces is needed for people to stay safe. At home we have realised the benefits of having more flexible space inside and outside, both private and public. Apart from our big cities, town centre living is still a novelty and even in big cities it still tends to exclude families and children. Much of the current discourse about re-purposing office and commercial buildings relies heavily on the assumption that they will be suitable as good places to live. The complex realities of the potential for town centre living and the possibilities of re-purposing needs significant further thought.
Pavements and footpaths are too narrow and traffic is busy – cars are still king…the list goes on. And all this comes before we even start to consider the failures of achieving greater diversity and inclusion in our built environment industries, workplaces and boardrooms. Gender and ethnicity profiles across most of the professions from architecture to civil engineering are lamentable. A search of the professional bodies from the Landscape Institute to the Royal Society of Engineering will quickly take you to data of shockingly slow progress on this front. Just as well as the word count here won’t allow me to even hint at the work to be done there.
Our built environment is littered with millions of obstacles each of which represents an inequality. Someone somewhere is prevented from taking part, excluded from using a service, unable to enjoy a place, move around safely, take a break, find shelter or access healthcare. It’s not good enough. It’s not even close. People are the very reason that we have a built environment. We’ve got to get it right.