People, Spaces and Inclusive Design

Michael Clinton, MSc. Managing Director, Initiative Homes, 9 February 2016

It seems to me that there is a tendency for modern society to seek ‘the’ solution to a problem and it worries me. Why? Well with the best will in the world single efficient solutions rarely if ever suit everyone. So people, often the most vulnerable, get left out of the solution.

First of all the kind of problems I am talking about are those complex issues for which the solutions can often affect communities or have far reaching and unintended impacts long after the decisions and choices have been made. As part of process of solving big complex problems people often have to make simplifying assumptions to make the problem more bite sized, so what they are solving isn’t the original problem, but a subset or reduced version of the problem. That is important because it is then that people, or more correctly groups of people, get left out of the solution and nowhere is this more prevalent than in the built environment.

If you think about it the built environment is all about spaces, how we use them and who can access them. The point is we interact with the spaces around us in many different ways, from physical or functional interactions to emotional reactions.

We also know that many people find being in natural spaces lowers their stress levels, kids do better when they have space to play and run about, meeting places encourage social interaction, community resilience and wellbeing. Families can be more resilient to the stresses of modern life if there is room for family members to hide away and take a deep breath. There are also those occasions where a quiet space may be needed for work or study. There is evidence to suggest that children in overcrowded accommodation suffer academically because there is no suitable space for them to get on with their studies.

My observation is that there have been some very good cases made for many different types of space. However, the question of how to deliver those spaces seems to get ‘skated’ over. Instead as a society we tend to argue over which is the most important space that should be provided at the expense of others. This is to miss the point or points given that this is a complex and messy problem, as system thinkers like to call them.

In fact usual reaction it seems to me is that we cannot meet all of these competing demands, because it is just too difficult or too expensive. Well I’m not so sure. I would agree that we couldn’t possibly meet all of these, sometimes conflicting demands, in one space at a time and space costs real money especially when you are talking in terms of buildings and homes. So we need to come up with a compromise and recognise that even if a building is fixed in stone, we have the power and technology to change it if we need to!

Some would say that there is not enough land to build the houses we need, let alone create lots of ‘fancy’ spaces. Well true in the UK useable space is in short supply and in fact the UK builds the some of the smallest homes of many developed countries. What is more given the increasingly acute housing shortage we are under ever growing pressure to cram more and more homes into smaller and smaller spaces.

A recent little news nugget suggested that there are 500,000 small(ish) plots of land in the UK being land banked, and usually with some level of planning permission on them. These land banks are not, apparently, owned by the usual suspects, big super markets or developers, but by small landowners who have decided they are going to hedge their bets and put some land into their pension pot. Now even if all of those plots were only capable of having 1 house put on them that would be 500,000 desperately needed homes or 25% or so of our national short fall. That is big news.

And what about those fancy spaces? Yes we do live on a small island with a pretty high population density but there are some countries who manage to create larger more spacious homes and still have population densities similar to those in the UK. Sometimes that may be by putting another story on the top of their homes. OK three story homes are not that helpful when a flight of stairs starts to look like Mount Everest as they would for me and many others. So three story properties wouldn’t suit everyone, but they do not have to suit everyone. I would not choose to live in such a property, but others are entirely at liberty to do so if it suits them. Choice, in point, of fact is part of the solution. Different people will need and desire different solutions to their different problems. Different or diverse solutions require diverse solutions…

So if there is the potential to access land and there are design options for making the best of that land what is the problem? And why am I talking about spaces? Well what I am driving at is that spaces are about people and their needs. People are diverse, complex and they express themselves many wide and varied ways, in short no one or even two solutions will work. We cannot solve our housing crisis by simply building ever smaller homes in ever higher density developments, because that is to create a raft of social problems that will likely cost society a fortune in the future and affect people, families and communities in far more fundamental ways than mere money can describe. After all there are plenty of examples of where we got it wrong in the past. Nor can we build huge homes with massive gardens everywhere – there simply isn’t the space, and besides not everyone could cope with or would want a huge garden, for example.

When it comes to public spaces the situation can be even more complex. As a disabled person I am finding increasingly difficult to access work opportunities as I find it harder and harder to tackle steps for example. That puts me at a severe economic disadvantage (see my earlier blog The Fragility of Accessibility).

What we need is a mix of spaces and we need to think in terms of being able to adapt those spaces because if life has taught me anything it is that change is the one constant in life and that is just thinking about the cycles of a person’s life, never mind the economic, social and technological changes that seem to have a life all of their own.

In short what I am suggesting is that the spaces we create have a huge impact on who is included in society and who is excluded, whether it is a youngster trying to do their homework in an inappropriate space or an elderly person finding it difficult to get around with a walking frame or a disabled person trying to find an accessible job!

If we want to be inclusive, and I sincerely hope that we genuinely do, then we need to start with the types of spaces we create and understand who is going to use them and how. Obviously we cannot provide everyone with their own tailor made spaces and indeed that would be pointless because people need to share spaces to socialise and do business!

I do think we need to significantly raise the bar in terms of accessibility and that desperately needs to include work spaces, but, spaces are about more than just accessibility they are about people and how they relate to their environment. So when we design spaces we need to think about that and provide opportunities for people to express themselves differently in their environment. This can only be achieved if those people are included in the process of design in some way, asked what they need or aspire to. It may not be possible to meet every ones needs in one development, but by using that engaged process it should be possible to at least provide a range of spaces, from bolt holes in the homes, to accessible public social spaces allowing people can make choices. Human beings are pretty flexible and adaptable and if the spaces provided are likewise flexible and adaptable new and possibly better solutions will emerge over time and with the right support can be implemented.

None of which is particularly earth shattering or even new, but it is fair to say that many communities still find themselves being lumbered with inappropriate developments. Certainly, in some cases there is an element of Nimbyism but also there is a definite tendency amongst some developers to move in, build, sell and then head for the hills. I believe this misses a core responsibility of providing appropriate homes and facilities for our communities and an opportunity to work closely with communities to continue to create and improve the built environment for as long as there is a community to work with…