In today’s globalized world, an increasing number of communities are made up of residents from divergent cultures, religions, and ethnic backgrounds. Though diversity brings the potential for deeper social capital, it also bears more alienation than in homogeneous neighborhoods. Indeed, studies have found that ethnic groups tend to isolate themselves from neighbors for fear of discrimination. Fortunately, researchers have also found that these divisions dissolve in vibrant and welcoming public spaces, like waterfront parks.
To best foster community and inclusivity, here are ten points to consider when designing inclusive, multicultural spaces.
1. Planning for interculturalism as well as multiculturalism
Whereas multiculturalism concerns broader identities embedded with divergent cultures, interculturalism emphasizes the local intermixing of cultures. In this way, urban planners should consider that sometimes it’s interculturalism and not multiculturalism, that they should consider when designing public spaces. Within these melting pots of culture, public spaces should reflect and reinforce the regional blending of ideas and norms.
2. Urban planning from a human rights perspective
Through a community-focused lens, public placemaking is less an avenue for profit and more an initiative connecting people from all walks of life. To promote inclusivity and cultural celebration, planners should thus avoid economically-tiered access or events catering to higher social strata. Recent examples of this phenomenon include laws against loitering and charitable feeding in public as well as “gourmet” food truck festivals. As stated by urban design professor Ali Madanipour, “if public spaces are produced and managed by narrow interests, they are bound to become exclusive places.”
3. Inclusion as a process, not just an end product
For a project to be inclusive, the principle of inclusion should be interwoven into its structure from its very first stages. In Toronto, for example, it wasn’t until Leitchcroft Park was built that municipal employees learned of the South Asian community’s dissatisfaction with its lack of social seating. With this in mind, public space should be built on the lived experiences of the surrounding area. By engaging locals through surveys and meetings, planners can promote civic trust, better understand the community’s demographics, and best cater to the areas’ needs. Rather than designing for the lowest common denominator, the most effective spaces leverage the input of those who use it.
4. Physical design isn’t everything
Sometimes the most successful multicultural public spaces are not necessarily the ones with the most attractive physical designs. Instead, it’s imperative to view the physical aspects of the built environment alongside the cumulative message it sends through its branding, wayfinding, and incorporation of local cultures. Even if a park boasts the most beautiful facilities, this does nothing for inclusivity if people do not feel it reflects local history and culture. In other words, architects should aim to create a place, not a design.
5. On-site accessibility
Whether a user is disabled or elderly, an inclusive space takes extra measures to comfortably accommodate them. This onsite-accessibility can be accomplished by not just adhering to the American Disability Act’s minimum requirements, but by also drawing from other sources like Safe Routes to Schools and the American Association of Retired Persons. By combining features like tactile strips at crosswalks, accessible restrooms and parking spaces, and color contrast applications on poles and steps, public space can ensure ease of use for all.
6. Off-site accessibility
Before individuals even arrive at a place, there are multiple factors that can deter accessibility. Is there sufficient lighting in the surrounding environment? Are nearby sidewalks well-maintained? In Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, it can take residents hours to reach central public spaces due to congested roadways. Although this is an extreme case, the fact remains that periphery accessibility is crucial. By assessing walkability scores and local street interconnectivity, planners can ensure that their intended sites are equally accessible for pedestrians, bikers, and those taking public transportation.
As previously mentioned, a major challenge when bringing together people of multiple backgrounds is creating a sense of safety despite their differences. Indeed, surveys indicate that many people of color experience overt hostility in public spaces by other users and by staff. While it’s difficult to eradicate such discrimination, it can help to hire management and security who resemble or speak the language of diverse residents. This and other initiatives, like anti-discrimination messaging and zero-tolerance policies, can help strengthen the image of the space as a shared, accepting, and safe place.
8. Empowering local residents
To increase community involvement, public spaces can offer opportunities for underrepresented vendors. In Minnesota, for instance, Union Market provides small-scale sites for local business owners. With some as small as 100 square feet, these spaces allow entrepreneurs to build a customer base with less risk and financial burden. Of course, retail shouldn’t be the sole focus of any space, nor is it the only way to build investment within residents. Another way the latter can be done is by including features like stages on which the community can host its own events, like plays and speeches.
9. Sustained investment
Once a space is designed and built, its values must be maintained through a continuous effort. As noted by the Gehl Institute, the representation of local stakeholders in public processes indicates how well a community will retain interest over a longer period of time. The area’s sweat equity can also be cultivated through partnerships with local organizations and resident involvement as stewards and volunteers. Through quarterly discussion forms, all the above parties can gather and discuss potential events and areas for improvement.
10. Preparedness for change
Since communities are ever-evolving organisms, an effective public space should be adaptable to its users’ changing needs. From shifts in the neighborhood’s housing affordability to its economic conditions, regional changes can alert management to where benefits of public space improvements are emerging. To preserve the ideals of inclusivity and multiculturalism, it’s important to monitor such developments to best provide all user-derived options.