Equity is often confused with equality. To understand what Equitable Design is, we first need to understand what equity actually is and how it is different from equality. The difference between equality and equity must be emphasized.
Although both promote fairness, they are fundamentally different. Equality means giving everyone the same thing whereas equity means giving everyone what they need to be successful or be on the same level as everyone else. Equality achieves fairness through treating everyone the same regardless of their need, while equity achieves this through treating people differently depending on need.
Now that we understand the meaning of equity, we can understand the meaning of Equitable Design. We all know that equity is not just a problem in architecture. Equity is not just about having the right number of people at the right places. It’s about listening to the problems and asking the hard question: who is going to bring something different to the table?
Architecture is not just for architects or the 2% of the population who hire architects; architecture is for everyone. There is a common belief that architecture is about iconic building that gets awards and famous architects; but then there’s also the architecture of everyday people: our homes, our offices where we work, our schools where we learn, libraries, civic centres where we gather and congregate as communities and even shops and restaurants where we socialize and meet people.
Equity can be defined as making things right. Oftentimes, things happen, policies are implemented and then they have unintended consequences. So, equitable development is about how we acknowledge the wrongs of the past, whether intentional or unintentional, and provide suitable remedies for that.
For example in Vancouver, British Columbia, the Canadian government said, “we apologize for having done this to this particular community, and we’re now investing in this urban intervention that pays homage to that history but also helps to build a better future.”
This is a really good example of equitable development. Another example is from the city of Detroit where the city has a large proportion of publicly owned land. And with that, the people of the city are tasked with ensuring that when they convey the land to a private developer, it should be done in a responsible and professional way, and not just to the highest bidder. Community support could be considered an important factor.
In general, it can be said that equitable design is about adaptability. The term Equitable Design indicates that the design must be useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
For example, an equitably designed playground can be planned for users to enter from all directions including school, adjacent sports field, and parking lot. The composite structure can be designed to accommodate users with assistive devices where they can enter from one end and travel independently to all pieces of equipment without the need to leave their assistive device.
How to Achieve Equity in Architecture?
The concept of equity goes beyond architecture. As architects, we must ensure that we not only design for clients, but also for the communities that will experience those buildings as users or even passersby. Architects must ensure that they design for all the people who will interact with the buildings.
It’s not a secret that there is a tremendous lack of diversity in architecture. However, in recent years, this has expanded to include equity, not just within the profession, but also in the designs that architects create. With each passing day, politicians are getting more and more involved in the development process and that’s when architects have to be able to respond and do meaningful community engagement and their design solution has to incorporate in a way that’s going to be up to the standard.
The best way to achieve equity is by focusing on user experience and meaningful connections to local and natural environments. It can be easier said than done especially when market factors often push architects in the opposite: growth in cities and mass transport hubs have led to “gentrification” (a process of urban development where a city neighbourhood develops rapidly over a short time and changes from low to high value) and a race to build luxury housing that pushes newcomers and lower-income families further into the peripheral areas.
Even so, good design ascends over the challenges of growing cities and a heated economy. Architects can create innovative alternative housing models, and be prepared to demand the necessary evolution of equitable development. There are examples of creative solutions everywhere, notably the most recent experiments in and ideas of micro-housing, portable housing, modular construction, and development inducements.
Requirements of an Equitable Design
When we make use of these alternative options, we must make sure to put our emphasis on thoughtful detailing, functionality, and an architecture that can engage users. Equitable design should always emphasize a user’s experience by considering the community and shared environment.
Most importantly, every design, no matter what size or location, should incorporate openness, daylight, transparency, and outdoor views. Part of an architect’s job is to test the results to make sure regularly and uniformly illuminated, ventilated and better functioning spaces that engage and inspire the people who live there.
An ideal equitable design should have these qualities. A body fit; means accommodating a wide range of people. Comfort; which can be achieved by keeping demands within desirable limits of body functions. Awareness, understanding, and wellness are some of the other qualities.
Social integration can be achieved by treating all groups with dignity and respect. Personalization means incorporating opportunities for choice and the expression of individual preferences. Another quality is cultural appropriateness that can be achieved by reinforcing cultural values and the economic, social, and environmental context of every design project.
Equitable design’s approach has extended to encompass ages, gender, ability, cultural identity, and religion with these broad-reaching qualities and goals. Its strategies promote flexible, intuitive, and usable spaces that can contribute to reducing anxiety, promoting safety, and leading to an overall healthier, more equitable, and usable environment.
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London
It is a universal design with an equitable approach. It was designed to deliver the most inclusive Olympic Games ever. In doing so, the first step that was required was a deep understanding of gaps that existed in current practice. In order to properly address comprehensive inclusion in design, the designers of the park developed a new standard of equitable approach, i.e. to make the London 2012 Games ‘Everyone’s Games’.
By incorporating the qualities of equitable design, the Olympic Park included coordinating crossings, drop off/pick up points, and car parking where all the other transports are linked and there is also a provision of resting spaces and seats, the park also includes drinking fountains and consists of additional space requirement for mobility equipment.
The park also supported all-gender toilets, cultural and religious areas like prayer rooms to accommodate faith requirements and gentle gradients throughout the site so that it is easily accessible for everyone.
The park also provided legacy consideration including community use in the historically and socially deprived area of London to address issues of opportunity and gave access to green spaces, education, sports, affordable housing, and inclusive workspaces. The overall approach to equity-based design and its integration has resulted in a widely recognized site with excellence that serves as an example of equitable approach and universal design.
Future of Equitable Design and Role of Technology
As the building industry and urban development are gradually adjusting to this post-pandemic scenario and responding to this post-pandemic design, we must ask the question: how can we use equity in our future design solutions?
The impacts of COVID-19 have resulted in an increase in anxiety and depression. An equitable approach in a design promotes mental health strategies both through designs and functioning policies, as well as active design, ergonomics, and social connectedness to positively impact wellness.
Technological advances will be a paramount support mechanism to the new ways through which we can use our spaces, which includes automated sensors, lighting, computer software, apps, etc. While technology provides increased levels of accessibility, it can also be important to assess functional requirements across equitable design goals to ensure inclusive interpretations.
Another support mechanism can be transportation. As the transport restrictions due to lockdown are gradually uplifting, public transport will impact certain parts of the community more and in an out of proportion way. While it is evident that health and safety measures of public transport will remain critical, we can also embed equitable qualities at the centre of reshaping diverse methods of transportation, including cycling.
Equitable design is currently a concept that we have yet to fully procure. However, it is also not a far-fetched dream. We can achieve equitable design, not by ourselves, but by working as a community. Architects must gather and create strategies, listen, learn and ask questions and bring new ideas to light.
As we strive for design strategies to reduce risk and prevent disease, inclusion and equity must be at the core of the conversation around solutions that are driven by design in this post-pandemic environment.
We must know what it means to be an architect and what we can do to achieve equity; not just equity in architecture, but equity in society, our day-to-day lives, education, work, and much more. Through innovation, collaboration, and creativity, architects can achieve equity in our environment.
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