Why do girls use playgrounds less than boys?

06/07/18

Inclusive Urban Planning – Creating a City for Everyone

A Green Sky Thinking panel discussion at White Arkitekter (London), 16 May 2018

 

How can designers work with communities today to make cities more inclusive, more equal and more sustainable for all their inhabitants? This was the central question behind White Arkitekter’s panel discussion. Part of the Green Sky Thinking 2018, with its ‘People First’ theme, the discussion investigated the relevance of a particularly Swedish term – ‘normkreativ’. What does it mean in terms of inclusion and what can it bring to urban planning?

 

Participants:

Rebecca Rubin, Urban Planner and Architect, White Arkitekter (Sweden)

Anna Mansfield, Director of Strategy and Research, Publica

Geoff Denton, Partner/Architect, White Arkitekter (London)

Sarah Yates, Principal Researcher, New London Architecture (Moderator)

 

Cities have a capability of providing something for everybody only because and only when they are created by everybody.

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)

 

How can designers work with communities today to make cities more inclusive, more equal and more sustainable for all their inhabitants? This was the central question behind White Arkitekter’s panel discussion. Part of the Green Sky Thinking 2018, with its ‘People First’ theme, the discussion investigated the relevance of a particularly Swedish term – ‘normkreativ’. What does it mean in terms of inclusion and what can it bring to urban planning?

 

Moderated by Sarah Yates of New London Architecture, the event had an international focus: architect and urban planner Rebecca Rubin from White Arkitekter Sweden presented the project ‘Places for Girls’ and explained a nuanced workshopping approach to promoting inclusion; Anna Mansfield discussed her work in London at urban design consultancy Publica, presenting a range of techniques for mapping the city from a people-first perspective; and Geoff Denton of White Arkitekter London spoke about his experience of importing a normkreativ approach to the UK in a masterplanning project for the town of Hastings.

 

Precise translations of the term normkreativ vary but the gist is to ‘challenge norms in a creative way’. And the big norm, Rebecca Rubin reminded her audience, is now the city: by 2050 around 75 per cent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban contexts. So while the city needs to continue to provide for our most basic human needs – such as shelter and access to food – it equally needs to be envisioned as the place where people from all walks of life can meet, fulfil dreams and create innovation. How do we create the city, Rubin asked, that – in the words of UN Habitat Programme executive director Ms Sharif – ‘leaves no one behind’.

 

‘Places for Girls’, White Arkitekter’s research project into inclusive public spaces was kick-started by some unsettling statistics from predominantly gender-equal Sweden: while use of play spaces may be equally split across genders in the younger age groups, in park space planned for teenagers a disturbing disparity begins to emerge, with use among young people reflecting an 80/20 boy-girl gender imbalance, and youth club spaces exhibiting a similar split of 70/30.  

 

‘Where are all the girls?’ was the question that sparked the project. ‘There are norms in society and the norms will favour some,’ Rubin warned, ‘and that is reflected in our design, in what we prioritise or don’t prioritise’.

 

The project sought to find out why girls are retreating from shared outside space and to find ways of redressing this imbalance. An important collaborative first step in the project – a normkreativ move – was to team up with a theatre group, and the local youth council of Bagarmossen and their youth leader. The theatre play Du vet Havsdjupen, an interactive outdoor production that decodes public space through the eyes of teenage girls, provided a springboard. The play was shared with built environment professionals and local politicians, and formed the basis for a discussion forum. What quickly became apparent, Rubin reported, was that adults in groups seldom listen to children. It was clear to Rubin that the discussion format itself needed to be re-framed to a format where adults were obliged to listen before talking.  White Arkitekter’s role was to moderate to ensure that the girls – in this case the expert panel – were listened to and backed up with urban planning strategies and statistics.

 

Something else that needed re-thinking was the ensuing workshopping process, where girls worked in teams alongside youth leaders and architects to focus on three specific playspace sites. Here the normkreativ aspect was to involve the girls when designing the workshop format itself. According to Rubin the girls straightaway rejected the standard workshop competition format as being unconducive to creativity, preferring a more collaborative process from the start.

 

What the girls wanted from their playspaces became clear: sheltered places that felt comfortable to sit in, spaces close to other people but not at the centre of a crowd from where they could see but not necessarily to be seen. They also wanted places where they could co-create to reflect their own experiences and make an impact on their urban environment. The outcome was three interactive spaces with an intimate scale and strong identity. The girls created sheltered spaces where they could meet and engage eye to eye, rather than sitting on benches in a row – hang-out spaces that didn’t immediately demand physical activity.

 

And the lessons that White Arkitekter took away from the process? Different perspectives are crucial to good urban design – moving beyond normative behaviour andtailoring collaborative processes to particular groups is key to gaining understanding of users. Also, that micro-actions work: ‘We can always do something, every day, in every project, to question norms and take a step in a normkreativ direction’, said Rubin.

 

‘To include all we have to lift some people up – separatistic methods in this case were needed to achieve urban equity,’ she observed. Rubin also noted that norms need to be identified and recognized as such before normkreativ thinking can even begin, that only through statistics and data can architects and experts actually see what is going on and help overlooked groups to be heard.

 

As a result of the project, said Rubin, the City of Stockholm commissioned White to consult with children on its strategic plan, which they realised they had never done before, and the built environment experts involved became aware that they couldn’t identify a single city space that had been designed specifically for young girls.

 

Broadening out the focus the next speaker, Anna Mansfield, led the audience on a fast-paced overview across London’s changing public realm, looking at some of the techniques used at research-led urban design consultancy Publica. Over the last eight years the consultancy has mapped 75 neighbourhoods across London, working at different scales across a variety of project types in some very different socio-economic contexts. Through its projects on the ground the consultancy has now gathered a huge quantity of data on the city and how people are inhabiting it.

 

‘It all starts with primary research, ‘said Mansfield, ‘on the street looking at layers of socio-economic research.’ The street is London’s public realm and it is currently experiencing a resurgence: ‘Eight years ago a lot of public realm was being delivered in London, but perhaps without any real brief… We’re looking at what’s working well, what less well. Things move quite quickly.’

 

Projects have ranged from tracking the movement of pedestrians around Liverpool Street Station to understand in detail where people go in the City and why, to mapping uses around the Strand and analysing Instagram and Wiki data around the Northbank to find out how people are using space.

 

Depending on the specific needs of a project Publica might also focus on mapping physical characteristics including thresholds, scale of buildings, terminations of view, entrances or frontages. While eight years ago an accepted norm of new development in London was the ‘active frontage’, Mansfield reported a renewal of interest in the qualities brought by the solid frontage – a questioning of what has become the norm. In a similar vein, a project to map the popular court and alleyway spaces of Covent Garden showed what people like about these dark spaces.

 

Publica’s work, said Mansfield, is often about unpicking the different layers of how we have thought historically about cities and understanding groundswells of change. London, she said, is now self-pedestrianising in parts – the sheer volume of pedestrian traffic meaning we are being forced to change the way we think about the city in relation to the car, with other factors such as the huge uptake in cycling and London adapting to becoming a 24-hour city impacting too.

 

Some projects have turned out to be all about identity. The consultancy’s work in the vicinity of Victoria Station, for instance, began with the question ‘where is Victoria?’ In an area undergoing commercial redevelopment at vast scale, what should it feel like on the street, where do people need to get to, and how do we move them around? What are its qualities as a neighbourhood? Where’s the public space potential for play and getting children back into the frame? ‘These are the kinds of questions we’re asking,’ said Mansfield.

 

Projects with a residential community focus have included working with Queen’s Park Community Council, an urban parish council in north-west London, to consult on their neighbourhood plan. By mapping the demographic, it was established that 74 per cent of its residents have lived in the area for more than ten years as opposed to 51 per cent in the wider borough of Westminster. Only with that data, and by mapping the existing social infrastructure and networks, were we able to plan ahead for future activities in the neighbourhood, said Mansfield.

 

White Arkitekter director Geoff Denton spent 30 years practising in Sweden before returning to the UK two years ago to set up a satellite London studio. The aim is to learn from the UK context but also to share knowledge gained in Sweden, where focus on and investment in planning is significant compared to the UK. Continuing the normkreativ theme, Denton discussed a masterplanning project for Hastings Borough Council, which the practice has been working on since 2016.

 

He described a common scenario: being asked by a local authority to provide a ‘masterplan’ within the red line of a 30-hectare site characterised by a complex pattern of land ownership and numerous ‘key stakeholders’. The Hastings White Rock area inhabits a wider context that includes a crowd-funded pier, a theatre and a town museum that doesn’t mention 1066. What, wondered Denton, is Hastings as a place really about?

 

A limited budget apparently offered little opportunity for engagement or alternatives to the ‘workshop to masterplan’ route. Looking for a normkreativ way in to the project Denton took up consultant Clare Cumberlidge’s suggestion of using some of the budget for a photographer for a couple of days to take photos of people and places.

 

It may have been a small step but it had a big impact. The resulting photography tells a story of a place rich in contrasts, inhabited by a population polarized in terms of age but identifying with their town in diverse and unusual ways. It reflected the multi-faceted character of the town, creating a portrait of the place. Included in the masterplanning document alongside analyses of cultural hubs, green networks and intelligent grids, the photography forged an identity in a way that a series of diagrams cannot. ‘Local authorities do need help – we tried to give them belief and pride in place, and we’ve noticed that they have started to go out and make connections for Hastings. They’re seeking funding and are negotiating for a loan of the Bayeux Tapestry,’ observed Denton. ‘Of course it’s always important to design, but the strategies underpinning what you create should be inclusive and understandable by everyone.’

 

Denton concluded: ‘I think it should be part of planning policy, that you always do another thing that flips things over, creates another way of thinking about things’.

 

Bringing inclusion to the city, it seems, is about balancing big data with fieldwork and observation, about identifying behavioural norms and challenging them in creative ways. It’s also about thinking beyond the red line of the site boundary and being prepared to engage in micro-actions. Data, the panel agreed, is a crucial starting point for inclusive design. Only by establishing who is in the public realm, Rubin pointed out, can you identify who is missing. But it’s when that data is filtered through a normkreativ lens, it appears, that inclusion can really begin to come into focus. As Sarah Yates summarised: ‘every place is different but to build better and more inclusive human-scaled cities we need to find out what’s really there – not just the built environment but the social infrastructure and the people’.