The Biggest Challenge With Inclusive Design
Why Timing Can Make The Inclusive Design Process For Public Spaces Difficult
People say “timing is everything”, and for good reason. Timing provides us with order and orchestrates the events of our lives. Timing is also often used as a reason for why things like relationships do not make it. Timing is beautiful in the sense that it is an opportunity and constraint that we are all provided with, but tensions can arise when different timelines do not match up.
When designing a public space, there are two obvious factors involved: the public and the space. Because the public is involved, the local government is automatically a major player in the formal processes. Because space is involved, designers and architects are also a major player in the process. These realities might seem so clear, but understanding why both are vital to the development of public spaces is foundational to understanding the design process (and why it can be so challenging).
In general, public space is allocated and funded by local government. This means that they have the power to make many of the final decisions relating to the project such as timelines, budgets, and sometimes even design choices (such as what materials can be used, desirable uses to be implemented, etc). Due to the nature of how local governments are structured, often involving a variety of levels that plans and ideas must pass through before getting approved, the timelines for the political process of getting a public space approved can be long and tedious.
Many times local governments hold competitions or bids for architects and designers to compete for the opportunity to shape the physical landscape of a public space. Designers get involved in a consultant role because local governments do not have the resources to also fill this need, and because engaging a variety of architects and designers for various projects can cultivate more diverse and engaging built environments.
Temporary Intervention Basargruden as a Case Study
In the case of Basargrunden in Nørrebro, a new metro line was being developed through Copenhagen, so in order to hold building materials and equipment necessary for the construction of the section running through Nørrebro the authorities needed an open space. An area at the intersection of Nørrebrogade, Borgmestervangen, and Mimersgade (now known as Basargrunden) was leveled and served this specific need. The local council known as Nørrebro Lokaludvalg alongside other community actors decided that after the construction of metro is completed in 2019 the space should be made available to the public. This was what planted the seed for both the political and design processes previously introduced.
Proposals were made to the local government to find funds to support an intervention in the space, at the same time that community groups like Medborgerne were talking with community members about the types of interventions they would like to see implemented in the space. Additionally during this time, designers and architects began ideating and creating proposals for more permanent physical designs of the space. All of these actors shared the desire for active community participation in the processes for the public space, and of course all actors and community members want a final product that diverse groups of people can enjoy.
Governments of all levels and all across the world are notorious for making decisions slowly, and it is often no different when creating budgets, agreeing on space usage, okay-ing materials, and approving designs for a public space. Because a more permanent physical design of the Basargrunden area might take somewhere between 1.5–2 years to realize, Fundament Design and CoUrban have proposed creating a temporary intervention for the space.
A temporary intervention is a powerful tool that local governments and designers can both benefit from, because it provides the opportunity to engage community members in a continuous conversation about the space that is meant to serve them. Participatory action, co-design, and inclusive design techniques can be implored in the design process of crafting a temporary intervention for the space. Unlike a more permanent design, the temporary intervention provides the foundation for iterative design where community members can be part of the design and building process, realize their designs on a much faster timeline, and have the ability to make changes to the temporary intervention since it is less permanent (I will elaborate on temporary interventions more in another post).
In theory, a temporary intervention can fill a gap that allows the parallel political and design processes to run their courses without as much tension. The problem that arises is that a temporary intervention requires the same processes that the permanent intervention does, just on a smaller and more condensed scale. Local government still has to approve the idea to have a temporary intervention, the design choices, and uses for the public space while designers and architects should still work closely with community groups and members to create an inclusive design process.
Although both the political process and the timing of trust (the amount of time required for designers to gain the genuine trust of community members) can be lengthy endeavors, they have trouble running efficiently at the same time. One of the major challenges is that it can be extremely hard (and potentially harmful) for designers to get community members to participate in the design process of something that might not be realized. For example, if locals engage in co-design workshops for a park that is proposed by a design group but that does not get approved by local government, then they might be more likely to distrust the processes at work and will probably be disappointed with the outcome. This creates a misalignment between the community members, designers, and politicians as a result of a tension between the timing of political processes and timing of trust.
Ideas For What We Can Do
The design process has the ability to be more flexible than the political process, so designers must think critically and creatively about how to be most efficient, genuine, and empathetic in their processes. Different firms choose to approach this task in various ways. In the case study of Basargrunden, through open dialogues with different political and community authorities it appears that all players involved could agree that having a play structure of sorts would be beneficial for the public space. While the proposal for a temporary design is going through approval processes, there is an opportunity to creatively engage local children in a design process (again, I’ll go into more detail about this in a later post).
By breaking the larger project into a series of smaller projects, it is easier to identify aspects of the project that are the most likely to be executed which allows designers to mitigate the risk that a project will get lost in one of the processes and disrupt the trust of community members. Attempting to do this is a delicate endeavor because community relationships are complex and balancing political climates with inclusive design methods can be tricky. Right now, there is no perfect science for aligning the the timing of public processes with design processes, and that is one of the major reasons why timing can make the inclusive design process for public space so difficult.