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Is the Public Realm Always for Everyone?

Urbanism is changing and it is becoming clear that the way we design our cities plays in wider societal and political aspects. While providing high quality open spaces, strong cycling and pedestrian networks less centred around cars is essential we must also acknowledge and understand that urban design is a strong tool in dealing with inequality, gender biases, racism and climate change and the design of the spaces around us contributes vastly to people’s mental and physical health, their financial wealth, their social opportunities etc.

Throughout the lockdowns the social and community value of public space has been magnified as we have been forced to stay closely within our own communities and it has become obvious to us all if our immediate surroundings contribute to our happiness and support us in our everyday lives or if they are lacking.

While open spaces, parks, cycling and walking networks have surely established their importance during the pandemic, the difference in people’s access to these has become perpetuated. It is clear that we need a lot more and much higher quality public realm, but as we commence on expanding these and building new we need to ensure that the spaces are designed for everyone to feel included, but is there bias in urban design and are we designing for certain communities rather than others?

There are widespread discussions around the world not only about racism, but also whether everyone actually is provided an equal right to the public realm and the unspoken biases that exists in places that should in fact be welcoming everyone.

While the public realm is as the word implies, supposed to be for everyone, it has become clear that far from everyone feels comfortable in it. The built environment is designed to condition us to understand and reflect who belongs, if some people are absent from the public spaces we should ask why and how they can feel included.

It is also becoming clearer how much woman moving in the public realm are on alert and feel uncomfortable in the public realm and that the public realm is lacking in design for a diverse population and at times unknowingly excludes communities and cultures.

Universal Design is a term established in recent years highlighting physical accessibility in public spaces, but it might be time to broaden the term to ensure that urban design is also cognisant of its societal effect to not just be about designing the public realm for people of all abilities, but also for people of all communities.

Emphasis on diversity in design teams and in-depth community consultation will help to support an inclusive process which is representative of all communities so more people see themselves reflected and we avoid exacerbating biased power configurations in the way we design the world in 2021 and going forward.

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