Interculturalism and culturally inclusive space I

Part 1 Challenges: Contact, conflict, separation, segregation.

In my blog Cities of (in)Difference I discussed Bloomfield and Bianchini’s (2002, p. 6) intercultural dream where “different cultures intersect, ‘contaminate’ each other and hybridise.” Clearly parks, public spaces and streets have a role to play in this. Unfortunately however, culturally inclusive spaces, those designed intentionally around the recognition of difference, diversity, and cultural heterogeneity have neither been a major focus of study in the planning literature nor are they well understood by practicing urban designers, planners and policy makers (Kumar and Martin 2004).

A notable exception is the now defunct Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) in the UK who went further than most in improving practice. In their Principles of Inclusive Design (CABE 2006, p. 9) they note promisingly: “Inclusive design acknowledges diversity and difference,” but then proceed to focus solely on issues of mobility and disability, not other forms of difference. Indeed, many planners and urban designers conception of ‘inclusion’ focuses on Universal Design, making spaces that are accessible to people of varying physical ability, learning and emotional disabilities, sensory impairments and communication limitations. Most parks and leisure research focuses on the more common, and, as I’ve argued elsewhere (see Agyeman and Erickson 2012), more restrictive term ‘diversity’ (e.g. Byrne and Wolch 2009; Dines and Cattrell 2006; Dywer and Hutchinson 1990; Floyd et al. 1993; Gobster 2002; Low et al. 2005, Lanfer and Taylor 2008; Loukaitou-Sideris 1995; Sanchez 2010). Few publications addressing park or open space design specifically mention difference, interculturalism or cultural inclusion. Notable here is the work of Sofoulis et al. (2008) in Metro Sydney, Australia: Out and About in Penrith: Universal Design and Cultural Context: Accessibility, diversity and recreational space in Penrith

Traditionally, a city’s parks, plazas, market squares and streets have been “the core of the urban society” (Madanipour 2010, p. 5) and offered people the opportunity to discuss current events, philosophy and everything else. However, historically, many people were excluded from these spaces; women, foreigners and slaves had no place in the Greek agora and inter-group interactions in the medieval square were dominated by social rules and hierarchies (Madanipour 2010).  Additionally, many park designers and urbanists shared a deterministic concept of public space (Amin 2009) and believed that exposure to nature and elite visitors would uplift the working class and immigrant users (Byrne and Wolch 2009). The United States’ first public park-makers, men such as Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, believed that by offering greater opportunities for inter-class mingling in parks, democracy and inclusion would be advanced (Rosenzweig and Blackmar, 1992).  Taylor (2009, p. 229) notes: “Some park advocates saw the parks as a gentler way to improve the poor while assimilating them into mainstream society.”

These beliefs underlie ‘contact theory’ which posits that interactions between members of different groups reduce intergroup prejudice under the right conditions (Dixon 2005; Talen 2008). However, there may be limits in the ability of open space to foster democratic inclusion. Unlike Bogotá’s former Mayor Enrique Peñalosa who notes that “In public spaces, people meet as equals,” Amin (2009, p. 7) argues that it is “too heroic a leap” to assume that a city’s democracy will be automatically improved by making its public spaces more vibrant. Most public spaces serve as meeting places for people who already know each other, although familiarity with strangers may be built over frequent encounters (Amin 2009).

Shinew, Glover, and Parry (2004, p. 338) have noted: “Contact theory posits that…interracial interactions that occur in leisure settings [e.g. parks and public spaces] have the potential to be more genuine and sincere compared with the more obligatory interactions that take place in formal settings.” Contact theory however offers little or no guidance on how to achieve culturally inclusive space, let alone how to achieve such spaces in places where social inequality is deeply entrenched (Dixon et al 2005).  Additionally, contact with diverse groups may serve to make shifts in personal prejudice, but has been shown to have little impact on structural discrimination (Dixon et al 2005), which may have much greater impact on a particular group’s use of public space  (Floyd et al. 1993; Arnold and Shinew 1998). Instead, many open spaces can align more with conflict theory; they are sites of tension and racism that reinforce inter-group separation (Dines and Cattrell 2006).

In addition to inter-group separation, studies examining race-based [1] differences in park usage offer evidence for significant differences among various ethnic, racial and cultural groups in their usage of public spaces. Gobster’s (2002) study of Lincoln Park, the largest and most heavily used park in Chicago, IL found that white park users were more likely to be involved in active-individual sports while minority users were more likely to engage in passive, social activities. In the same study, Gobster observed differences among user groups in water activities: whites and Latinos were more active in swimming, Asians more active in fishing, and whites more active in boating than any other group. Both Dwyer and Hutchinson (1990) who looked at recreation participation data for Illinois generally, and Gobster (2002) reported that white Americans tended to prefer more natural or wildland areas, for camping or hiking, while African Americans were drawn to more urban recreational facilities, for ball playing and picnicking.

The study of four neighborhood parks in areas of differing ethnicity in Los Angeles by Loukaitou-Sideris (1995) found that African-Americans primarily visited parks in peer groups, generally male-only groups. The younger males tended to hang out at the park entrances, parking lots, or around athletic facilities. Most often the groups were talking, joking around, and girl watching. Most African-Americans used the park how they found it, and did not adjust the physical space to meet their needs. As was found in previous studies, Caucasian users tended to be engaged in reclusive, self-oriented uses; more than 30% of whites came to the park alone. Exceptions to this trend were elderly white users who were often engaged in small groups playing games such as cards or croquet.  Asian users were the least represented in the study and were notably absent from the parks. The Asian users observed were mostly older men who were relaxing, socialising and performing Tai chi. Parent-child visitors were relatively common in each of the ethnic groups, but families were rare among Chinese users. Ethno-racial differences such as these have been identified in all kinds of parks and public spaces (Gobster 2002; Byrne and Wolch 2009; Sanchez 2010).

One study found that the Hispanic population brings another pattern to the studies and finds that African-Americans and whites have more recreational and leisure preferences in common than either group has with the Hispanic population (Cheek et al. 1976 as cited in Loukaitou-Sideris 1995).  In her own research, Loukaitou-Sideris (1995) found that Hispanics utilise parks more frequently than other users, tend to visit in large family groups and participate in social activities such as parties, birthday and wedding celebrations or picnics.  Often, Hispanic groups arrange themselves in circular configurations centered on the group’s food.  Unlike other racial groups, Hispanics often changed the park space to accommodate their needs.  For example, if people wanted to play soccer, and there were no fields (pitches) in the park, players would bring goal posts with them (Loukaitou-Sideris 1995; Sanchez 2010).  Almost 60% of Hispanics were participating in stationary activities, such as eating or watching others play a sport.

It is important to note the intra-ethnic differences and when possible, identify different patterns between ethnic and cultural sub-groups.  For example, within Hispanic culture, many Puerto Ricans prefer baseball while Central and South Americans prefer soccer, so one cannot say that all Hispanics use parks for soccer (Dwyer and Gobster 1996).  Indeed, one of the keys to becoming culturally competent is that planners and policymakers cannot assume homogenous life experiences based upon racial or ethnic similarities: doing so may deepen and entrench stereotypes (Beebeejaun 2006).

The differences discussed above in how different ethnic, racial and cultural groups use public spaces were not found in Loukaitou-Sideris’ (2003) study of children’s use of parks and playgrounds.  In fact, children of both genders and all cultures and ethnicities were found to prefer many of the same amenities and share similar values in their public spaces.  Children most frequently valued safety and cleanliness as well as nature-like, athletic, and commercial spaces (such as laser tag, video games, recreation rooms, etc.) . The fact that children appear to value the same types of spaces, however, has not been found to simply translate into intercultural cooperation and interaction.

Children’s behaviors are heavily influenced by their social environments especially examples set by adults. Programmatic elements, policies, and specific programs in children’s play spaces can help to encourage children to play and interact with children from other backgrounds. While alleys, street corners and plazas are important in the lives of adults, school yards are often the most impactful public spaces to children’s social skills (Fielding 2009). Teachers, tutors, play leaders, and coaches can all help to bridge racial and ethnic differences by actively facilitating and creating opportunities for children to play, work and collaborate with children from other backgrounds.  Finally, children value a sense of place as much as adults (Loukaitou-Sideris 2003). Sense of place can be fostered by using non-standardised play elements and by encouraging manipulation of the play environment.

While some spaces are specifically designed and managed to be exclusive (Low et al. 2005), more are simply unintentionally unwelcoming.  People may feel excluded for a variety of reasons, including lack of access to quality parks, feelings of discrimination, and lack of facilities that meet their cultural needs.  Even though there are differences in how cultural and ethnic groups use parks and public spaces, in Gobster’s (2002) study of Lincoln Park, all groups reported litter, vandalism, and the need for more and cleaner bathroom facilities as problems.  An English study similarly found that the five most common reasons that people reported not using public spaces include: a lack of and/or the poor condition of children’s play spaces; the presence of undesirable users and uses in the park; concerns about sharing the space with dogs and dog mess in the parks; the feeling of safety or other psychological issues; and litter, graffiti and/or vandalism (DTLR 2002).  Additional studies have identified crime and drug-user problems as a reason people do not use downtown parks (Stoks 1983, cited in Francis 1987).

Beyond these unintentional barriers, different groups reported distinct problems.  Asians most frequently reported problems with park access and lack of parking.  Latinos mentioned the lack of restrooms and other facilities.  African American users cited the prejudicial behavior of other park users, park staff, and the police.  Whites mentioned crowding, user conflicts, and the presence of homeless individuals as problems in the parks and public spaces they use (Gobster 2002).  Muslim groups were most likely turned off by the presence of dogs in parks (Lanfer and Taylor 2005). Interracial tensions have been shown to have an impact on which activities and spaces minority residents prefer.  Studies in the US have shown that especially the black community’s leisure activities have been constrained by a lack of comfort caused by present or past patterns of discrimination (Floyd et al. 1993).  Black community members have reported that believing that they will be unwelcome or discriminated against has caused them to not participate in a particular activity (Arnold and Shinew 1998).

Another study in a variety of Chicago parks found at about ten percent of minority park users experienced discrimination in parks. The most common incidences of racial discrimination were verbal harassment, physical gestures, assaults and other non-verbal behaviors that caused the minorities to feel unwelcome (Gobster 1998). These inter-racial conflicts have been observed both between majority and minority groups as well as between minority groups. Tensions can lead to physical harm, feeling fearful or uncomfortable, and even the further segregation of park users within the park or particular groups leaving the park for good (Gobster 1998).  In focus groups, different park users mentioned a variety of examples of this type of tension. Chinese-American senior citizens reported being afraid to use certain areas of parks because they were verbally harassed by African-American teenagers (Gobster 1998). In another focus group, Cambodian-American adults said that white adult park users had told them they did not ‘belong’ in a certain area of the park (Gobster 1998). African-American adults reported that they felt a certain park belonged to the white community and thus avoided the park (Gobster 1998).

Leisure theorists have suggested four interconnected explanations for ethno-racially differentiated park use: (1) marginality, (2) race/ethnicity, (3) assimilation and acculturation, and (4) discrimination. The marginality hypothesis suggests that low minority participation in recreation is due to limited socioeconomic resources (Washburn 1978). The ethnicity hypothesis finds distinctive patterns of recreational participation are due to varying “subcultural” value systems, norms and leisure socialisation patterns (Washburn 1978). The assimilation/acculturation hypothesis also says that ethno-racial heritage is responsible for use patterns, but that these use patterns will change as the groups adopt “the culture, behavior, and norms of more dominant social groups” (Floyd 1993, as cited in Byrne and Wolch 2009, p. 749). Discrimination theory posits that perceived hostility and overt discrimination cause people of color to avoid parks where they feel unwelcome and that historic residential segregation patterns impact proximity to parks, effectively excluding people of color from accessing the space (Byrne and Wolch 2009).

However, others, primarily geographers believe these explanations are too clear-cut, site, or park-focused while overlooking wider contextual factors and structural racism. Byrne and Wolch’s (2009, p. 750) call to “reconceptualise ethno-racially differentiated park use to include space and place” (my emphasis) includes mapping four other elements that affect park use and accessibility:

(1) socio-demographic factors of park users and nonusers as suggested by the leisure theorists;

(2) the political ecology and amenities of the park itself including design and management (see Low et al. 2005), vegetation, park facilities and characteristics of surrounding neighborhoods;

(3) the historical and cultural landscapes of park provision such as how was the park developed, designed and are there discriminatory land-use practices;

(4) individual perceptions of park space: Is it accessible, do I feel safe, is it convivial and welcoming?

They continue: ”Together, these forces tend to produce spatially uneven development of park resources and access, typically to the detriment of communities of color and disadvantage, and thus disproportionately affecting their health and well-being” (p. 751). This is a classic case of spatial injustice.

In addition to the unintentional barriers and the racial, or ethnically-specific barriers described above, certain subgroups express additional difference-based barriers. People who do not speak the area’s primary language are often excluded from public space use simply because they cannot find information in a language they can understand (Sanchez 2010). People with physical or mental disabilities often face barriers that others, even with the same experience and background, do not face. Poor facilities are often more difficult to navigate for those with disabilities; physically disabled children feel especially marginalised in most public playgrounds as many park features, such as tables, are not designed to accommodate wheelchair users (DTLR 2002; Sofoulis et al. 2008). People on low incomes often cannot afford transportation to public spaces, since economically depressed areas tend to have fewer public spaces, community members must often travel relatively long distances to get to the park or playground (Arnold and Shinew 1998).

Additionally, trans/gender issues are not often adequately addressed in public spaces; large, open spaces often attract men but discourage women from using the space and women are more acutely aware of safety concerns than men (Doan 2010, Westover 1986; Byrne and Wolch 2009; Arnold and Shinew 1998). Muslim women require public spaces separate from men (CABE 2010), a feature rarely provided by public spaces in the United States and Europe. There are also barriers specific the elderly. Vandalism and graffiti impacted the elderly much more than any other age group (DTLR 2002). Physical accessibility is also very important to older park members, who are generally not as stable on their feet and may need toilet facilities more regularly than other users. Further, many grandparents are spending more time with their grandchildren, so facilities that a child would need, such as the bathroom, should also be easily accessible for elderly individuals (DTLR 2002, Sofoulis et al. 2008). All of these barriers serve to diminish the true openness or publicness of our public spaces (Lownsbrough and Beunderman 2007). In my next blog, instead of challenges, I’ll look at the opportunities in designing, planning and maintaining culturally inclusive spaces.


[1]  Although a deeply problematic concept, ‘race’ is used here as it is frequently used in the public space, parks and leisure literature.

This blog is an excerpt from my forthcoming book ‘Introducing Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning and Practice’ (May 2013 Zed Books).


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