Interculturalism and culturally inclusive space II

Part 2 Opportunities: Designing, planning and maintaining culturally inclusive spaces

Despite the conceptual challenges I mentioned in my last blog Interculturalism and culturally inclusive space I, public spaces can be sites of huge intercultural opportunity. They may be the only sites where various groups interact at all and organised events, such as soccer matches, festivals or youth group events may offer important opportunities for inter-group contact (Dines and Cattrell 2006) and for generating shared experiences (Lownsbrough and Beunderman 2007). People who have emigrated from one country and culture to another tend to use public open spaces and parks to gather and congregate in ways that are reminiscent of their home country, transforming the parks of their adoptive community into familiar spaces. People grow attached to spaces, their aromas, textures and the overall ‘feel’ of a space.

Mares and Peña (2011) use two predominantly Latino/a urban community garden projects, the now defunct South Central Farms (SCF) in Los Angeles, and Puget Sound Urban Farmers in the Seattle area to analyse how food and farming can connect growers to local and extralocal landscapes creating an ‘autotopography’, linking their life experiences to a deep sense of place.  In effect, they are writing their cultural stories on the land/cityscape. This is a type of placemaking through the growth and celebration of culturally appropriate foods. Mares and Peña (2011 p. 209) note:

“One gardener at the SCF, a thirty year old Zapotec woman, described her involvement at the farm in the following way: “I planted this garden because it is a little space like home. I grow the same plants that I had back in my garden in Oaxaca. We can eat like we ate at home and this makes us feel like ourselves. It allows us to keep a part of who we are after coming to the United States.”

Lanfer and Taylor (2005) write about Latino immigrants in Boston, MA who transform public spaces into familiar landscapes found in the group’s home countries. They have adopted Herter Park on the River Charles in Boston’s Allston-Brighton neighbourhood because it reminds them of the river banks and willow trees they left behind in Guatemala. Vacant lots, especially in Boston’s Brighton neighbourhood, have been transformed into plazas reminiscent of Latin American squares and plazas. Dines and Cattrell (2006) found that first-generation Asians in Newham, East London described feeling most comfortable in specific shopping corridors where there were fewer language barriers and also direct reminders of their countries of origin, such as foods and music. In the context of the challenges associated with establishing oneself in a new place, these familiar looking, familiar sounding, familiar smelling places enable the transfer of comforting cultural patterns from their home landscapes to the new landscape.

Designing culturally inclusive spaces aims to remove the barriers that create undue effort and separation by planning and designing spaces that enable everyone to participate equally and confidently (CABE 2008a and b). While a ‘barrier removal’ approach may seem negative, the Australian research of Sofoulis et al. (2008, p. 81)   Out and About in Penrith: Universal Design and Cultural Context: Accessibility, diversity and recreational space in Penrith noted:

“The Creative Mapping workshops and Community Perceptions studies revealed that it is easier for park users (and non-users) to name what they don’t like in parks than to articulate what they do like.”

Creating culturally inclusive spaces contributes to interculturalism in seeking to integrate groups in ways that contribute to the construction of difference and diversity as an asset within a community, rather than a source of tension (Lownsbrough and Beunderman 2007).

When planning and (re)designing inclusive spaces, the question is not, as Guthman (2008, p. 388) has asked in terms of urban agriculture, “Who is at the table?” but “Who is setting the table?” This is the first principle of culturally inclusive practice. If it is not addressed, the chances of success are dramatically lowered. It is critically important to draw from different cultures, sub cultures and include a variety of user-derived options. It is also important to focus efforts at designing inclusive spaces on places that accommodate meaningful interaction among users, rather than simply areas with the greatest number of people crossing paths (Lownsbrough and Beunderman 2007).

The UK Urban Green Spaces Task Force Report found that the needs of different user groups can be addressed through proper design, management, maintenance and funding (DTLR 2002); indeed, each of the parties involved with park design and maintenance has some responsibility to ensure an inclusive space. CABE defines the stages of public space development as: prepare, design, construct, and use (CABE 2007a). Public agencies are also obligated to consider levels of access to public space among different residents; the preparation, design, management, and maintenance of public spaces all contribute to accessibility.


Madanipour (2010, p. 11) cautions: “If public spaces are produced and managed by narrow interests, they are bound to become exclusive places.” Therefore, the planning process must be inclusive. Planners are advised to forget about the ‘average’ user and instead begin the open space planning process with ‘deep knowledge’ of the preferences of the actual communities who are likely to use those spaces (Sofoulis et al. 2008). However, echoing Beebejaun (2006), they should remember: “Complexities exist both within and between cultures. One issue for planning in culturally diverse contexts is that different cultures, sub-cultures, and generations have different assumptions and conventions about who uses public space, with whom, how, and when. Older women can feel intimidated by young people publicly socialising in large groups.” (Sofoulis et al. 2008, p. 79).

Generating deep knowledge may involve ethnographic survey to learn about the cultural backgrounds, perceptions, and needs of those in the local community surrounding open space use (Lanfer and Taylor 2005).  Equally important is an understanding of how users’ past experiences in public space shape their use or aspirations for the space now and in the future (Lownsbrough and Beunderman 2007). Kent (2008) and others believe that the best ideas for the future come from the community and that they should be actively engaged in creating public spaces in every stage of the process. However, there are ranges of community involvement; one end of the spectrum involves simple communication and information exchange while the other end of the spectrum involves active collaboration and decision-making (DTLR 2002).

The memory of previous failed participatory planning processes can undermine community engagement in future projects (APaNGO 2007). Facilitators must be culturally competent, work to build trust with community members by being clear about the decision-making process, honest about any problems that arise, and following through on commitments. They must be prepared to accept “pluralistic viewpoints,” realising that ordinary landscapes may be viewed entirely differently by people from various cultural backgrounds (Rishbeth 2001). Training designers and planners in public participation facilitation can help ensure that the design staff are helping to create places that are valued by the end user (CABE 2010b). CABE (2010a) suggests active consultation through events on-site, design workshops, discussion groups, and visits to quality green spaces. Such visits can help users learn ‘visual literacy’, and be able to recognize and express their opinions about good design (CABE 2010b). Hosting focus groups on-site has been associated with more positive perceptions of green-space and more consistent survey data (CABE 2010a). Using tools like Spaceshaper, Creative Mapping, or Photovoice to guide the pre-design process can be useful in engaging diverse community members and capture their existing knowledge about their environment (CABE 2007b, Sofoulis et al. 2008, PolicyLink 2011).


A culturally inclusive space should offer amenities, rules, and landscapes that accommodate people of all ages and backgrounds. Following good design principles is fundamental in creating high-quality open space (CABE 2007a), but not sufficient in ensuring inclusivity. Devier (n.d.) outlines additional design guidelines that can help create inclusive spaces, such as utilising the concept of the loop, protecting and caring for larger and older trees, incorporating cultural and spatial resonance, leaving room for adaptation, and accommodating particular user groups. Designers can create spaces that resemble ‘home’ such as the Ryerson University student led designs based on Bollywood, for the Gerrard India Bazaar, an ethnic business enclave in east Toronto (Kumar and Martin 2004), or the multicultural garden at Chumleigh Street in the London Borough of Southwark (Rishbeth 2001) where the use of plants representative of different cultures strategically invokes beloved landscapes.

Planners can also assign culturally relevant names in order to promote a specific sense of identity (VanVelden and Reeves 2010).  Parks that reflect cultural diversity can be an opportunity for other groups to learn about the diversity in their community or be a place to symbolically meld the ‘old’ culture with the ‘new’ culture (Lanfer and Taylor 2005).  However, designers should be careful about over using cultural symbols; for example, using a distinctive arch shape on street furniture, including litter bins, outraged Pakistani residents who perceived the arch to be too similar to religious symbols and felt it was disrespectful to place on a garbage can (Rishbeth 2001). Of great importance to the users’ accessibility of an open space is the ‘whole journey’ approach — attention to not only the design of the park itself but also the pedestrian and transit links that lead users to the park. For children especially, traffic can be a major impediment to a user’s safety (Francis and Lorenzo 2006), while lack of clear signage can prevent others from finding entrances or park features.

A lack of comfortable and adequate seating is often a reason people do not use public spaces. Inclusive spaces must provide appropriate seating, not the ‘standard’ park bench for individuals or the nuclear family, but also for extended families and groups of individuals simply hoping to socialise. They must provide spaces for adults and children to participate in a variety of sporting activities but also allow for individual uses. Safety is a major barrier to park usage, people report feeling unsafe in spaces with overgrown vegetation, insufficient lighting and high walls (CABE 2010a). Some of the characteristics of public spaces that have been found to increase feelings of discomfort in parks are fencing, dense vegetation and hedging that provides privacy for drug dealers and other criminals (Francis 1987). Vegetation and hedging have been particular concerns amongst women. This can be addressed through the judicious selection of plant species and pro-active design or re-design measures. Especially in today’s economic uncertainty, it is important to consider which projects and policies can create the most impact with the (relatively) smallest investment. What will support and sustain the areas existing social diversity while encouraging new social diversity to evolve (Talen 2008).


While most of the construction may require heavy machinery and trained engineers, the different publics can be engaged in a variety of volunteer activities, such as planting flower bulbs or painting murals.  In one instance, collaborating on a public green space project allowed people to get to know each other and form new friendships, thereby improving the quality of life in the village (CABE. 2007a).  This type of involvement can support feelings of ownership over a space.


Many user studies have revealed that park users do not always need new facilities; sometimes simply better design (Low et al 2005) and/or maintenance of existing facilities can resolve problems (Low et al 2005, Sofoulis et al. 2008, Lownsbrough and Beunderman 2007). Therefore, the ‘use’ stage of open space development must include proper maintenance and management of facilities. Additionally, open space staff must adopt new culturally competent approaches to interacting with diverse users. Hiring staff who reflect users or who speak the language of diverse users can go far in reducing perceptions of discrimination which were shown to be important deterrents in my last blog.

At the very least, park supervisors should take time to learn how sites are perceived negatively by different user groups and make their staff aware of the potential for their language and actions to be seen as offensive to certain groups (Gobster 2002). Targeted marketing strategies could be used to respond to the diverse needs of various groups in order to re-establish a park as a welcoming place for all (Arnold and Shinew 1998). Park managers might consider hosting organised activities that specifically engage diverse users, such as soccer leagues for youth, playgroups for young families, or all-female exercise groups (Sanchez 2010). Once a space is created, it is important to employ continual evaluation in order to understand changing use patterns and needs over time (Francis 1987). These evaluations should empower park users to be involved in the shaping of the park’s success (Francis 1988).


As municipalities and other local governments have begun to realise some of the differences in park use and accessibility, many took the first step of developing requirements for open spaces such as “no person should live more than 300m from their nearest area of natural greenspace of at least 2 ha in size” or “there should be at least one accessible 20 ha site within 2 km from home” (Comber et al 2008, p. 104). Others have developed guidelines to ensure that public spaces are used: the city should provide sit-able space, programmed events, and food vendors. Yet most guidelines do not specifically account for user inclusivity (Francis 1988), which dramatically impact accessibility. Accessibility, usability, and the quality of parks and public spaces all influence who uses the space and how they use it.

Accessibility depends not only on the location of parks, but also on the built environment that surrounds them. Good street lighting, adequate sidewalks, street interconnectivity, local land use, infrastructure, and facility maintenance all influence when and how urban residents participate in outdoor recreation (Talen 2008; Sanchez 2010). Furthermore, as Byrne and Wolch (2009) showed, the distance to parks, quality and quantity of public spaces as well as an individual’s personal perception and preferences influence park use. In addition to perception and preference, it has been found that a person’s gender, socioeconomic status, age, and ethnicity will influence whether a particular individual will choose to use certain public spaces (Sanchez 2010).

Numerous studies, especially in the US and UK, have shown that there are fewer accessible parks and public spaces in minority and economically disadvantaged areas. In addition, the parks and spaces in these neighborhoods also tend to be of lower quality, making quantity and quality especially important in low-income communities (CABE 2010c). Since these communities are also those with the highest incidence of obesity and other chronic diseases, providing green and other public spaces in low-income and minority neighborhoods has a much higher public health benefit than providing additional acreage of open space in more affluent areas (CABE 2010a). There is a tradeoff between accessibility and inclusivity.

If the community is not helping ‘set the table’ during the design process, spaces attempting to cater to everyone and be fully inclusive can tend to be impersonal. Impersonal spaces do not allow people to feel a sense of ownership over the space. Unfortunately, these personal touches and characteristics that enable people to feel ownership over a space can often discourage people from outside the community from using the space. This creates a difficult dynamic for those planning inclusive spaces: familiarity decreases accessibility and vice versa (Madanipour 2010). Creating a shared identity is important in cities of difference; having a shared sense of ownership and identity can help to hold a diverse group of people together and can even serve as a “rallying point” to provide a shared experience for diverse populations (Talen 2008, p. 152).


Universal Design, as I mentioned in Interculturalism and culturally inclusive space I, is about making spaces that are accessible to people of varying physical ability, learning and emotional disabilities, sensory impairments and communication limitations. In Young’s (1990) sense, one could argue that Universal Design is about equality of treatment for all, not different treatment based on cultural need or difference. Two comments, one from Australia the other from Canada, countries which are officially multicultural, show some similar concerns. Soufoulis et al. (2008, p. 15) note that:

“Fostering social inclusion through Universal Design is a goal that few would dispute. Nevertheless the rhetoric of social inclusion can be questioned for presupposing some social whole into which everyone seeks to be included. This assimilationist logic — which smacks of a populist US American view of society — is arguably not adequate for contemporary multicultural Australia.”

Kumar and Martin (2004, p. 5) make a similar point:

“While cultural diversity is a widely acknowledged component of Canada’s cities, discussion of cultural diversity is rare in urban design circles. Perhaps this neglect is because urban design practice is based on universalistic principles and is commonly oriented towards a homogeneous society. Or perhaps it is because urban design is premised on the notion that the public interest is unitary rather than composite.”

The move towards just sustainabilities will require rethinking our policies and plans for public spaces and places. The provision of high-quality culturally inclusive spaces is essential in any society that “embodies a dynamic and multi-faceted culture” (Rishbeth 2001, p. 364). However, as Amin (2009) argues we must not fall into a deterministic trap: we must recognise the limits of design to solve deep social injustices. There are two aspects to this. First, as Wood and Landry (2008, p. 260) point out:

“The intercultural city depends on more than a design challenge. It derives from a central notion that people are developing a shared future whereby each individual feels they have something to contribute in shaping, making and co-creating a joint endeavor. A thousand tiny transformations will create an atmosphere in public space that feels open and where all feel safe and valued.”

Second, as Byrne and Wolch (2009, p. 756) note:

“The cultural landscape perspective shows us how landscapes can become racialised, shifting the scale of environmental injustice from the home, the factory or the neighborhood to entire landscapes.”

In addition, community-based planning processes surrounding open space may foster collaboration during the sessions, but may not radically alter the position of power of disadvantaged participants after the process concluded (Beebeejaun 2006). Similarly, there is a threat that residents engaged in planning for open space may create more exclusive, rather than more inclusive, spaces (Beebeejaun 2006).  Clearly, there is a role for the planner to advocate on behalf of inclusivity, recognising that this may require different treatment of individuals and groups based on need.

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


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