Parks and Prejudice

Do we give people what they want, or do we give people what we think they need?

Over the last few months in particular, there has been renewed and overdue focus on unconscious bias, particularly relating to cultural background. Many of us have been considering and educating ourselves with regard to rectifying engrained and long-standing imbalance within the society in which we live, work and serve. Dr Bridget Snaith’s ‘Green Space or White Space’ video was an eye-opening reminder of how this permeates and can be redressed within our realm of work.

Dr Snaith, a Chartered Landscape Architect and social researcher, utilised London based research to demonstrate that shaping of the public realm in our parks and green spaces can, despite our best intentions, discriminate by design. The challenge taken up by our team, prompted by Landscape Architects Clare O’Brien and Sarah Harris within our London studio, was to review our approaches and how they can be changed for the better. Pulling on experience across the studios and disciplines, we asked what we would now consider differently, what works and what doesn’t.

The presentation and subsequent discussions, highlighted that much of what comes naturally to us as university-educated designers can lead to the design and creation of ‘white space’, where the users of public spaces do not represent the diversity of the local community and a disproportionate number of the users are white. A lack of understanding relating to cultural preferences, tastes and uses of space, and the social and cultural experiences of both designers and clients have to be addressed. Access to education, teaching methods, routes to the profession and the lack of diversity in the built environment professions were all debated.

How do we begin to make a difference?

We brainstormed various means by which we can help create change, democratise open space and make it a truly public realm; accessible and welcoming to all. More open conversations with colleagues about equality and access have to happen, to continually ensure privilege is checked and rebalanced. We’ll need to be open to unlearning some taught methods that could further engrain inequalities in society, and commit to ensuring engagement with community members that represent the true diversity of society. One of the key points we questioned was ‘Do we give people what they want, or do we give people what we think they need?’ – as designers, we have to be brave at times, and this has become ever more evident after watching the ‘Green Space or White Space’ presentation.

We highly recommend anyone taking an hour out of their day to watch this video.

Encouraging diversity within the profession is another consideration. We have seen the benefits to all of our involvement in programmes such as the RHS’s Green Plan It initiative, which provides the opportunity for young people to consider community needs and environmental issues, and we will seek involvement in further schemes. We continue our support of PLACED, which creatively and inclusively engages people in design, planning and development through community consultation and education. We seek partnerships with local schools in less privileged areas to extend work experience opportunities and will look at alternative routes into the industry through the Landscape Institute’s Apprenticeship scheme.

‘Green Space or White Space’ and subsequent workshops spanned a couple of Rise and Shine session. These take place every Wednesday morning at Planit. All team members are invited and encouraged to join as we dish out knowledge and breakfast, although since the move to online sessions in March, the latter has been a case of ‘bring your own’.