Are we in danger of designing public spaces that favour only non-disabled men?

public spaces

There’s a new trend hitting the high streets of Britain; it goes by the name of ‘shared space’ and for those involved in planning our public spaces, it appears to be the only game in town. For those not in the know, shared space is a type of street design aimed at reducing the dominance of vehicles. It does this by, amongst other things, taking away formalised crossings and kerbs. Pedestrians and vehicles are encouraged to “share” the space, with, the theory goes, drivers being more cautious because the traditional rules no longer apply.

Shared space has not gone down well with blind and partially sighted people. They describe feeling designed out of their local high streets. They rely on signalised crossings to know when it is safe to cross and kerbs to provide a delineator with the road so they don’t accidentally stray in front of, say, a bus. However, the response that is increasingly coming back from transport planners is that these schemes are for the “greater good”. The exclusion of blind people is, apparently, unfortunate but a price worth paying.

It would seem obvious that we should be using public money to design public spaces that are inclusive to all. However, from reading the limited research in this area it is not at all clear that the majority of the population do in fact benefit from these schemes. And it’s not just blind and partially sighted people who are who losing out.

Men and women’s different attitudes towards public spaces

In 2012, the Institute of Civil Engineering published a paper which critically examined research on which the Government had based its shared space guidance. It looked at, amongst other things, the views of men and women on the shared space scheme in Ashford, and found:

Men are less likely to be anxious about sharing space with traffic in Elwick Square, with only 58% of men reporting anxiety in comparison to 91% of women. Men are less likely to prefer traditional segregation and less likely to want to make changes to the existing layout of the square. Males were found to be more likely to believe that they had equal or more priority to the car with 98% of women believing they had less priority in comparison to 63% of men. ”

Another research paper found that men are more likely to feel comfortable sharing the space than women. It also found indirect indicators of gender differences in attitudes to shared space. For example, pedestrians were more likely to feel comfortable with shared space if they are a driver or cyclist and pedestrians using pushchairs also felt more threatened by sharing with vehicles. Male drivers also seem to be more confident in sharing space than women drivers. It has also been found that more women than men preferred signalised crossings – more so among older women – and more women than men preferred the provision of pavements.

Making public spaces inclusive

So are we in danger of designing our public spaces in ways that favour not only non-disabled people but a whole gender? And if so, why? The answer may, at least in part, lay in the social makeup of the transport planning profession. The Chartered Institution of Highway Technicians (CIHT), the professional body of the sector, recently published a Diversity and Inclusion Toolkit for the highways and transportation sector. This includes some pretty shocking diversity statistics. For example, 90% of management roles are occupied by white men and there are fewer than 1 in 10 women on company boards. There appears to be no statistics on the employment rates of disabled people within the profession.

CIHT is to be commended for launching research and guidance in this area and their toolkit makes the case for a more diverse workforce, highlighting the benefits this brings to employers. But it doesn’t consider or address the impact that this lack of diversity is likely to have on the planning of our towns and cities, with potentially non-disabled white men designing schemes that work for them.

So what must be done? If the slide in our public spaces towards exclusion and disadvantage is to be halted, a number of steps are vital. Priority must be given to undertaking further research into the impact of shared space schemes on disabled people, as well as other biases such as gender differences.

Equality Impact Assessments, which should form an integral part of the planning process for these schemes in the meantime, must carefully consider and act upon the negative impact that these schemes can have, not only on disabled people but also other protected characteristics. Finally, the highways profession should build on the commendable start regarding diversity research to recognise the potential for unconscious bias in the design and implementation of schemes, and take concrete steps to address these issues.

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Samantha Fothergill
Samantha Fothergill is Senior Legal Policy Officer at the Royal National Institute of Blind People. She writes in a personal capacity.

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