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Designing to the margins: inclusivity in urban planning

This text was written as an assignment for the workshop course Urban Planning and Inclusion, which was offered at the University of Helsinki by the Department of Geosciences and Geography. The course was organised in cooperation with feminist urban planning company FEMMA Planning.

The way we live is regulated by patterns of how, when, and where we travel during our daily activities. Historically, our built environment has been designed according to these patterns with the goal to enable smooth and convenient routes that connect work, housing, daily shopping, recreation, and enjoyment. But who is forgotten when we design this way?

In this article, we will address this question from an intersectional perspective. We believe that cities can better serve their citizens when intersectionality is a part of the urban planning process. This will allow planners to understand that experiences of space and mobility are different depending on individuals’ identities or intersections of identities. Intersectionality will help us design better cities for everyone, even those living at the margins.

The experience of places is individual

The concept of intersectionality refers to combinations of identities that are felt by members of society based on, for instance, their race, gender, ethnicity, abilities or caring responsibilities. Intersectionality aims to understand the unique combination of our personal experiences and identities and how they influence our daily lives. When designing a space, we design for a hypothetical user which we have assigned specific identifiers to. Often these identifiers have been defined by the majority and do not take into account the complex nature of identity. This oversimplification of identities can lead to populations of users and potential users being entirely left out.

Classically, the urban environment has been planned based on functional units where housing, industrial facilities, offices, and commercial services have been separated in the urban pattern. In Criado Perez’s work Invisible Women on the gender data gap, the basis for urban patterns is not the “default human,” but the “default man.” The result is an urban fabric that works for some, but is inconvenient and oppressing for many in terms of, for instance, safety, accessibility, affordability, or equity. The reason for this oversimplification can be found in the lack of diversity and citizen participation in decision making, but also in access to accurate data to incorporate different perspectives other than the “majority” in such decisions (Pérez 2019).

Intersectionality aims to understand the unique combination of our personal experiences and identities and how they influence our daily lives.

A neutral place or a place of controversial intersections? The answer is dependent on the observer. Photo: Betsy Akins.

Role of data in urban planning and intersectionality

Determining the purpose of spaces in a city is usually a long and laborious process. Goals have to be outlined in the master plan for a city which usually is completed around 20 years before building or constructing (Bautista 2020). It is crucial to have access to and generate accurate data which allows for solid insights to forecast how people are experiencing spaces. Unfortunately, data which is disaggregated based on people’s diverse experiences and needs are still not mainstream in urban planning.

An example of unintentional exclusion could be taken from the everyday mobility patterns in cities. Traditionally, transportation infrastructure supports citizens who travel at peak hours from their home to work and back in the evening. Globally, women are accountable for the majority of errands or unpaid care-related mobility, which makes them more likely to trip-chain, which means they visit multiple sites and purposes on their way home. This significantly affects their experience of public transportation and their mobility needs. However, as data on transportation patterns have not historically been disaggregated by gender, it is difficult to make visible the challenges that the users who vary from the “default” experience in the current system.

From our perspective, creating a truly inclusive city means solving challenges experienced by not only those in privileged positions, but also those who feel oppressed in public spaces. In a true community, mutual trust is built on taking collective responsibility for the most difficult problems. This work starts from recognising the existing power structures in any institution and how these have led, even unintentionally, to data gaps in capturing the diversity of needs. Considering these two aspects allows us to open the conversation between the stakeholders and users of the city.

Mapping the margins through relief mapping

The way we experience places is determined in many ways by our identities and what part of our identity is activated in the space. Certain aspects of identity may be felt more strongly in places where that aspect is considered “other” or different from the majority. In Geographies of Inequality, Rodó-de-Zárate illustrates the complexity of identity and how different aspects of one’s identity can influence the experience of a space. She uses Relief Mapping to express intersectionality via three dimensions: the social dimension or power structures, the geographical dimension, and the psychological dimension or the lived experience. (Rodó-de-Zárate 2014). This methodology offers a potential tool for defining places of discomfort and relief from an individual and personal perspective.

Figure 1. Relief map tools may be used for gathering intersectional experiences in spaces. This is a factual map of one of the authors of the article, on five different places in Helsinki and Espoo.

This example relief map (Fig. 1) represents how comfort can be experienced differently by the same person, depending on the place and which identity traits are activated in that place. For example, public transportation stations are often considered places where many people feel unsafe. In this Relief Map, we can see how gender is an identity trait that brings discomfort at the Kamppi bus station, whereas race or class identity does not result in the individual feeling discomfort. These feelings of comfort or discomfort in a specific place are also affected by personal memories and experiences in the place – the feeling in a place varies according to time, situation, company, and so on.

In Think Corner, the individual’s gender-related discomfort drops and class appears to be a more important identity trait in how this person feels in the place. What is perceived as a source of (dis)comfort in this relief map is not tied to the individual’s identity, but rather on how different identity traits intersect among themselves and with the place.

As one tool among others, Relief Mapping can be used to collect accurate data to fill the knowledge gap between urban planning practices and lived experiences in a place. Naturally, further analysis is needed to define the factors of discomfort in places where this has been observed. Even though these experiences are personal, multiple perspectives from different individuals would give insight into the feelings of people in general. Isn’t the objective, after all, for all of us to feel safe and comfort wherever we are?

Designing to the people – with the people

Participatory design in urban planning has, in recent decades, begun to find new tools for collecting qualitative data on user experiences in cities. This means, the more insights and accurate data we obtain now, the higher chances we have of influencing the planning of future spaces. Map-based and smartphone survey tools have been developed to collect site-specific data on the good and bad qualities of a specific place from the actual users of the space. This method could increasingly be used to empower those who feel uneasy in public spaces and help urban planners to better understand why and how these experiences vary. Only with collaborative and an intersectional perspective, can we truly include all people in the development of the city. With this, we can design a city where everyone truly feels welcomed.

BETSY AKINS, EVA DURAN SÁNCHEZ & ANNA HAKALA

Cover image: Ignacio Pérez Pérez

References and further reading

Bautista, P. (2020, March). Diseño y diáspora 114: Integrar datos y creatividad en el diseño de ciudades. COO, Chaos Architects. Audio podcast.

Rodó-de-Zárate, M. (2014). Developing Geographies of Intersectionality with Relief Maps: Reflections from Youth Research in Manresa, Catalonia. Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 21:8, 925-944.

Crenshaw, K. W. (1990). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color. Stan. L. Rev., 43, 1241.

Perez, C. C. (2019). Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Abrams.

Transport for London (2019). Travel in London: Understanding our diverse communities 2019.

Valentine, G. (2007). Theorizing and researching intersectionality: a challenge for feminist geography. The Professional Geographer. 59(1), 10-21.


Betsy Akins

Betsy is currently doing her Master’s in Collaborative and Industrial Design at Aalto University. She is curious about collaborative design, the role of design in community development, and social justice innovation. Her favorite moments are those spent with intriguing people and a good cup of tea.


Eva Duran Sánchez

Eva is finishing her Master’s degree in Creative Sustainability at Aalto University. In her studies and work, she explores gendered approaches to sustainable development and is passionate about inclusion and diversity in technology.


Anna Hakala

Anna is finishing her Master’s degree in Urban Studies and Planning from the University of Helsinki. As a geographer she is particularly interested in socio-ecological sustainability, public participation and decision-making processes.