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Inequalities in accessing the public realm

Updated: Mar 2, 2022

Since the Victorians started building parks – and long before that -- access to public spaces has been recognised to produce positive health, environmental, economic, and social outcomes for residents who can access them.

The COVID-19 pandemic made these benefits increasingly obvious, leading to increased use of our streets, parks, squares, and other open spaces – even repurposing car parks – as places for people to gather, exercise, socialise and access services.

As the unequal impact of Covid-19 saw a widening of social, economic, environmental and health inequalities, should we be asking who we are designing our public spaces for, and whether they provide equity in access to an active and healthy lifestyle?

US Think Tank Brookings argue; when we ask who a public space is "for" many placemaking practitioners are quick to say "everyone." But a "one-size-fits-all approach" to infrastructure fails to consider the needs of often-excluded groups rather than "the public at large”.

The barriers that these groups may face may be wide-ranging, and not always solvable through infrastructure alone – they might include "transportation, costs, such as admission, travel, food, childcare, or even time, and perceptions of historically unequal investment in the public realm—all of which prevent some residents from accessing and using a space.”

This means the way we design our public realm must begin to think beyond its immeadiate planning ‘envelope’ and consider how people might access those spaces from both an infrastructure and activation perspective.

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