Making suburbs inclusive for all bodies and minds

The right to inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable settlements is an aim of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11, with a particular focus on addressing racial, disability, class, gender and age inequality and injustice by the year 2030 [1]. Reaching this goal will be difficult given the legacy of poorly planned middle and outer suburbs that has produced car-focused streets and suburban environments that have created immobility, exclusion, and inequality for many groups and communities. Disabled people who are 1 in 5 or 4.4 million Australians, and the 1 in 3 or over 8 million Australians who live with at least one long-term health condition, particularly experience barriers to full participation in suburban environments due to varying degrees of exclusion and inaccessibility (physical, cognitive, and sensory) [2].

To help identify how can we work towards achieving more inclusive suburbs, the Planning Inclusive Communities Project was established. We worked with 97 affected citizens, aged 9-92 years of age, with and without disability and chronic illness. These residents lived in predominately middle to outer suburbs across Clarence City Council and the Greater Hobart region in Tasmania and Gympie Regional Council in Queensland, Australia [3]. The project identified drivers/tensions to inclusion, what makes communities inclusive, and the change needed based on current realities and experiences of living in the suburbs.

Researcher (Lisa) talking with Kylie Dunn (the visual recorder), as Kylie draws ideas from one of the community chats about what makes communities inclusive.

The key drivers of exclusion in the suburbs

There are numerous key drivers of exclusion and inequality experienced at the suburban level. Ableist planning and design was considered a significant driver of exclusion. This was signalled in spatial design and functionality of environments that has been based upon a narrow body type – often” young adult fit white male” [5]. Favouring this non-representative body is called Ableism – a prejudice that subjugates all other bodies and produces exclusion [6]. Coinciding with this is often a narrow view of mobility. The legacy of car-oriented streets, ableist standard drawings and road hierarchies has significantly limited the movement of diverse pedestrians. Concerns with the downplaying of the importance of “place” signalled through limited investment in placemaking, social infrastructure and open space assets was also raised as a factor leading to exclusion.

Ableist planning and design was considered a significant driver of exclusion.

How design for accessibility is approached was another driver of exclusion. We heard that design for accessibility rarely goes beyond minimum standards and is often viewed as a compliance exercise. Not only do minimum standards fail to consider and respond to human diversity, functionality, and context, they are the lowest level of design requirement. Adopting only these can stifle good inclusive planning and design innovation of suburban environments. It was also felt that disability was often just considered an add on, not embedded /centred in planning and design thinking. Simply, the research found that we don’t plan and design for diversity of people and communities, which essentially creates and maintains exclusion in suburbs.

Design processes need to be guided by the lived knowledges of affected citizens.

Righting the wrongs of inequity and discrimination

Planning for equity and inclusion is essential for righting the wrongs of institutional structural oppression and discrimination, and removing this exclusion [7]. It also provides the right foundations, so people and communities have access to what they need to thrive, which in turn has positive effects for wellbeing and sustainability of suburbs overall. The uptake and translation of equity and inclusion from policy-to planning practice however is slow and not informing day-to-day planning and design. We also have little in the way of guidance and leadership in enacting this in day-to-day practice. However, from the past we have learned we can’t wait for change from above – change can be advocated /enacted from below when driven by knowledges of affected citizens and built environment professionals at the front line.

The makings of inclusive suburbs

We heard that planning for equity and inclusion must start with all citizens and communities, and this includes establishing a vision of what equity and inclusion looks like at community place-based level. The following is the emergent vision:

“At the heart of an Inclusive Community is its people and a place that engenders a sense of belonging and free to be oneself. Where all people are accepted and valued as they are and provide a basis where people can take part in activities and interactions of daily life. Inclusive Communities truly embrace, reflect, and are created for diverse body-minds and the different ways we inhabit, sense and experience space. Listening, learning and taking action are linked practices, generated from and within community, and reflective of diverse people’s voices. Investing in, and valuing infrastructure and spaces that affords experiences, participation and mobility signifies inclusive communities. Places to laugh, create, share, play, to move about, as well as time and space for relaxation, and places to meet up. These assets of community are established with equity – ensuring all people have what they need, and the opportunities, to meaningfully participate and thrive. They also aid future proofing– particularly in the era of climate emergency. Inclusive communities foster strong connections to people, place and nature. Such connections nourish people - physically, mentally, and spiritually – and provides a sense of wellbeing and belonging“ [5].

Realising this vision will require a drastic shift in the way we think, in our planning and design systems, and in our ways of working. We know inclusion and equity are influenced by broader social, economic, and built environment structures and systems, but inclusion also importantly happens in the everyday experiences in place. There are five core interconnected elements - the “makings of an inclusive community” - that need to be reflected and embedded in how we plan and design places, to get close to achieving equity and inclusion in our suburbs. These are:

1. Human diversity is valued and embedded in all aspects of planning

There was a real sense that for inclusive communities and cities to be fully realised, planning must accept that as humans we are diverse in minds and bodies across the lifespan. This was felt to be enabled by authentic representation and leadership by and with disabled people in suburban/precinct planning and place enrichment.

2. All people centred public planning processes and decisions (Urban Governance)

All people must be recognised, respected, and involved in public planning processes and decisions about community and place. At the suburb level this includes all-encompassing processes and communication (suited to a diversity of body-minds, ages, and languages) that support all people to be involved in shaping community. Collaborative development must have clear inclusive information and participatory processes to ensure all people can be actively involved. Having a variety of opportunities for people to share knowledge and ideas about their lived experiences to actively shape decision making is crucial.

It's also like equality is not enough, it should be equity, so everyone has what they need to be able to engage in that community.

Young person participant from Stafford et al. 2023

3. Inclusively designed spaces and infrastructure are assets of a community with equity, accessibility and ease as core foundations

How we plan – through our policies, processes, and approaches - can either open or reduce choices and opportunities to be part of everyday life. Taking access, equity and ease seriously requires moving beyond compliance with “minimum” standards, to a performance-based planning for all approach framed by equity and universal design (an approach first conceived in 1997 by Ron Mace that creates environments and infrastructure for use by all people by considering human diversity in disability, age, gender, culture from the start [8]. At the suburb level this is facilitated through things like: street and housing universal design guidelines to support equity in movement and place; inclusive local area plans (also referred to as precinct or neighbourhood plans) with integrated vibrant activity-centres, inclusive active and public transport strategy and infrastructure, and mixed housing requirements including social housing mandates and housing suited to multigenerational living.

4. Planning for connectedness between nature, people and place

Connectedness between nature, people and place is considered key for wellbeing and sustainability, and must be taken seriously in all new and retrofitting of the suburbs. Having the presence of nature in suburbs through preservation of natural areas, gardens, parks, treed streets was felt to support biodiversity, evoke a sense of aliveness, and deepen one’s connections to place. Quality infrastructure and spaces in suburban environments such as footpaths, seating, public spaces, community green spaces, town centre/main streets, also importantly supports encounters and gatherings that help build and strengthen a sense of place and belonging.

5. Vibrant places and experiences

A marker of an inclusive community is the vibrancy conveyed in spaces and infrastructure. Such vibrancy engenders a sense of fun, friendliness and creativity, while ensuring seamless connectivity, and participation. Vibrant places that are accessible to all were considered to help break down silos and bring people together as they signal more welcoming environments, attracted a diversity of people, and enabled people to stay longer.

I suppose I'm at the point of, I don't want people to walk out of the room going, oh isn't that warm and fuzzy and a nice idea. I want people to start going, let's do something.

Disabled Person from Stafford et al. 2023

How do we put this into practice?

To engender the five elements in day-to-day practice requires significant change. This starts with deliberative and concerted effort by us all and actions such as:

  • Accepting and planning for our human diversity – that is different ways our body-minds inhabit, sense, express and experience space - if we are serious about removing exclusion and achieving sustainable suburbs for all people.
  • Advocating and investing in inclusive placemaking which is led by affected citizens.
  • Shifting our ways of working and knowledge towards inclusive, urban planning and design practice, inclusive urban governance, and awareness education and enhanced leadership

You can be a change-maker. Readers are invited to reflect on how these five core elements are evident or absent in your own cities' processes, and consider how to make your practice more inclusive. Most importantly, ask yourself if you are being guided by and with the lived knowledges of affected citizens and communities to improve processes and outcomes. Planning for equity and inclusion in our suburbs is the only way we can create fairness of access, and uphold everyone's rights to live in the suburbs and participate fully in everyday life.

Watch the key findings from Stage 1 of Planning Inclusive Cities

Research from this article is funded by the Australian Research Council under DE190101512 - ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA).

Lisa Stafford

Dr Lisa Stafford is an applied researcher, educator and planner in inclusive communities and cities, with 20 years’ experience across academia and professional practice as well as lived knowledge as a disabled woman. Lisa’s work focuses on promoting equity in neighbourhood planning, inclusive active and public transport, and universal design streets, open space & public infrastructure. Lisa designs and uses inclusive creative methods to enable all voices to be heard in research and public planning. Currently, Lisa is ARC DECRA Senior Research Fellow, University of Tasmania, a member of Planning Institute of Australia (MPIA), Transport Australia Society, and Disability Leadership Institute. Lisa is also an Includeability Ambassador for Australian Human Rights Commission.