Think for a moment about a public space that is vibrant and welcoming. Maybe it is bustling with people, or made lively with public art. Maybe it feels safe and accessible, because of the infrastructure available, or maybe it invites you to linger and rest, with street furniture, trees, and other amenities. Places like this one promote health and well-being. However, not all public spaces are designed equitably, and not all people have equal access to healthy public spaces.
A new report from the Gehl Institute, Inclusive Healthy Places, acknowledges that our everyday environments shape our health outcomes, and impact health (in)equity: “Place is integral to health… Where we live, work, and play has a lot to do with why some people are healthier than others, and can have a key role in determining why some people are not as healthy as they otherwise could be… our most important shared places—our public spaces—continue to be planned and designed without considering all users or an entire range of well-being” (p. 5).
At TCAT, we were excited by the release of this new resource because the themes that the Gehl Institute explores are closely aligned with the goals of our Active Neighbourhoods Canada co-design work. Our participatory urban planning approach seeks to build social equity and health equity by engaging communities that are often marginalized in the processes of planning and designing public spaces. By involving these communities in a meaningful process of co-design, we enable the creation of public spaces that are healthier and more inclusive.
When we think about inclusion in public spaces, we often think of inclusion as an outcome: we think of an inclusive space as one where people feel welcomed, safe, and respected. However, the Gehl report acknowledges that inclusion is not just an outcome, but is also a process and a tool. Inclusionary processes of place-making and city building are fundamentally important to creating inclusive outcomes, a philosophy that underpins our co-design approach. Inclusion is also a tool to create deeper, systemic change. The Gehl Institute writes, “As a tool, inclusion can help practitioners and communities reduce and ultimately eliminate health inequities stemming from long-term systemic discrimination and other barriers. Inclusion has the power to create real change.”
Inclusive Healthy Places also sets out four guiding principles for shaping and evaluating healthy public space projects. Gehl’s four principles—context, process, design & program, and sustain—are each reflected in our Active Neighbourhoods work.
The first principle, context, encourages practitioners to “Recognize community context by cultivating knowledge of the existing conditions, assets, and lived experiences that relate to health equity” (p. 7). In the Active Neighbourhoods process, the first phase of our co-design work is the creation of a community-based neighbourhood portrait, which identifies local needs, assets, and infrastructure gaps, based on a combination of resident engagement and demographic data. You can explore some examples of our neighbourhood portraits by checking out the Active Neighbourhoods Ontario communities. The portrait sets the context for all of the future work that we undertake.
The second principle is process, and this is where our Active Neighbourhoods project stands out as a leading example of inclusionary practice. Our process makes city building accessible, community-driven, and fun, and it is grounded in the belief that blending local knowledge and expert knowledge leads to strong outcomes. We bring engagement opportunities to the places where people already gather, live, work, and play, and support residents to develop social connections and build planning literacy in informal, familiar settings.
Of course, design and programming—Gehl’s third principle—are essential elements in creating inclusive healthy places. The neighbourhood Visions and Plans created through our co-design process reflect best practice in accessible and inclusionary design. We invite professionals from across a broad range of built environment and public health disciplines to co-design alongside residents, ensuring that our approach to design is cross-disciplinary, and grounded in best practice. We also have close relationships with NGOs, community groups, and resident associations, who support public space programming and bring life to public places.
The fourth principle presented in the report, sustain, suggests that you can “foster social resilience and the capacity of local communities to engage with changes in place over time by promoting representation, agency, and stability” (p. 7). By participating in our co-design process, residents report a sense of increased understanding of planning processes, increased social capacity, and a sense of agency to create change in their neighbourhoods. In fact, research recently published by TCAT’s Tessa Nasca (along with co-authors Drs. Nadine Changfoot and Stephen Hill), evaluated the participatory planning process employed in our Stewart Street Active Neighbourhoods project, and found that the “participatory planning approach employed in the Stewart Street ANC project built capacity and collective power in the community, and supported residents to leverage their collective power in professionalized spaces”. Engaged and empowered communities create the foundation of social resilience that is needed to sustain healthy places.
We are thrilled to see the values that guide our Active Neighbourhoods Canada program reflected in the Gehl Institute’s new report, and to see the movement for inclusive healthy places gaining momentum around the world.