What a more diverse industry could do for places

Can greater diversity in the built environment professions improve the quality of places we create?

Diverse people in a pedestrianised street

A mere 500 words is inadequate to explore the dynamic of this question, but it’s all I have and if nothing else it should stimulate a broader discussion. I recently chaired a cross-industry group of planners, architects, engineers, project managers, environment, transport and landscape professionals. We were balanced: males and females, and by age, sexual orientation and ethnicity.

The discussion was uninhibited and the challenge presented was that, while the products of our labour in the built environment are undoubtedly experienced by everyone, there are clear statistics that demonstrate that our industry still has a way to go to be fully representative. Others need to do the statistics on what "fully representative" might mean. Notwithstanding, while we might increasingly find a 50:50 male to female ratio in professional training and increasingly in project teams, what of ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and of course age? How well represented are these and other groups?

A particular concern also raised was whether the greater balance in recruitment is yet leading to more diverse senior leadership. Only this month the new Metro Mayor for Liverpool has been challenged on the make up of his all-male leadership group – a pattern that still echoes around too many boardrooms. Reports from Silicon Valley repeat a pattern of senior management being dominated by young white men. So what of our experience in the influences in the built environment professions?

In my experience there is always concern about any form of positive discrimination to address imbalance. Across industries, professions, politics, the media and society in general there is, however, much to do.

Collective responsibility

Whatever else, the principle at stake here is that it cannot be sensible in twenty first century Britain to allow any aspect of our life to be determined or dictated by narrow views and perspectives. And here lies the challenge. How do we draw on greater views?

Arguably, every distinct group cannot practicably be represented in the room deciding on each and every project. We must expect that whoever has the job gets on with it with the ability to hear all positions and experiences. This needs to be demonstrated in built environment project work from inception to completion and then beyond into the management and lifecycle of the places we create. There is an individual, organisational and collective responsibility to ensure this happens.

Turning then to the question of whether greater diversity could change the shape of the places we create, I believe the answer is yes.

For me, we could benefit immediately from improvements in the ownership of ideas, leading to more adaptable buildings and spaces. Fresh perspectives would lead to surprising and uplifting physical environments and activities, and the creation of fresh new places of our time. Greater diversity could be the catalyst for special memorable and distinctive places, responsive to local context and culture, and safe environments across different cycles in the daily and evening economies.

Ultimately, these factors will sit among others that deliver more sustainable placemaking, supporting the lives of the greatest number of people in the most positive way.

Responsibility for making this happen is shared. For those presently feeling excluded, they should be leaning and stepping with greater confidence into roles where they can have influence. For those of us in established roles, we must be promoting and encouraging greater diversity at all levels.

This article was first published in Placemaking Resource.

20 September 2017