How Urban Design Can Promote Social Equity

More inclusive urban design can help more people access social services and public amenities.

April 26, 2022, 6:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


New York Public Library

Existing public spaces such as public libraries can serve as effective access points for social services. | Inspired By Maps / Shutterstock

Ishita Gaur describes how urban design can facilitate social services and improve equity in cities. “There are vast inequities in the distribution of healthcare, housing assistance, food accessibility, and educational opportunities, among others. While access to this social infrastructure is to a large extent driven by policy, certain spatial challenges exacerbate the situation—but they don’t have to.”

According to Gaur, “Physical and psychological barriers play a critical role in terms of providing access to vital social services for all. There is a stigma attached to social services, which, often keeps residents from availing of the benefits of such amenities.” Using New York City as an example, Gaur asserts that “The solution lies in creating a network of spaces that New Yorkers can approach for easy and non-judgmental access to the social services they need.”

The city should take this opportunity to not only broaden access to social amenities but also ensure that they are universally inclusive. Designing spaces that are welcoming to people of all income levels, employment statuses, age groups, and gender identities will be key to their success.

Gaur notes that “Inserting social services and amenities inside already welcoming and non-discriminatory spaces can dramatically reduce the perceived barriers that a person might need to overcome in seeking help. New services located at the exterior of these amenities can create a buffer space that receives people while also providing some privacy and anonymity to the individual seeking assistance.” For many people, “Even simple design decisions, such as the presence of a front desk or its location, can dramatically change the experience for an individual.”

As Gaur concludes, creating more inclusive and welcoming public spaces improves the health of cities as a whole. “Creating a healthier city for those most in need leads to a healthier city for all.”

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