EP 14: Designing a better and more inclusive future, A/Prof Deena Ridenour

How different is a young person’s view to urban planning, and what needs to change within the process for it to be truly inclusive? Former Urban Planner and Associate Professor at Sydney University, Deena Ridenour, tackles these and other questions on With, Not For.   


Manisha: Urban design isn’t just about building living spaces and the thoroughfares that connect them. It can also influence economic, environmental, social, and cultural outcomes of a place, not just how we relate to the built natural environments, but also how we connect both now and into the future.  Welcome to With Not, For, a podcast from the Centre for Inclusive Design.  My name is Manisha and I’m speaking to you from the lands of the Cammeraygal people here in St Leonards, Australia.  I’m so fortunate today to have Deena Ridenour, Associate Professor in Urban Design at Sydney University here with me.  Her current research looks at ways to create better neighbourhoods with a particular focus on the needs of young people.  Welcome, Deena.

Deena: Thank you, Manisha.  It’s a pleasure to be here.

Manisha: So urban design; what got you interested in this as a career in the first place?

Deena: It’s been a bit of a journey.  I started my training as an architect, and I developed a passion for designing places.  And through my architectural education, I was always interested in the city scale, but I didn’t realise that that could actually be a profession, designing cities.  I was not familiar with cities.  I grew up in American suburbia, mainly in Florida, and I had little experience with urban cities or even the concept of urbanity.  And then I had the opportunity to move to Sydney.  And while I was here, I was exposed to living in a city without a car and needing to walk everywhere to do my daily activities, plan them, figure out how to get around with the bus.  It was very challenging, but I also realised that the lifestyle I had was much more free.  I had more choices, and that could really be an amazing opportunity to – in our cities, if we could learn to make our cities more like that experience.

Manisha: And did you find Sydney to be a city that was easy to get around with public transport?

Deena: I was lucky to live near the centre.  So I lived on the North Shore and then more towards the eastern suburbs, when I first moved here.  Compared to American cities, particularly Florida, it was amazing.  The trains and the buses were why we complain about them today, compared to that experience I had where you literally can go nowhere without a car was freeing.

Manisha:  And that, I guess, is what urban design is about, right.  It’s about designing those urban scapes.

Deena: Urban design is essentially the practice of shaping our cities or towns in our neighbourhoods.  It’s focused on the collective.  It’s not about individual buildings which is what I learned in architecture school.  It’s about the spaces of the city that we inhabit every day: the streets, the urban parks and the squares.  They’re the spaces of urban life where we gather, meet, entertain, rest, respect and even protest. 

Manisha:  And so how does that work from the perspective of inclusion?

Deena: Well, I’m going to quote here from an academic at University of Melbourne, because he talks about that and he says that urban space is not necessarily a place of friendship or bonding. It’s a place where the ties are often weak but are based on the right to share public space and obligations to respect the rights of others to do likewise.  And I think that that is essential for civic life, and I think here in Sydney for example, the recent Mardi Gras parade and World Pride is the perfect example of using public space, streets, as a place for diversity and voice where everyone can freely go there, so it’s not paid in a stadium.  It’s a space for everyone and where we can actually see and celebrate everybody’s viewpoints.  I think it’s the perfect example.

Manisha: What’s interesting about World Pride and the Mardi Gras as well is that some of those spaces are spaces that have been designated play spaces.  So we have large parks and places like the Domain where people are meant to congregate.  We have other places like roads that have been closed at the moment for the festival, but are not made traditionally as places for people to congregate.  Is this something that’s only happened in modern times, and is it something that urban planners and designers think about, or does it happen on an ad hoc manner?

Deena: I think we have shifted our way of thinking about streets.  In the past, streets weren’t dominated by cars.  And now, cars are the prevalent form of use for our streets.  So we, as urban designers and landscape architects practising, trying to rethink our streets – so change the hierarchy of how we design our streets in the sense of in the past, it’s always been the car first and everything else is secondary.  So where people walk, trees, the way buildings address those streets come secondary to the function of the car.  And so now we are looking at – there’s movements about putting streets on a diet, which is really about reducing car use, or trying to reduce the way – how much space the cars need, increasing pedestrian space.  In some cases, it does mean taking cars out of streets and making them more pedestrian.  But it’s really more about making streets for all these uses, but to change the priority to focus on people. 

Manisha: That’s really interesting, and do you see that movement as a fast movement, or a slow movement?

Deena: I wish it was fast.  But it’s slow.  It’s hard to change all the standards that go into making streets.  So there’s a whole lot of engineering technical standards about what you need for cars, and it’s about safety and protecting life and those matters.  So it is quite serious.  But it is about changing about the way we think about those, changing those standards, also just changing the public’s perception of how streets work.  People still want – they want to be able to walk in the street, but they also want to be able to drive.  And so there’s often those conflicts when you talk about redesigning a street. 

Manisha: Right, and you do a lot of work with young people.  How is their view different?  Or is it the same as the view of those of us who have been around for a little bit longer?

Deena: Young people, at least the ones I’ve spoken to – and I guess through the literature I’ve been reading also – they are intense users of the public domain, so the streets and open spaces that are freely available because they don’t have the same money that working adults have and that’s the – they want to – they’re at a stage in their life where they also want their own space.  They don’t necessarily just want to live in their bedroom, although they do a lot of that.  So they need the public space as a place that they can meet and gather with their friends.  And they also want to be seen – they want to be part of the space of the city.  They don’t want to be hived off into a community centre or a youth specific place, in most cases; at least the older ones that I’ve spoken to.  They really want to be able to have activities in the public space with everybody else.  They see it as quite inclusive.  They also realise that they sometimes like to do activities that others might not like in public space.  I think they want a bit of support to be able to also do the activities that they want to do.

Manisha: So it’s that nexus between freedom and safety, really.

Deena: It definitely is, especially when you’re talking about girls, adolescent girls.  Safety is a really important concept and being part of people around you is important and having – knowing that you’re having your own interactions with your friends, but there’s eyes around you that are making sure that you’re still okay.

Manisha: Right, and when you work with young people, what practices do you use to make sure that you’re really hearing their voice?

Deena: I’ve been exploring, through my PhD work, how to use design tools and thinking to empower young people.  So I’ve been designing ways that they could explore their own aspirations for a place.  So I’ve been looking at a [renewal? 00:09:09] area in Blackwattle Bay in Sydney, which has a lot of government proposals for it, and asking young people to develop their own stories using what I’ve created, story cards, where they can pick out the aspects that they think the place should have in the future. And then we also looked at then developing drawing tools where they could collage in an online whiteboard environment their own drawing of what the place could be like, by collaging these elements together.  And importantly, I also asked them to think about not just their youth perspective. Their story cards were their perspective, but their drawings; they had to choose a persona that they wanted to represent through that drawing, so someone else in society.  Then they had a wide range of people. 

Manisha: It’s interesting because that’s not about their future self.  And so often when we think about inclusion, we think, “Well, you’re designing the world for your future self.” There’s a sense of empathy here because it’s actually about the others in your space.

Deena: There is and it came out in the research that the students I was speaking to had a really strong sense of empathy.  They really wanted me to be aware that if you design a space, you needed to consider how people with mobility problems could navigate steps or use a public space to make sure that different age groups could use the space.  They were actually very amazingly empathetic and they also raised the whole concept of First Nations people needing to be prioritised in open space and how it was designed.  So I was – I guess I came away thinking hopeful that I’m talking to the young people, that they weren’t as focused on themselves as I might have imagined they would be.  But they were actually much more interested in where society was going and how to make it better because they ultimately are going to inherit what we’re creating now.  And they’re very aware of that.

Manisha: Yeah, and young people often will say, “Why don’t you ask us?”  We’ve seen a real movement, even in terms of elections, where young people are now becoming – and with elections as well as with climate change, where young people are mobilising in slightly different ways to the ways we’ve seen in the past.  And you talk a lot about technology here as well.  Do you see young people having a greater voice in the future, or do you think those of us who have the power will stifle that voice?

Deena: I’m hopeful that they will have a stronger voice because the ones who I’ve spoken to will be the professionals and the adults in the future, and hopefully they will take that learning with them.  And they have grown up in a very different time from, for example, me, and had very different experiences.  So I’m hoping that they use that in their future to change the way we do things now.

Manisha: In terms of your research, what have you found by working with young people?

Deena: I have found that they are passionate about climate change and affordability.  In my research, I looked at some of the work that had been done by the state government in that area, and I looked at some of the work the City of Sydney had done where they engaged young people in their strategic planning.  And in their research, the young people preferred – well they prioritised climate change and affordability, particularly housing affordability, as key considerations for the city.  And while they were still – those topics were still part of the priorities in the state government projects, but they were at the bottom of the list.  They weren’t at the top.  And I thought it was a very interesting shift, and then when I spoke to the students about this particular project, it came out very strongly that those were their views, that they were really concerned about the world they were inheriting and how we could make it better through the design and planning of precincts like this one. 

And also, that we needed to consider affordability.  They realise they’re facing a future that is uncertain in terms of housing.  It’s not the same model that we have now.  So they’re really concerned about that also.  But they also really wanted, as I said, public space that was free and affordable.  They wanted outdoor entertainment, markets, public art, cultural activities.  They wanted to be part of the public realm, as I mentioned previously, and be safe. They had surprisingly mixed views about urban form.  So when you engage in a professional sense for urban design in the city, density and height is usually very controversial. 

The students were mixed but a large proportion of them thought it was inevitable and that what was more important was the public realm and how we got the outcomes there for everybody.  A few people thought that needed to be lower in scale, have a more human character, scale character to it.  But it was very differently weighted from what you would find in the general community, and I think it’s because they don’t own property.  And that’s a big driver for a lot of communities’ views.

Manisha: Right, and it sounds like it’s also because they have a sense of what they want the experience of living to be rather than, as you mentioned just then, their need to have some ownership of a space or a place and what that looks like.

Deena: I think that’s true.

Manisha: So how important then is history in urban development?  I mean, the site that you’re talking about was a workers’ site, a place that was semi-industrial and has then gone through so many changes, not to mention the First Nations people who were there before that even. 

Deena: History is important because when we think of the city, it’s a constantly changing construction.  It started with the land and then we built on it patterns that have evolved over time.  And so when we change the city, we are working within those existing patterns.  So it’s like layers and layers of trace and you’re just adding the new layer.  So you need to understand where it started with the land and I think with First Nations people, that’s becoming much stronger, that we actually need to understand where it was before we came as colonial settlement.  But it’s also thinking about not just the buildings that are left behind.  The heritage buildings are important, but it’s those patterns, the street patterns, the way that we move on the land and have moved historically on the land.  Those patterns are as important but not necessarily valued the same as a special heritage item, a building.  But both are important. 

Manisha: So in terms of those patterns and the young people you spoke to, have we treated young people differently in these urban spaces in the past?

Deena: In the recent past, maybe the last century, they haven’t been as a visible part of the public domain as maybe they could’ve been, and as they are becoming today.  And I think that’s one of the challenges as to why they haven’t had a voice and it hasn’t been designed from their perspective because they haven’t really been seen as much in the public realm.

Manisha: Right.  And when I think about the young people I know, it seems to me that their space in the city is often around the edges of the offices, so in the night times, in the evenings, when there’s less workers around.  So it’s a different dimension for the city and that urban space as well.  Is that correct?

Deena: I think they’re trying to find their place in the city, places where they feel comfortable, and they can hang out.  And that maybe the way we’re designing the public spaces isn’t catering to them, so they’re finding their space in those spaces between the buildings rather than in the middle of the public space, for example, which is probably why the students I’ve talked to have said all the things that they want in that public space so that they can be part of it because those spaces do provide them with the ability to have their own space and do their own activities, but also brings them risk in terms of safety, particularly girls.  Girls would probably be less likely to be hanging in those spaces than boys. 

And so that’s one of the other challenges is that gender differences in the way they can use space, and that we haven’t really catered to girls.  We cater to boys like skateparks.  It’s assumed all boys will skate.  Not all boys skate but there’s a real focus on those activities in public space and not on the softer activities maybe that girls would take on.

Manisha: And that notion of safety is certainly important for girls, but it’s actually important for a lot of people who identify as women, and then of course, a lot of other communities as well, whether it’s people with disability or homeless people.  So it’s interesting when we think about safety in that broader context based on the insight that we’re getting from these girls.

Deena: Yes, agree.  We need to be making our spaces work for everyone, and that has been a challenge historically, and safety is a really good strong lens for arguing for that.  But it’s also about making those places delightful and enjoyable that people want to be in and that we can express all our different cultures.  I mean, that’s one of Sydney’s amazing aspects is its diversity and our public spaces need to reflect that.

Manisha: Do you have any examples of public spaces that you really like that would actually fit some of the things these young people are talking about?

Deena: One that I used to hang out in all the time when my children were young was I used to live in Crows Nest, and there’s a small little space there which is – got some grass, it’s got some trees.  It has a water feature and a little stage, and it has a community centre so it means it has toilets and it had baby change.  And it had some cafés and that was a space that I went to all the time with my kids to get out of the house and to go for a visit.  And they would find ways to play in that space.  It wasn’t a formal playground.  But it had enough things that they could climb on to the edges of or walk along or put their hands in the water that they would engage in it, and they quite enjoyed being in that space.  But it also meant that I could sit and have a coffee, I could read and know they were fine, and it’s those spaces where you can have all those facilities and be able to use it in different ways that is what makes, I think, public space really good.

Manisha: So what you’re talking about is really not that we don’t necessarily need vast spaces that are sequestered for play or for work.  But we need multidimensional, multi-use spaces, even if they’re small. 

Deena: Yes, I think so.  It’s definitely being able to do multiple things.  The more things you can do in a space is a good thing.

Manisha: Looking into the future, do you see a change in the way urban design is actually being planned?  And what does that change look like?

Deena: I think the change is definitely a shift to human experience which we forgot about for a few decades last century, and have been revisiting lately.  But more importantly, I think it’s about extending that idea of human experience beyond yourself to thinking about others and making it more inclusive.  And that is one of the greatest challenges we face, is probably the idea of First Nations people needing to be involved in the design process at all stages, and having a true respect for and understanding of country in the way that we design in Australia.  And that is hard to do because we don’t engage very well currently in the profession, I don’t think, in planning and in urban design, and it requires us to rethink how we practice. 

And it also requires us to rethink how we design, so we start a project; we should start it with country and then consider all those other layers I spoke about.  But it does mean then thinking about it different.  It means taking the time and making the space to have those conversations early on, and to find ways to work together through the process in a partnership.

Manisha: So often we find that people are very interested in working in inclusion or including other people.  But those people that are being included have to fit in with the current way of working.  How might we change the way we work to take into account the things you’re talking about without being so disruptive that actually nothing gets done?

Deena: Yeah, that is the challenge.  In the world of urban design, we’re very much guided by the planning system, and the planning system has particular procedures and it has a way of engaging with people which is very statutory and very limited.  You do it in a formal exhibition process, but you don’t necessarily have to do it before that.  And so often the decisions are made by the time you go to that process and that’s not very inclusive.  So it is about thinking that through differently and requiring – we need to change the planning system.  We need to understand that that working with others needs to happen at the beginning. 

Manisha: And you work with and have worked with governments around Australia at different times.  Do you see this change happening, or at a management level, how do you think people can actually work differently without waiting for the five years of legislative or structural change to happen?

Deena: I think it’s easier to engage in certain types of projects.  I think it’s much easier to talk to people broadly about the ambitions that we have for the city, the higher level strategies to understand what people want – what kind of city people want.  And it’s very easy to also engage at the detail.  So this is a park.  We’re going to build a playground.  What do the local people need?   What do they want to see in their playground?  We do engage like that.  I think it’s much harder in that in between space where we’re dealing with property and really complex issues.  So the question is: how do you actually bring people into that conversation and not end up hitting a brick wall in a way that you can try to work through it together?  And I guess that’s where my research is trying to look at are there ways that we can bring tools in and help people understand what’s happening, what the issues are, what the choices are, and getting them to express their views in that process so that we can actually inform those bigger decisions. 

Manisha: And some of the tools you mentioned there, so those – the design tools, the story cards, etc are fantastic tools to be able to use in that space.

Deena:  I think the tools are great.  I worry if they become generic and can apply to any project.  But if we can make them adaptable so that you can tailor them to different projects and the specific needs of those projects, that would be really useful. So we do use what I’ve called story cards, but we use those to – we call them precedents and we use them to influence the design approach that we take.  And doing the drawings are really – literally we do drawings.  I try to make the drawings in a collage way so that non-drawers could build up a drawing without needing those skills.  So there are direct relationships between the two, and I think that’s where the adaptation of the process also comes in because in my research, I specifically used a section through the waterfront into the building because that’s actually one of the key points of contention in that project, is how buildings sit in relationship to the after.  And that’s why I wanted them to explore that particular aspect.  So that’s where the tailoring comes in.

Manisha: No, that’s fantastic.  And was it hard to find the people that you chose to talk to, those young people?

Deena: Yes.  It was.  I wanted to find young people who were in close proximity to a major renewal project and high schools are not necessarily arranged like that in Sydney.  They’re also not local.  High schools have a much bigger catchment.  So I wanted to find that relationship.  I wanted it to be inner city which is unusual for children – research.  It often looks at marginalised groups or suburbia.  But I wanted to look at inner city because I wanted to test these ideas of what we think is good urbanism, mixed use, walkable neighbourhoods.  And so having a place that had those characteristics was important. 

In the end, I was lucky that the school I found had a very enthusiastic driver.  So the person who was my contact was the head of high school, but also a geographer.  And so I went through the geography school, the geography courses to find the students.  And they were very happy to engage.  It aligned with their coursework in some ways.  They were exploring Sydney more broadly and it also helped them, from what he told me, in HSC; being able to have this conversation and to even talk to me about what I do was useful for them.  So that’s how I found them.  But I did struggle.  I tried to get other schools involved that weren’t interested, and there’s a lot of – just engaging with youth, there’s a lot of ethics and that is part of the problem.  I understand the need for it in order we need to protect them.  But at the same time, because there’s so many ethical hoops to researching with young people that people just don’t engage with them because we’ve made it so hard to talk to them.  So it’s a little bit of a Catch-22 problem.

Manisha: And so a final question for you: what if the city was designed differently to meet the needs of the people that you’re talking about, and have talked to, so the young people, First Nations?  We’ve talked about women a little bit as well here today.  If we were redesigning the city, what do you think they would want in the city instead of what we have now?

Deena: I think we would change the discussion which is very developer driven, very economically driven.  So it’s often about development outcomes first and those outcomes help give us the good public spaces and the streets in our city, and turning that on its head and putting our priorities on the open space first and designing the places that we want to live in.  And yes, density might be needed but it might also be a lot more acceptable if the public realm has all the other aspects within it that it needs.

Manisha: And thinking about that; we know the hottest place on Earth a couple of years ago was in the western suburbs, in Australia, in suburbs that have only been recently created, actually.  Do you have a view on what we can do to change those suburbs or what we need to do in the future to make sure that this doesn’t continue?

Deena: We need to maybe think about how our city can be a combination of moments of where it can be quite urbane and areas where we do retain that suburbia character.  But we need to figure out how to resource those areas to have better connectivity so that we’re not isolating people in places where it’s not accessible or they don’t have any services.  The state has an objective to build density around transport which in theory is a really positive aspiration.  The question is what places are we creating around those transit nodes, and how can they be complementary to the suburban areas that we have already created so that we can have a network that works for more people?

Manisha: Well, thank you so much, Deena.  It’s been wonderful having you here today.  Thank you for your time and also your story.  For someone who has played SimCity in the past, I have a real interest in how we create these spaces and it seems so easy from the outside to think if only we just did this or that.  Just listening to you reminds me of how complex this world is and how important it is for us to listen to the voices that perhaps have the greatest insight in how our city doesn’t work as well as having that connection with the designers who know how a city can work.  And thank you for listening and being with us here today on With Not, For.  If you’d like to learn more about how you can make your world more inclusive, contact us on www.cfid.org.au or see the show notes.  Until next time, this is Manisha Amin for the Centre for Inclusive Design.