- February 25, 2022
A Q&A with Gail Shillingford about what makes Black space, and how designers can create more inclusive built environments.
As designers, we need to be committed to creating equitable space that makes everyone feel included and fosters a sense of belonging. This is at the heart of space with great design, where people are rooted at the center of every expression of a built environment. That means we have to ensure that we are including all underrepresented groups at the table when creating space that is responsive to the heritage, culture and experiences of the people that space serves.
In honour of Black History Month, an opportunity to reflect and raise awareness of Black culture, heritage, contributions, and achievements, we sat down with Gail Shillingford to explore what Black space is, and how engagement, architecture and urban design can be reimagined to create better, more inclusive spaces for Black communities.
What makes Black space?
A similar question was posed by a panel of students at a SCUP¹ conference I attended a few years back. They had asked a conference room of designers and educators if space can be designed to be inclusive to Black communities. I began wondering what Black space looked like, or if I could attribute any design or physical characteristics to it.
I don’t think there is any singular way to define Black space in the same way that there isn’t an all-encompassing definition of “Black” culture, heritage, background, or identity. It doesn’t fit into a commodifiable box or checklist. To me, it is all about engagement. To understand Black space, you must engage with the stewards of a space.
Black space is a place where a Black person does not feel like they need permission to participate and feel a sense of belonging. As a Black person, I have personally experienced that abrupt discomfort and sense of needing to look over my shoulder in various places. There is this cloak that we immediately put on. That cloak is used as protection while simultaneously serving as a reminder to channel our energy into fitting into places where no one else looks like us.
Successful Black space makes us feel included.
How can we approach designing Black space?
It all starts with engagement, start a dialogue. Talk to people – ask them, young and old, what they want. What is important to them? Get to know the community you are designing for. Do they spend a lot of time on their porches? What is an important social connector for the community? What would make them feel more represented and included in the built environment?
Designing Black spaces means creating a comfortable space, so how do you make someone comfortable? You incorporate familial elements and scales. These can be symbols that speak to our history or represent us, and this isn’t unique to Black communities, this goes for all communities.
Is there a place that you feel is a successful example of an inclusive space?
An example of successful space would be Joel Weeks Park² in Toronto’s East End that I had the opportunity of facilitating the engagement process with the community. The park’s positioning is unique in that it is in the heart of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that includes an existing immigrant minority community with large families and new middle to high income families moving in.
Our design approach began with engagement sessions with the park’s neighbours to understand how the space could support them and best represent them. We wanted everyone to feel welcome. We quickly realized that many of the families in the neighbourhood loved gathering with one another on the street connecting with other families, and had an appreciation for trees, sitting on the grass in the sunshine, gardening, art, and water. The kids in the neighborhood weren’t looking for soccer fields or tennis courts but wanted to splash in water, run around, and chalk paint the pavement in a quality and safe environment. The youth wanted to play basketball which meant the existing run-down courts needed to be revamped. Elders were looking for places to exercise and grow vegetables and appreciate flowers and nature – activities that were familiar to them from where they had grown up.
What does the future of inclusive design look like for marginalized communities? How can we work towards shaping and creating more inclusive cities?
Conversations around the future of inclusive cities needs to center on equity. Everyone should have access to quality space where they feel like they belong. Too often we see a huge disparity in the quality of design for low income and minority communities. Addressing that discrepancy is vital to ensure that everyone has access to quality space, regardless of their socio-economic status.
We as designers need to engage with the community and truly understand what is important to them. To do that, you need to meet the people you are designing for, face to face, and create a human connection. The process has to be authentic. While surveys have their place, I do find that they tend to distance you from the community.
There is sometimes a desire to check boxes and move through an approval process without tangible and meaningful engagement. The engagement process could greatly benefit from re-engaging the community at 3 distinct milestones – before, during and after. Following that initial point of contact, going back out to the community midway through a project to make sure you are reflecting their vision, as well as after a project is completed. All to often, we don’t go back to the community to determine whether we as designers and facilitators have been successful in creating a space that represents them, and to assess whether we have captured their vision and culture accurately.
There is something very special about visiting a project after completion and seeing the community you developed relationships with activate that site. If we don’t go back, and see whether we have succeeded or not, then we are not being responsible designers. It is an opportunity to enjoy our success or learn from our mistakes and re-adjust to move forward, enlightened from an experience.
Click here to read Truth and Reconciliation: a designer’s lens to learn more about how design offers us the opportunity to promote cultural awareness, education and celebrate our differences, through engagement.
¹: Society for College and University Planning (SCUP)
²: Project by Janet Rosenberg and Associates
With over 25 years of experience, Gail Shillingford has a strong background in urban design and landscape architecture, a combination that has allowed her to create successfully integrated and balanced built form and open space environments. As an Associate, Senior Project Director, Urban Design and Landscape Architecture at Lemay, her focus on all projects is entrenched in building community and creating attractive high-quality public realm spaces that foster socialization, inclusivity, cultural diversity, and healthy living. In each of her designs, the role of the public realm is heightened beyond creating notable destinations, to functioning as a means of bringing all people together, to revitalizing communities, incorporating sustainability and resiliency, and positioning open spaces as catalysts for social and economic vitality and viability. In addition to her experience, Gail leads Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion conversations and pursues Indigenous education and knowledge building to respond to and enable Truth and Reconciliation.