The use of public space in our cities has become a subject of intense debate in recent years, with more attention now focused on the need for inclusiveness and facilities which answer to different preferences and requirements.
Devising the best solutions is a constant challenge for policymakers and professionals, who have to find a balance between often competing interests and somehow come up with designs that work for everyone.
In doing that, they can draw on examples from cities around the world, applying their own skills and imagination as necessary to adapt to local circumstances.
But, importantly, in their ongoing efforts to improve the quality of public space, they can also call on expertise from the world of academia where research on key issues provides valuable insights on the changing priorities and possibilities.
Illustrating that, the latest in Lingnan University’s Cities and Governance Webinar Series 2022/23 offered ideas, perspectives and practical examples.
Held on February 28 and co-organised by the School of Graduate Studies and the Institute of Policy Studies, the event featured a presentation by Professor Kin Wai Michael Siu, who is the Eric C.Yim Professor in Inclusive Design and Chair Professor of Public Design at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Using various images captured over the past two decades, he explained the importance of a correct understanding of “right’ and “responsibility”, or R+R. And, in the context of promoting inclusiveness of public design, he discussed the more prevalent views regarding freedom and control, or F+C.
To set the scene, though, he first asked the audience to reflect on the meaning of “public” and how such space is owned, designed, maintained and managed. For instance, does a beggar have as much right as a pedestrian to occupy space on a busy pavement? And who decides that a bench in a public area is for sitting but not for sleeping?
“You need to think about the function of a city,” said Siu, whose projects over the years have explored the flexibility of public design for densely populated urban environments, as well as facilities for those with visual disabilities or special needs. “You have to consider a lot of people, not only one.”
The guiding principle was to keep in mind six aspects of everyday life: education, business, justice, health, leisure and value. And, in any public design project, it was also essential to remember that the definition or understanding of these words can carry different interpretations.
“Differences and diversity can create barriers, but I always expect my work to increase the degree of inclusiveness,” Siu said. “Overall, we can't make things totally perfect, but we are doing our best to make the world better.”
Elucidating further, he noted the inclusive design cube, a concept which takes due account of people’s sensory, motion and cognitive capabilities. This helps to ensure sufficient thought is given to the needs of those who are not fully able and, therefore, require some sort extra design assistance to get about or find their way in the urban environment.
Similarly, it was important to consider the spatial and cultural dimensions of everyday life, which are generally divided into three groups – outer, intermediate and inner.
In this classification, things in the outer group are superficial, material, visible and touchable. But those in the other groups - including language, behaviours, religion, beliefs, relative wealth, symbols and much else that is “undetectable” - must also be factored into any design for public space which aims to be inclusive, effective and generally commended.
“If you can solve this, you can solve a lot of problems nowadays,” said Siu, who has received more than 80 international design and invention awards and is the sole holder of over 50 US and international patents. “But because of the differences around the world, we cannot create one golden rule for all these things, even though design is a practical, professional subject.”
He added that good city governance anywhere depends on policymakers and ordinary people recognising rights and responsibilities for the use of public space and facilities, and accepting that they are shared.
Along with that, there also has to be a balance of freedom and control. In many instances, that has now become a question about the pros and cons of surveillance systems and what they mean for society at large.
“Users seldom talk to policymakers and designers,” Siu said. “There has to be more direct feedback for policy improvement, and better collection of research data.”