Designers cannot rely solely on their own knowledge if they are to create streets that work for everyone. Will Haynes, infrastructure director at Sustrans, explains why it’s vital to learn from the lived experiences of others.
My role as infrastructure director at Sustrans, the charity making it easier for people to walk and cycle, involves designing walking and cycling infrastructure.
I have a reasonable CV with 10 years’ experience of designing such infrastructure, having previously spent a decade or so designing other highway schemes. I also walk and cycle. A lot.
So perhaps you would think that yes, I’m well qualified to design walking and cycling infrastructure.
However, the more I understand this field, the more I realise the weakness inherent in relying on my own skills, knowledge and, particularly, experience. Does that mean I’m not so qualified?
What does it mean to design walking and cycling infrastructure?
At the macro scale, designing walking and cycling infrastructure is about creating streets that work for people. Space that is not dominated by motor traffic.
This is subtly different from designing other highway schemes, where the focus is more on the vehicles.
Drilling down to the micro level, the factors that shape walking and cycling infrastructure start to become very nuanced. What works for one person may not work for someone else – it may even act as a barrier to some people.
Where does my experience differ?
Take personal safety for example. It’s common knowledge that dark, isolated spaces that are not overlooked or busy will not be accessible to some people. But, as a white male, I’m fortunate not to experience harassment on a regular basis, so this is only theoretical knowledge.
It’s not the experience of a good proportion of the population and I’m aware that what I perceive as safe, someone else might not. There is thus a high likelihood that I may miss something if I bring only my own experiences to a design.
I’m able-bodied and have good vision and hearing. What do I know about trying to negotiate a street if I was using a wheelchair, was partially sighted or deaf? Again, I have theoretical knowledge, but do I truly understand the real challenges faced by others?
Infrastructure that I might see as ‘good’ may be flawed to other people. Can I therefore design infrastructure that works for everyone?
Learning from lived experience
The latest Department for Transport cycling design guidance (Local Transport Note 1/20) has started to recognise this. It states that those designing cycle schemes need to experience the roads as cyclists.
This is a good starting point, but I’d argue that we need to go further if we are going to design infrastructure that works for everyone.
If I lack the lived experiences to design infrastructure that works for everyone, should I leave it to others who are better qualified?
No, my professional experience has a useful role to play.
There can be a range of differing needs for a piece of infrastructure which are often in tension. There is a need for engineering judgment to chart a way through sometimes conflicting requirements.
What do we need to do as designers if we have limited experiences?
- Employ diverse teams
We need to build teams that bring together as wide a range of lived experiences as possible. Much has been written on this and we still have a long way to go in most cases.
- Engage with marginalised groups
We need to ensure that we are involving the people for whom we are designing the infrastructure. It is vital that we do not forget groups of people who we may not have included in the past, and work to amplify those seldom-heard voices where necessary.
- Expand our experiences
We need to broaden our own experience and encourage our teams to do so. While we may never be able to fully understand other people’s lived experiences, we may be able to gain a small insight into other experiences.
A colleague recently shared with me that they had been volunteering at an inclusive cycling centre. Through riding an adapted tandem, the amount of space needed to manoeuvre the cycle became real, and not merely some theoretical concept.
Clearly, this approach should apply to whatever it is that we are designing, but it is especially important when we are seeking to create streets and places that are inclusive and work at the individual human level.
We therefore need to start from a place of understanding the needs of individuals. In many cases, these people will have very different lived experiences to me, so if I am going to design infrastructure that works for them, basing my design on my own experiences is flawed.
With all of this in mind, the next time you design something, please ask the question: who do I need to ask to help me understand what this infrastructure needs to provide, both from within my team and from the community for whom I am designing it?
This is embodied in the 11th of ICE’s guiding principles for enabling better infrastructure, which stresses the importance of high-quality consultation and stakeholder engagement.