“Participatory design is a powerful tool for creating social cohesion and inclusivity, however there is a grave danger of designing for exclusion and negative perpetuating cycles if proper process is not prioritised.” (Valli Morphett, CEO)

CEO Valli Morphett and Head of Practice Samantha Choudhury had the pleasure of delivering a key presentation this week at the Property Council of Australia’s Diversity Forum on the topic Designing for Social Inclusion: How can bricks and mortar help shape a more diverse and inclusive society?

It is an important topic to be sure, but what happened after the panel was telling. No one wanted to leave!

Across the room, architects, engineers, and built environment experts approached our team to discuss the importance of designing for inclusion and the models that can help them get there.

The people in that room, like us, are in the business of building and fixing places. Amidst the daily pressures of financing, planning process and complex stakeholder tension, it can be difficult to make room for this vital discussion on diversity and inclusion.

On Tuesday this week, our presentation clearly struck a chord, and so we've decided to share the nuts and bolts of it with you here today.

(Image Left: CoDesign Studio's Valli Morphett and Samantha Choudhury present their slides on Diversity and Inclusion in the Built Environment alongside Cushman & Wakefield's Francesco Demarco and ERA-co's Dr Alicien Coddington, hosted by the Property Council of Australia on Tuesday 22nd October 2019.)

“Social Inclusion is about participation, equal opportunity, and empowerment” - Samantha Choudhury, CoDesign Studio Head of Practice

As Australia’s largest industry, the Property sector holds significant power to shape not just the physical landscape of our nation, but the social landscape also. Placemaking is the strategic tool that helps this industry consider the software of a place (the people, systems, and social fabric) as well as the hardware of the built environment that they construct.

We know that social inclusion is a key determinant of health, as is your very postcode, which can be an indicator of your life expectancy and quality of life (World Health Organisation, 2015).

“In Australian cities, the levels, mix and distribution of social infrastructure are not evenly planned in urban design and development. We are therefore building social exclusion into our cities,” shared Melbourne-based principal and urban planning expert, Samantha Choudhury on Tuesday night.

“...In American cities, redlining (racially segregating African Americans from home ownership) has created intergenerational poverty and inequity that they are still dealing with today.”

(Image Right: The Grattan Institute 2011 report illustrates household income distribution across Metro Melbourne, which decreases as you move to outer regions along with indicated decreases in the number of jobs, productivity, education level, transport access and provision, and housing prices.)


The first step to designing for social inclusion is to avoid designing for social exclusion.

The key to designing for social inclusion, is to look at the reverse and understand how places contribute to exclusion in the first instance. According to the Grattan Institute (2011), household incomes in metro Melbourne decrease with distance from the CBD. Along with it, there are decreases in the number of jobs, productivity, education level, transport access and provision, and housing prices.

“Factors used to measure social exclusion include: low income, unemployment, poor social support, poor civic engagement, and low participation,” continued Samantha Choudhury, “It is these latter two factors that we address when we come in with participatory co-design processes, using human-centred design principles to actively build social inclusion into our cities.”

What can be done? Taking an inclusion lens to planning and development.

Impact is possible when you take an inclusion lens. This means designing places that cater to multiple users and encourage social interaction, while avoiding the design of places and facilities that exclude, don’t meet the needs of certain user groups or even create conflict.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are designing large-scale precincts or smaller-scale buildings, outer metro and regional, or inner city hubs, these rules of thumb for social inclusion should be paramount,” shared Samantha Choudhury quoting the design principles outlined in the Australian Government funded Healthy Places & Spaces: Social inclusion design principle report. 

At CoDesign Studio, we endeavour to always involve all of the stakeholders and users of a space in participatory design and engagement processes, and then we go one step further," Samantha Choudhury continued. “We don’t just talk to who is there, we talk to who could be there, and if they’re not using the space, we ask ‘why’?” 

Who do we talk to?

Facilitating all users to be at the decision-making table, usually means reaching out to these groups and sources:

  • Residents, business owners, community groups that reside in, or frequent a place or neighbourhood
  • Indigenous and Traditional Owners (adopt the Australian Indigenous Design Charter)
  • Care givers, parents, and women
  • Children and youth
  • LGBTQI
  • Culturally diverse communities
  • Elderly and ageing population
  • Hearing or vision impaired
  • Special needs, differing abilities, and people on the autism spectrum

(Image Left: Who Do We Talk To? CoDesign Studio endeavours to involve all stakeholders of a place, including those who might not be current users.)

A great example is Chadstone Shopping Centre managed by Vicinity who recently revealed their purpose-built parent rooms custom designed for a full spectrum of special needs and abilities, including parents of children on the autism spectrum.

Similarly, we recently engaged local users of a Melbourne shopping centre to reconnect with their authentic wants and needs. The facilitated process supported the statement that when we ask the right questions of the right people, customers, and community members, the opportunity for pivoting and adapting to a refreshed and thriving precinct is substantial and immediately useful.

When these groups are engaged in a facilitated co-design process, you are well on your way to establishing a pathway towards authentic human-centred design processes taking full effect.

Remember, it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it, that matters.

Public spaces, shopping centres, transit hubs, offices and workplaces must be designed for ‘all’ if we are going to have any chance of intentionally creating a just and inclusive society; and it is the private sector of the property industry who have the greatest opportunity to demonstrate and affect change in this way.

The risk of not taking on a participatory and inclusive design lens, is that we will unintentionally be contributing to the repetition of inherent cycles of social exclusion that are already in existence in Australia and abroad in our built environment structures. In many cases, they are happening without us even noticing or measuring them.

If you ask the right questions of your customer and community, they are going to tell you things that - once known - may seem glaringly obvious, but that as owners, managers, and developers, you simply didn’t know. These insights are fundamental to effective placemaking in your planning, strategy, design/redesign and programming.

It’s not what you do, so much as how you do it, and a social inclusion lens makes all the difference.

To learn more about placemaking for the property sector, we are hosting a free 30-minute webinar to continue spreading this important message. Register today to secure your seat or gain access to the limited-time link to the recording, which will be made available after the event.


Written by Eliza Charley, CoDesign Studio, Strategic Operations Consultant

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