The New Aesthetic by Yasmin Jones-Henry
“Only 7% of homes in England offer basic accessibility, let alone combine accessibility with a beautiful living environment”
– (Financial Times, 2022)
Can we talk about diversity in design?
It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about fashion or architecture, the two share the same DNA. One surrounds the body, and touches the skin, whilst the other surrounds the person and impacts every aspect of their mental health and wellbeing.
When it comes to inclusivity in the design industry, I’ve touched on this topic before – specifically in reference to hiring practices, and ways in which the creative industries’ decision makers can adopt very basic but highly effective approaches to bringing in new and diverse talent (Represent, 2019). In UK, when you look at the data, for sector specific fields within design you find that architecture is 93.7% White and male, while advertising is marginally lower at 93.5%. We’ve also seen the data not only on the gender pay gap, but the ethnicity pay gap too, being as much as 30% in some sectors.
The elephant in the room is the reality that it was never the case that decision makers didn’t know how to diversify their pipelines: the uncomfortable truth is, they just didn’t care enough to do anything about it. When discussing disability in design with Ella Ritchie – founder of IntoArt back in 2019, she explained when embarking on setting up the social enterprise for artisans with learning difficulties and disabilities over 20 years ago, there was no data on disability and careers or representation in the design sector. The industry just didn’t consider this demographic at all.
“People with learning disabilities are rarely thought of as cultural producers in the design industry, which is a missed opportunity for everyone.” – (Ella Ritchie, IntoArt, 2019)
Sadly, this apathy is reflected not only in design but in the lifestyle sector at large. To change the culture, people must first consent to changing their mindsets, and this boils down to the age-old dilemma of self interest vs the greater good. History has shown, progress and societal change is slow, because it is reliant on those with agency to see how or why acting for others benefits them.
Why does this matter? The pandemic exposed the vulnerability and hubris of the human race. Covid-19’s legacy will be that it destroyed the myth of invincibility in the churn and burn of capitalism. It’s true – “a homeowner or resident can become disabled or a chronic pain sufferer at any stage of their life” (Financial Times, 2022). Surely that is a sobering truth?
So when you consider the number of homes being built in London, and the wider UK currently – the skyscraper tower blocks, still going up post Grenfell… the “affordable” housing that is riddled with poor design – and absent of much care for quality of life: then overlay that with the appalling statistic reported by the FT, that only 7% of these homes in the UK offer basic accessibility… the landscape suddenly looks very hostile, for people with disabilities and chronic pain.
“The disabled community is the world’s third largest economic power…According to one study, the total disposable income of the community tops $8trillion per year. For context that makes the community third largest in the world in terms of purchasing power after the USA and China”
(Quartz at Work, 2020)
The disconnect between the wellbeing, experience and – dare I say it “productivity” of the citizen, has led government officials, investors and property developers to write the briefs for these homes, with little known consideration over the wellbeing of those who will live in them. The chronic loss of green spaces in London is a manifestation of this. Who yet knows the full mental health impact that has followed the loss of local parks and accessible play areas for the youth – with many of them now adults?
With greenwashing and culture-washing about diversity and “social value” at an all time high, more needs to be done to ensure the powers that be are motivated to bring a more diverse demographic into the room when consulting on the design of these homes, products and lifestyle platforms.
Architecture does not exist in a vacuum. Within my own work as a strategist, sitting between creatives and investors, I do my best to bring the relevant stakeholders into the room when the early design conversations are being had at masterplan level. I make no claim to being an expert, but this is one area that I am extremely eager to learn more about so that I can be a better advocate in the spaces where these voices are not being heard in the boardrooms where these decisions are being made.
How much more, could a creative entrepreneur or artisan with a disability be able to engage and participate – if their surroundings were better configured to their needs? “Placemaking” has become a highly lucrative sector, but if you look around the table at who is “making” these places and these decisions, the reasons for this sector’s poor performance in inclusion and diversity becomes very clear.
More consideration for quality of materials, colour, use of natural light, pull-down shelves, adjustable worktops and accessible windows… How many architectural practices delivering housing on behalf of local councils, can honestly say the accessibility of these facilities are prioritised in their designs? How many landscape architectural practices can honestly say they design with diversity in mind? These are all rhetorical questions, because you need only look outside your windows for the answers.
When forging ahead to create this new, sustainable, inclusive circular economy of the future, the question ought to be: how quickly can sectors such as architecture, fashion and design adapt and evolve to better serve the communities, the environment and the economy they are subject to? The challenge should not be how fast can these sectors return to or surpass pre-pandemic industry levels. The Past was a place of apathy, greed and exclusion: the past was an appalling benchmark.
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