Society & Culture

Designing public spaces for diverse communities

Suds Hettiarachchi, Tasneem Chopra & Graeme Innes | 29 May 2019 | 26:37

Podcast transcript: Designing public spaces for diverse communities

Kalay Maistry: I am Kalay Maistry. Welcome to the latest episode of Engineering Reimagined. Humanity depends on engineering to help solve the wicked problems our world faces.

In this podcast series we explore how, like engineers, people from all walks of life are reimagining the future and their leadership roles in it.

Have you ever been inside an unfamiliar train station, running late for your journey, and felt a sense of doom creep in as you strive to make sense of your surroundings and navigate your way? You are laden with bags and suitcases, so it’s cumbersome and difficult to move. While there are signs providing directions, they are written in a foreign language. No-one is available for you to ask for help and even if they were, you wouldn’t be able to understand each other.

For many of us, these sorts of scenarios are few and far between but for some people, they are sadly a fact of life. People with disabilities, from other cultures, or those who are ageing can struggle in public spaces. This is because traditionally, public spaces have been designed to meet the needs of how the majority of people will use a product or space.

Many communities today are culturally diverse yet do our spaces reflect that diversity so that everyone experiences equality of access, comfort and familiarity?

Today’s interview unpacks the vital role that design can play in creating better communities by taking into account the diversity of people living in these spaces. Join Suds Hettiarachchi as he speaks to two eminent leaders in this field, including Australia’s former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes. Suds is an Associate Director and mechanical engineer within Aurecon’s Built Environment team. He leads Aurecon Australia’s client management functions for two key clients and is a champion for diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Firstly, Suds spoke to Tasneem Chopra about designing for cultural diversity.

Tasneem Chopra is a cross-cultural consultant, author and activist. Recently appointed an ‘Anti-Racism Champion’ by the Australian Human Rights Commission, in a Ted Talk that went viral five years ago, Tasneem describe herself as a quota queen, listing a number of criteria that define her as diverse in Australia. Tasneem is brown-skinned, female, over 35, and a Muslim who wears a headscarf.


Suds: Hello Tasneem.

Tasneem: Hi Suds, how are you?

Suds: Well thank you. Now I understand that you were born in Kenya, have an Indian heritage, with both of your parents coming from India, you grew up in Bendigo, in country Victoria, that's quite a mix, a bit like a pizza with the lot. What are people's reaction to your heritage?

Tasneem: I guess when people usually see me, first of all there's a range of reactions, sometimes people can't reconcile how I sound with how I look. It's like how does that work? What accent is that, and where are you from? The usual questions that you get asked when you don't fit the mould. When I tell them I actually was raised in Bendigo, which is a country Victorian town, last century, and when I tell people I'm from Bendigo they're like, "But where are you really from?"

Tasneem: Basically people are asking me, "Why are you brown?" Effectively that's what it is. Depending on the time and the context than can be an appropriate question or an inappropriate one, but when I break it down and explain, well I was born in Kenya, I'm fifth generation East African born of Indian origin, they're all like, "That's terribly exciting, because it's so exotic," and then I say, "But I grew up in Bendigo." There's almost this heave of, oh not so glamorous.

Suds: Yeah, right, and so has that been confronting for you over time? Have you learned to adapt to those sorts of questions?

Tasneem: I think I've learned to take it head on, so I think initially I would be probably unwittingly apologetic, and explain where I'm from. Now I take it by the horns as they say, and when people have actually complimented me on my grasp of English, and my command of the language I say, "Well it's a Victorian accent, a central Victorian accent."

Suds: Yeah, yeah, country Victorian.

Tasneem: Country Victorian, and when they say, "You speak really well," I actually have said, "Well you do too, just keep it up," kind of thing. You can use humour sometimes to deflect that level of veiled cynical racism that people are basically, again, showering upon you. It may be well intended, but often it's just to let you know that it's okay that you're here.

Suds: So I have a similar situation, to set the scene for our listeners, and obviously they can't see you or I, but I'm of Sri Lankan descent, I was born and bred here in Australia, but as you can hear, I have a very broad Australian accent as well, and I support the Aussies in the cricket some of my friends actually call me a coconut, so they say, "Brown on the outside, white on the inside."

I think it's so interesting that you've created a career in this space. What inspired you to become a cross cultural consultant?

Tasneem: I think it’s just what you've mentioned earlier. As you said, the evolution of being born in Kenya, five generations of family, of being of Indian origin, then growing up in a very parochial country town for most of my life.

You find that you're always carrying, almost the burden of having to explain why you look the way, you sound the way you do, when you don't basically represent the host.

Tasneem: I guess I channelled that defensiveness and that responsiveness into presentations and into conversations, then ultimately I guess the consultancy sort of evolved in a more professional context as I realized that Australia is a multicultural nation. Sometimes it handles diversity well, sometimes it really fails miserably at it.

Tasneem: I sort of saw this career opportunity as a way of entering that forte and sort of dealing at all different levels of society, from the grass roots, like schools, community centres, through to state government, then corporate and federal government and in all different agencies increasingly over the last 10 years, who are grappling with, well how do we handle this diversity beast?

Tasneem: It always comes back down to the fact that this is indigenous land, we're all migrants except them, and how we then respond and treat others says a lot about us a nation.

Suds: Yeah, I remember I had a primary school teacher that, when I used to be teased, kids when they're little, they don't understand different colours and you stand out. The teacher said to them, she goes, "What would you rather, a box of all the same chocolates, or a box of totally different chocolates?" I'm like, "Well I want the different ones, because you get, you experience different things." She said, "It's no different for you and every other child in this classroom. Everyone is different, but everyone has their value in the world and in society."

Suds: Back then I didn't really understand it, but I guess now that I'm older I understand what she meant by that, that terminology. So what does a typical day consist of for you?

Tasneem: I guess a typical day, well I freelance, so ...

Suds: So you wake up when you want.

Tasneem: I only get up for most things, but five bucks a day. No, that's not true. I freelance, so one week will vary from the next, so I now have a website, and I have an agent as well, so I work in the space of presenting at schools, I do a lot of corporate work, and I do a lot of emceeing events as well.

Tasneem: Cultural competence training is increasingly becoming a topic that corporates for example are really interested in.

Tasneem: How do we gain traction from our incredibly diverse staff that we have here working for us, which we've not been utilizing? As soon as you sell the fiscal imperative everyone wants to stand up and listen. It's like, "Well, we can monetize our diversity." Where in fact, yes you can, but there's also a moral imperative as well.

Tasneem: There's this adage in business that when your staff feel respected and included they perform better. It's not rocket science.

Suds: One of the questions I wanted to speak to you about was the role that design can play in breaking down the stereotypes, and creating inclusive communities. In particular I want to focus on public places.

Tasneem: I grew up being a brown pea in a white pod, as I explained it. It was a small country town, the population was maybe 30,000 back when I grew up. It was, like I said, it was a small parochial town, not very much diversity, but having said that, apart from the occasional racial slur that I might have encountered in the playground, I didn't feel that culturally or racially my difference was a huge thing, and I think that has a lot to do with where Australia was politically at the time.

Tasneem: So At that stage I think ... I'll just say it, it was the '70s and '80s, the majority of migrants that were coming through weren't really trickling down into the country towns, so you didn't feel that your being different was a threat to the people. Being of Muslim background, at that time, when people thought about Muslims, it's very different to how they think about them now. Back then it was flying carpets and Arabian nights.

Suds: Like Aladdin.

Tasneem: Pretty much, Agribah. That's how much, that's, and oh, you don't eat pork. That was probably the strangest thing about you, is you didn't eat pork. Compare that to now, where you're considered a threat to western civilization, it's a shift markedly in people's public perceptions. Yeah, I didn't have those experiences as markedly as I know young Muslim kids have growing up today in Melbourne in 2019. Very different situation.

Suds: Back then in the early, when you were growing up in Bendigo, did you find anything different, or you found it challenging for public spaces, being a Muslim. Swimming pools, things like that, or back then everyone co-existed and there was no challenges?

Tasneem: I think it was that. There was a lot of co-existence and respect for the, for I guess the religious pluralism at the time, because it was very small, people weren't ever threatened. I mean I did miss the fact that, I think I was asked this question about four or five years ago, "Would it have been different for you in Bendigo if there had been a mosque for example, a place of worship?" Because I didn't go to my first mosque until I was a teenager and we were driving to Melbourne.

Tasneem: I remember going into a mosque for the very first time and having this moment of serenity overcome me, because I'd never seen anything so beautiful and peaceful and tranquil. It never occurred to me that we'd have one in Bendigo, because I think the population of Muslims by the time I left was about three families, so it hardly qualified.

Suds: If you think about more recently, where you've been in public places, any thoughts about spaces now?

Tasneem: In terms of our public spaces and inclusivity, I live in Melbourne's northern suburbs, and it's a very diverse area, which is Coburg. They say in Australia, one in three Australians are either born overseas or have a parent born overseas.

Tasneem: In Coburg I'd say it's almost even more than that. There's a very high representation of diversity and you see that in the shopping strip, on the eateries that you have, that they reflect so much of the Melbourne that I know. You have Italian opposite a Greek place, which is near an Afghan place, which is around the corner from the Iraqi place, and then there's a Turkish coffee, and there's just everything in all in one hub

Tasneem: Everyone gets a mention, everyone gets included. It's a very inclusive space. I think just by virtue of having those places accessible and central, not hidden away, not in some sort of cluster or ghetto that's out of the town, but very much embedded in what is the main fabric of that particular neighbourhood. That's what I call an inclusive, welcoming space.

Suds: So how are people of different cultural backgrounds excluded by the design of public places and spaces?

Are there considerations in our designs, that engineers and architects think about but they haven't thought it inclusively of other religions and other people? Things like unisex toilets, for most people that might be fine, but for certain religions and of course backgrounds that might be a challenge.

Tasneem: And I think so much of that kind of planning hinges on consultation with the community.

Tasneem: It's very hard to retrofit and make changes once you've done, once things are built, but I think it's essential then, if you are going to be inclusive of your clients and your host communities’ needs, that you'd engage with them prior too. Yes, things like unisex toilets, like nursing rooms, breast-feeding rooms, like having nappy change stations in the men's toilets as well as the female toilets. This whole idea that it's women going to do it all the time.

Tasneem: Even then how we even negotiate the whole transgender toilet access as well, that's something that's increasingly becoming a topic that we're having to discuss.

Tasneem: I know that there's concepts in what you could loosely call Islamic architecture for example, and I have friends who run some architectural firms in Melbourne, who employ Islamic design principles in building some homes, and public spaces.

Tasneem: In their home environment a lot of Muslim women would choose to remove their veil, because they don't have to wear it at home. If you think of the traditional home design, house design in Australia, you've got a house with a front yard and a back yard, right.

Tasneem: The way it works in Islamic architecture, to the book, is that a lot of homes will have no front yard, and the house will be built almost like a fortress in the sense that you'll have a square building and inside the house is a massive courtyard and open space, so that women who want to then unveil and remove their headscarf, have this huge back yard accessible. It still gives them the privacy, but gives them access of openness and sunlight in gardens, which is otherwise lost in the contemporary style.

Tasneem: I think that's a very effective example that illustrates how culturally diverse principles can be executed in architecture.

Suds: All right, so I'm going to ask you to put on your engineering hard hat for the next question, so if you and I were to start designing a public place right now, and I think maybe a shopping centre or a train station, what should we include that traditionally isn't included in designs?

Tasneem: Potentially, I know this is big in Malaysia and in parts of the Middle East, you'd have a prayer room in the area, because that wouldn't just necessarily facilitate Muslim shoppers, but also workers in the shopping centre who might have a lunch break or during their lunch break wanted to take five minutes out to go and pray, for example.

Tasneem: You could have multilingual signage that would operate on touch screens, so that people knew where things were, and you could have them in several languages as opposed to having pamphlets and leaflets, which is not as green or efficient. Having touch screens available where people could access information in at least four or five of the main community languages. Ensure that your centre management staff were also employed from diverse backgrounds so they could also assist people with inquiries.

Suds: You also work in intersectional discrimination, which occurs when someone is discriminated against because of a combination of two or more protective bases, so eg, national origin and race. What are some other barriers that restrict access for different people?

Tasneem: I was at a forum a few years back, where they were talking about getting the gender ratio up, right, and about we don't have enough females in management, on boards etc. I remember very clearly someone in the audience, I think she was of Middle Eastern background, she put up her hand and said, "Look, I get what you're saying and I'm hearing what you're saying about the struggle for there to be equal representation of women at management level, but how about ... When we talk about people of culturally diverse backgrounds, getting that representation up as well."

Tasneem: The person on the panel actually said, she turned around and said, "Well we can't deal with that until we get the gender right." That was her actual response, and this was a highly respected, successful Australian lawyer who made that comment. That particular response, to me reeked of privilege, because I don't think she understood that that kind of response that she was giving to someone from a diverse community, is the same kind of mantra that women have been listening to since the '60s when they talked about gender equality, and men saying, "Well wait our turn, and when we're ready you can come to the table."

Tasneem: Then this woman was saying to a woman of colour, saying, "You wait your turn, and when we're ready we'll call you up." I said, "This is part of what's wrong, A, we're stepping on feminism, and B, the way that we view diversity as too hard a box, and something that can't be incorporated from the beginning, when it should be."

Suds: Yep. Do you feel that we're on a path of that equalization being closer?

Tasneem: The fact that this is a career for me, as opposed to just something that I would have maybe read about 20 years ago.

Suds: Yeah, right, okay.

Tasneem: I think one of the opportunities that I've had over the last few years is to be included on boards where I admit I am the only non-white on the board for example, but there is an acknowledgement from the board level that we're not going to actually effect change on the ground until we effect change in the way we think. One of the adages that I talk about when I do cultural competencies, you can't be who you can't see. Right, so people aren't going to aspire professionally, for a role, if they don't see people like them necessarily in it.

Tasneem: I can't count the number of times women who have been a success, women of diversity, who've reached a board appointment or a CEO appointment, and their responses, if you read the comments are like, "Oh wow, this is something that I could actually do," coming from a young girl. Or girls in schools that I've given those presentation saying, "Wow, I never thought that I could aspire to a role in media or diversity, but now that I've seen you do it, da, da, da."

Tasneem: Representation matters, it's aspirational, but it also changes the way that you think and it changes the way that you plan and therefore it changes the outcomes that you have.

Suds: There's been quite a lot of awareness around diversity and inclusion recently, in your lifetime what changes have you witnessed, and what sort of change do you see coming in the near future? Are you optimistic?

Tasneem: There's still a lot of privilege and comfort zones that we need to tackle because of parochially, this is how it's always been done, mindset. That is a hard wall to come up against, but I'm really optimistic, I know that the millennial generation get a bad rap, and I've done it myself a number of times, but they actually get diversity as part of who we are.

Kalay Maistry: Suds also spoke to Graeme Innes, a company director, lawyer, public speaker and human rights practitioner. Graeme has served as Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, as the Disability Discrimination Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner. He was born blind and has played a significant role advocating for human rights and disability initiatives.

Suds: Graeme – you’ve spent many years advocating on behalf of people from minority groups, including those with disability for equal rights. Can you tell us what differences are... an inclusively designed space can have on a person's life?

Graham: Well, if you have an inclusively designed space, it's one of the things that indicates to you as a member of society that you're included in society. For minority groups such as people with disabilities, creating a space in a particular way is excluding or including. For instance, I can't see so a very echoey, noisy space is problematic from me. Now our railway stations in Sydney are the classic example where there are lots of announcements. The announcements are very useful, of course so you need those, but there's lots of train noise. Then the designers or the operators add to that by having blaring televisions on the platforms. I've never understood why they can't have the volume turned down and the captions on which would make the places far better to navigate for me.

Suds: Would you say that some spaces provide a little bit of anxiety or you feel uneasy in certain elements within areas?

Graeme: Oh, no. Absolutely. Spaces can make you anxious depending on the nature of your disability. In my case, very noisy environments make me anxious because I can't determine where I am and what's going on around me.

Obviously, compliance with the access standards is absolutely a requirement. Those standards really only apply to inside buildings. But they should be equally applied to outside spaces. Ramped access rather than steps, tactile ground surface indicators, rails on staircases so that people with mobility issues or people who may not be as steady as others, have a rail to hang on to, they're all in the basic access requirements. But good designers need to go a lot further than that. So they need to think about the impact of their design on ambient noise. If you compare a restaurant with a whole lot of hard surfaces such as tiles, hard surfaced walls and non-acoustic ceilings as compared to a restaurant with carpet and soft furnishings, the more comfortable place will be the second restaurant because the noise doesn't preclude a conversation but also doesn't preclude independent movement around the restaurant.

Suds: And do you think... You said there are basic requirements that architects and engineers need to meet. Do you think that we are doing enough or that we've got opportunity to do more than what we're currently doing in design?

Graeme: Oh. We've got opportunities to do far more than we do. We could make paths of travel easier. I mean supermarkets... and I know why they do this. But you can't walk straight through a supermarket. You have to walk around things. Now that's because they want people to see as many of their products and buy as many of their products. I understand the logic. But that's very restricting for a person who can't see well or for a person with mobility disabilities, particularly in narrow aisles. So in fact, what you're doing is excluding people from those supermarkets by designing in a way which you think will attract customers.

Suds: As you were born blind, which you alluded to earlier, I'm sure you've encountered all kinds of environments. Can you tell us about your experience over the years?

Graeme: For me as a person who's blind, noisy environments are significantly problematic. Both because I can't hear conversations which are taking place. But also I can't hear all of the noises around me which give me lots of different pieces of information. But for other people with other disabilities, the issues are different. For people with autism, a strobing or flashing lighting or lots of noise can be an unwanted stimulus. For people with hearing impairments, getting information visually is really important.

Graeme: Look, in many respects, access is better. But in some respects it's got worse. Building development... I'm not saying we don't have to develop buildings. But we do have to think about when we do work, the times that work is done and the noise that it creates. We need to think about lighting. We need to think about obstructions on footpaths for instance.

Suds: What are your thoughts about accessibility smartphone apps?

Graeme: Well, technology is a great advantage for people with disabilities. But often unfortunately the designers of technology exclude us. Only listing whether the entrance to a building is accessible, not talking about things like toilet facilities. There are some very good apps for wayfinding for people with various disabilities. But then they'd need beacons to be installed in the buildings or they need some other form of support through video type apps which allow you to connect via video with an agent who can give you information about the building and guide you through obstacles, et cetera.

Suds: Sounds like that there are... that the technology is great but it comes in different components. You can have a smartphone app that gives you the information. But as you said you need technology within the building to help support people.

Graeme: Sometimes. Or you can have a smartphone app that will give you information if you could use it. But the disability access requirements aren't followed so the screen isn't configured appropriately or the app doesn't give you an output via voice. It only gives it as screened based output. So this is all up to designers. These things can be fixed. But they need to be thought of at the beginning.

Graeme: For apps and websites, there are standards which detail how apps can be developed so that they include everyone so they don’t exclude people with sensory or vision disabilities. Unfortunately, these standards are not always followed by the app designers. I'm a company director. I sit on two or three boards. None of those boards have been able to find an app that works for me. They work for all the other board members. But they're very much print and vision based. They haven't taken into account the braille and the voice technology which is available in phones. So all of that is there. But the designers haven't sought to put... to include it.

Graeme: It's really important to take UX into account... user experience and to make sure that that user experience includes all members of the community, not just members of the community who don't have disabilities.

Suds: Taking that proactive approach rather than a reactive approach for groups.

Graeme: The benefit that we get from that is that we, when we include everyone in a society and when we engage with all members of society, we actually get a far more effective and a far better functioning society. We don't reinforce disadvantage or marginalisation. We actually decrease it. All of the research shows that greater equality means that economies work better. So design has... is a factor in achieving equality.

Suds: I think that's spot on. I'd say after this podcast people will be knocking on your door to help with looking at designs and functionality and flow and what we need to consider across all the various areas.

Graeme: Well, of course, I'm just one person with one particular disability. I would encourage people not to knock on my door. But to knock on the door of the organisations who represent people with those disabilities.

Suds: Thank you, Graham, for your time today. Really good to get some feedback from people in your walk of life and in your community. Something that we will consider with our designs and designers in general.

Graeme: No, no. It's been a pleasure.

Kalay Maistry: We hoped you enjoyed this conversation. Don't forget to share this episode on social media and leave a review for us where you are listening. We want to know what you think. Tell a friend or colleague about us. They can find the podcast by searching 'Engineering Reimagined' wherever they listen to podcasts.

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Graeme Innes and Tasneem Chopra share their insights on the vital role of design in a diverse community

Many communities today are full of people of different shapes, ages, races and access needs. Walk into an office building, shopping centre or train station and you will see a smorgasbord of humans who look and move around differently.

Yet do our public spaces reflect that diversity so that everyone experiences equality of access, comfort, and familiarity? People with disabilities, from other cultures, or those who are ageing can struggle in public spaces. This is because traditionally, public spaces have been designed to meet the needs of how the majority of people will use a product or space.

In this episode of Engineering Reimagined, we explore the vital role that design can play in creating better communities by considering the diversity of people living in these spaces. Aurecon’s Associate Director and Mechanical Engineer Suds Hettiarachchi talks to two eminent leaders in this field – Australia’s former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes AM and cross-cultural consultant and anti-racism champion Tasneem Chopra.

They discuss the increasing importance of designing for diversity and the role that early consultation can play in breaking down stereotypes and creating inclusive communities. They also explore what impact an inclusively designed space can have on a person's life.

Meet our guest and host

Learn more about Suds Hettiarachchi, Tasneem Chopra and Graeme Innes.

Suds Hettiarachchi

Suds Hettiarachchi

Former Buildings Defence Practice Leader, Aurecon

Suds is a former Buildings Defence Practice Leader within Aurecon’s Built Environment team. Highly skilled in design management, project management, planning and delivery of complex engineering projects, he leads Aurecon Australia’s client management functions for two key clients. Suds utilises his customer-centric approach to understand the ‘why’ component of every delivery, using Design Thinking to ensure the final product exceeds expectations. He is a champion for diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Tasneem Chopra

Tasneem Chopra

Cross-cultural Consultant & Anti-racism Champion

Tasneem is a cross-cultural consultant and has recently been appointed as an Anti-Racism Champion by the Australian Human Rights Commission. Previously, she was one of 50 Women You Need to Know in Herald Sun International Women’s Day 2017 count. She has also been listed in The Age Magazine’s Top 100 most influential Movers and Shakers in Melbourne and The Australian Magazine’s Leader series of Top Ten Thinkers. Through her consultancy, she speaks across the private and public sector to issues of leadership, diversity, cultural competence, and intersectional discrimination.

Greame Innes

Graeme Innes

Australia’s former Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Graeme Innes is a company director and is a member of several governments, social sector, and profit boards. He was Australia's Disability Discrimination Commissioner from December 2005 until July 2014. At the same time, he also served as Australia's Human Rights Commissioner for three and a half years and as Race Discrimination Commissioner for two years. He has been a human rights practitioner for 30 years in NSW, WA and nationally. He was born blind and has played a significant role in advocating for human rights and disability initiatives.

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