Reclaiming Our Spaces: Design, Community and Co-Creation

On January 29th, MASSIVart’s Founding Partner and Global Creative Director, Philippe Demers, was invited by Entro to speak on a panel centered around the importance of inclusivity and public space design. Welcoming the opportunity to discuss how MASSIVart champions diversity in its projects, Philippe also wished to emphasize that art is a proven vehicle for social change and holds great power in its ability to create safe spaces. Joining Philippe in this conversation were fellow industry experts, whose insightful and inspiring responses have been summarized on this page for you to reflect upon.

Heela Omarkhail, Vice President, Social Impact at the Daniels Corporation
Dr. Julie Nagam, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts, Collaboration and Digital Media
Rochelle Maresh, Strategist at Alliance Architects
Pru Robey, President at Pru Robey Consulting

Vedran Dzebic, Head of Research and Development at Entro


Over the last year, global events have caused us to re-examine our relationship to place, while social movements have asked us to critically examine who had access to these spaces to begin with. As our understanding of the human connection to place shifts, inclusivity might just be the guiding principle by which we can reclaim and re-energize our spaces. But a simple desire to build them is not enough.


How can we create welcoming and inclusive environments? What shifts in our thinking are required to create inclusion? And what value does such design thinking create?

According to Heela Omarkhail, inclusivity won’t happen by accident. It won’t be a byproduct of the design process as it requires intentionality. For example, the Daniels Corporation identified three organizing elements that can help facilitate inclusion:
– arts and culture
– food and urban agriculture
– sports and physical activity

These can be used as tools, incorporated in the design of both places and programs, that encourage people to come together regardless of cultural language, racial or socioeconomic backgrounds.

For Dr. Julie Nagam, the design and creation process of community spaces should be in the hands of BIPOC leaders or, at the very least, in direct collaboration with them. The decision for inclusion has to be deliberate, from the onset of a project. One of the best ways to ensure this is by focusing on hiring people for internal teams or consulting gigs that actually reflect the communities in which we’re building and designing for. In this case, recognizing that expertise may not come from formal or professional training but rather from lived experiences, is incredibly beneficial.

Echoing Dr. Nagam’s feelings, Pru Robey offers a powerful quote: “Racism is not the shark, it’s the water we swim in every day.” Acknowledging toxic systems and being honest with our communities about them will help us to imagine a future together: one in which people will have a real and meaningful stake.

Speaking to the emotional and social values of inclusive design, Philippe Demers proposes that architecture and created spaces act as canvases for life. Building beautiful structures, or blank canvases, is only the first step toward welcoming people in so that they may figuratively paint their own scenes. The injection of cultural programming is essential as it not only fosters new stories and connections, it keeps communities interested and engaged.

Convincing developers that there is concrete financial value for inclusive design, however, is quite the challenge. MASSIVart, Entro and Ryerson University are hoping to pioneer change as they are conducting a study to discover ways in which we can quantitatively measure the ROI of creative placemaking.


What tools are we using to engage people? How do we create a meaningful co-creation process?

Referencing commonly used tools, Rochelle Maresh emphasizes that they are often not able to reach diverse, more inclusive groups of people, who may not have been able to take time off of work to attend virtual workshops or town hall meetings. Technology can be a hindrance. While it opens doors for some to become involved, it can close those doors for others. We should be actioning ways to reach broader demographics such as utilizing storefronts to advertise to people walking past how they can answer a community call. People shouldn’t have to have a phone or internet access to be able to receive information about getting involved or about how they can have a place at the table.

When gathering information, practicing empathy will help designers understand who their most engaged users will be. It is so valuable to hear what their life is like, what their experiences have been, what has influenced the way in which they think about space differently or how they’d want to participate in it. We should ask ourselves how the spaces we build can make people feel safe and secure enough to be able to express their whole selves.

At MASSIVart, Philippe notes that empathy has also become a large part of curatorship. Now more than ever, art selection for a public space is focused upon what makes sense for the community it is based in, or for the collective. Gone are the days of academic views determining what art or culture is. Curators are developing a capacity to listen to their audience and to be sensitive to their needs, understanding that they are designing for spaces that people will actually be living in and hopefully engaging with often. Artists should not only play a role in beautifying spaces, as they are attuned to what is happening in their communities and vocalizing it, they should be included in design processes at the very earliest stage.


How can we deem a design project “inclusive”?

As Dr. Nagam says, there’s a reason why people are drawn to projects that are grassroots driven. They feel more organic. Design and architecture firms have to learn how to collaborate better with artists, to stop seeing them as aesthetic workers but rather as peers. It’s all about listening to embodied knowledge, learning by doing, making sure that there’s a reciprocal relationship. What’s the end result? What does the community get out of it? Where do they see themselves sitting? Evaluating the aftermath of a project is something that she doesn’t think we do a good job of in general in almost all fields.

The overall consensus? The push for inclusion does not end when the project does. For Heela and the Daniels Corporation, they’ve learned that it’s not simply “build it and they will come”, it’s “build it, program it, outreach and market it” and eventually people will begin filtering in. But, if we can prioritize early on that people feel like they have a stake in the project, the transition to using created spaces will likely happen more naturally.