By making space for social amenities in our cities, we make space for the disenfranchised in our society. In New York City, over the past two years, it’s become evident that our human infrastructure is strong, while our social amenity infrastructure continues to struggle. There are vast inequities in the distribution of healthcare, housing assistance, food accessibility, and educational opportunities, among others. While access to this social infrastructure is to a large extent driven by policy, certain spatial challenges exacerbate the situation—but they don’t have to.
Physical and psychological barriers play a critical role in terms of providing access to vital social services for all. There is a stigma attached to social services, which, often keeps residents from availing of the benefits of such amenities. As an example, in order for a New Yorker to be eligible for social services located within a shelter through the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), a person must be in the shelter system and prove that he or she has no relatives or friends who can provide support. Prevention aid is available through programs like Homebase, which provides services to help with the housing crisis and supports housing stability. With 26 locations across the five boroughs, access is yet not widespread.
How can we designers create spaces that are welcoming, safe, and accessible for individuals facing housing precarity? Additionally, how can we improve the availability of social services, such as employment opportunities, educational services, and housing assistance?
The solution lies in creating a network of spaces that New Yorkers can approach for easy and non-judgmental access to the social services they need. Imagine places where there is no shame attached to showing up and asking for help or no requirement to be in a particular situation or system in order to reach out. Networks of infrastructure with welcoming spaces already exist, including public libraries, grocery stores, senior centers, recreation centers, and others. We can start by carving out spaces in each of those facilities for employment assistance specialists a few days a week. This idea was initially explored by Melissa Minnich, Heli Pinillos, and myself during a one-year fellowship sponsored by the Urban Design Forum.
The city should take this opportunity to not only broaden access to social amenities but also ensure that they are universally inclusive. Designing spaces that are welcoming to people of all income levels, employment statuses, age groups, and gender identities will be key to their success. We have all experienced the feeling of being safe and welcomed in some spaces more than others. Inserting social services and amenities inside already welcoming and non-discriminatory spaces can dramatically reduce the perceived barriers that a person might need to overcome in seeking help. New services located at the exterior of these amenities can create a buffer space that receives people while also providing some privacy and anonymity to the individual seeking assistance.
Furthermore, design choices like location, the presence or absence of a front desk, the ability for people to wait comfortably without judgment or stigma, spaces for accompanying family members or children to be occupied while the person utilizes the amenities, inclusive signage and welcoming lighting and finishes—all of these can start to address these issues. Even simple design decisions, such as the presence of a front desk or its location, can dramatically change the experience for an individual. For example, while a front desk can serve as a go-to location for information, it can also be a deterrent to people who might feel judged. It is important for us to address the delicate balance between removing perceived physical and psychological barriers while creating safe spaces where all are comfortable.
Architects and designers can push for such solutions to a certain extent but are unable to champion social change without the support of policymakers and advocates. Identifying and championing support from the correct stakeholders such as city agencies, elected officials, and non-profit service providers such as The Doe Fund, Center for Urban Community Services, and Fortune Society, to name a few, can provide long-term solutions. Additionally, this approach can be scalable beyond New York City. Including small “buffer” spaces within existing networks of social infrastructure allows for quick deployment without much financial burden and therefore can result in the immediate expansion of the support system that our city’s most vulnerable residents so desperately need and seek.
Now is the opportunity to rethink how New York City supports all of its residents by looking beyond the challenges of the pandemic in a forward-thinking, equitable, and just way. Solutions like these will not only support the residents most at risk of housing precarity; as they slow dismantle social stigmas, they also benefit the city at large. Creating a healthier city for those most in need leads to a healthier city for all.
Ishita Gaur, AICP, is an associate at Marvel, a multi-disciplinary design practice with offices in New York City, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Richmond, Virginia.