Two years ago, a good friend introduced me to Creative Mornings Ottawa. On April 27 I had the honor and pleasure of speaking at the monthly gathering of creative minds to speak on equity. I chose to address the topic of how we design washrooms in general, and specifically women’s washrooms. Based on my November blog “Expect the Unexpected” and more recent moves by the BC Government to make menstrual products free in BC high schools, I’m inspired to continue working to bring equity to the workplace, and to design in general.

What comes to mind is how we, as a society, we create inequity in many ways. In May, I took a short vacation to Belgium. While at the airport, I noticed that the women’s washroom had the usual long line ups while the men’s room had a steady procession of men in and out. Since toilet stalls are private, enclosed, rooms, there seemed to be no reason for women not to use the men’s room and, in fact, some did.

While we see a move to gender neutral washrooms, are we designing them for people to be comfortable when they are at their most private, and vulnerable? Should gender neutral toilet stalls be just regular stalls or should they be enclosed with full height walls and doors to create the privacy we need and prefer?

When we think about our built environment, we need to see how we can create equity in all that we design:

  • Do our bus stops, LRT stations and transit systems create places that are safe, accessible and promote the ability for all people to participate equally? Or do we say that the minimum code requirements are enough? Given that what we build today lasts for generations (in theory) and codes are always evolving, should we be designing for a better standard, anticipating how we might need to accommodate needs in the future?
  • When booking a ride with Paratranspo, Uber, Lyft or a regular taxi, do we provide the same services for everyone or do we make people use antiquated systems, ask for special accommodations or make people prove their need?
  • When we set our annual City budget, do we foster a sense of equity with snow clearing, park and pool maintenance or do we base our decisions on the “way we’ve always done it?” In the face of more extreme weather, we know we are going to need more pool days, more snow clearing. Do we budget for the minimum or budget to do better and by doing so, create equity in society?

Change takes work. It requires a fundamental shift in thinking. It means thinking of things from a different perspective. And because these decisions are often made at a political level, it’s important that we have broad representation at all levels of government to lead policy decisions through a lens of bringing equity to society. When we look at our City Council, our Provincial or Federal cabinets, do they represent us? If not, how can we expect change to happen?

We need more equity in politics: that means not only more women, but more people representing all walks of life. How do we encourage more people of colour or LGBTQ to participate in politics so that their views are represented? So that their voice is heard? How do we know how to create a society where equity is the norm, not the exception, if there is no one at the table to share their perspective?

When it comes to a real world problem, and solution, let’s look at the way we design bike infrastructure: members of the cycling community in Ottawa routinely share their perspectives, add comments to design plans and advocate for better design, to create equity in the design of a street. But those plans get changed without consultation, and result in a poorer outcomes that makes for inequity in the built environment. For example, bike lanes along Carling Avenue are planned in the long term, however an opportunity was recently provided for cycling advocates to give input on an interim plan. Many suggestions were offered to improve cycling network connectivity, connecting to important destinations like the Glebe Collegiate Institute High School (which recently had a bidirectional bike lane installed on Glebe Avenue). Despite a number of low-cost suggestions, only the Dow’s Lake Road connection was supported. A multi-use pathway exists through Commissioners Park already, so it seems like a lost opportunity to facilitate a comfortable walking and cycling connection through the park by doing snow removal through the winter (thanks to Bike Ottawa for their input on this!).

Back to Creative Mornings: four panelists spoke for five minutes on how to create equity: by considering inclusivity in design for invisible illnesses; by creating equity in bringing children to work meetings and events; by considering inclusivity in washroom designs and by being inclusive in planning events. Consistent to all of these lightening talks was that it’s clear that inclusivity is a choice. By choosing to be inclusive, we create an equitable, welcoming society.

Whether its bike lanes, bus stops or bathrooms, we can create equity in all that we build. It’s simply our choice: do we do it well, and strive for excellence, or put in the least effort and place the burden on the future to do better.