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Why Universal Design Is the Key to the Accessible City

How can we create civic spaces accessible to all residents?

Published on October 13, 2020

Our cities are not designed with everyone in mind. All too often, a one-size-fits all approach is taken when designing everything from buildings to signage. For those with disabilities, this means navigating an urban landscape filled with inaccessible public spaces. 

Yet by 2050, an estimated one billion people will live in cities, making the issue of accessible spaces and universal design more urgent than ever. Cities must undergo a radical shift in their design thinking if they hope to create civic spaces accessible to all residents. 

It’s this idea that drives the work of Lanrick Bennett Jr., Managing Director of 8 80 Cities, and Lezlie Lowe, a Halifax-based journalist and author. The two will come together to discuss the founding principles of accessible and participatory design thinking during the “Universal Design for the Accessible City” panel on November 5th, moderated by Evergreen’s Chief Program Officer Orit Sarfaty at Future Cities Canada: #UnexpectedSolutions, a six-week virtual city-building gathering. David Lepofsky, a lawyer and disability advocate, will be giving his own talk on accesibile city-building as well.

Let’s take a sneak peek at the insights they’ll be sharing. 

Accessible to Some, Not All 

What does it mean to create a truly accessible public space? Many carefully planned buildings are accessible to some, but not others. The mandate of 8 80 cities is to enhance mobility and public space to create places great for an 8-year-old, an 80-year-old and every one in between.  

According to Lanrick Bennett Jr., a building that is “more” accessible may still fall short of universal accessibility. While installing stop-gap ramps in older buildings helps some users, many other elements of the space could keep it from being accessible to others.  

A Seat at the Table 

The Centre for Universal Design defines the term “universal design” as “the design of products and environments to be useable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” So how is such a goal achieved? 

Centering the voices and perspectives of people with disabilities throughout the planning process is essential to creating truly accessible space, according to David Lepofsky.  

It’s a point he illustrated in a video of the award-winning Ryerson University Student Learning Centre. In the video, Lepofsky shows how the building — which has won a host of architecture awards — is inaccessible in dozens of ways, from handrails that guide users in the wrong direction to pillars built in the middle of staircases. 

It’s a stark demonstration of how excluding people with disabilities from the design process results in inaccessible spaces, which then require numerous costly fixes. 

An Ongoing Conversation  

Still, centring the perspectives of those with disabilities during the design planning process is only the first step in ensuring accessible public space. Regular consultation is needed to understand what works, and what doesn’t, about everything from websites to parks. 

Lezlie Lowe, who has researched universal design and accessible spaces extensively in her work as a journalist and author, says that there must be an ongoing “post-mortem” on public spaces, to ensure that accessibility issues that weren’t considered in the planning process are addressed, and the evolving needs of the public are met.

"Simply put, needs change," she says. "Think about something common like a wheelchair: motorized chairs and scooters are larger than the manual wheelchairs of decades ago. If we never updated standards for, say, door jambs, larger chairs wouldn’t fit. And over time more and more users would end up excluded from those spaces."

Hear More at #UnexpectedSolutions 

Bennett Jr. and Lowe will discuss these topics and more during the “Universal Design for the Accessible City” panel at Future Cities Canada: #Unexpected Solutions — six weeks of thought-provoking keynotes and inspiring workshops. Register today for over 60 free virtual sessions, running from October 20 to November 26.