Accessible Cities: Can Design Help?

Disabilities, Accessibility
Ipek from Supersense
8 minutes reading time
November 17, 2020

It has been 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed and 25 years since the Disability Discrimination Act (Equality Act) in the UK. These were examples of some significant developments for people with disabilities to be able to feel more confident and independent when using public spaces. However, the question remains. Are our cities accessible enough today? Have we been successful in integrating accessibility into our public spaces, workplaces, or places of leisure?

A woman in a wheelchair is going on the bike lane.
Photo by Rasmus Gerdin on Unsplash

Before diving into what went wrong in the last 30 years, it is important to remember what accessibility actually means. “Accessibility is the quality of being easily reached, entered, or used by people who have a disability,” according to the Oxford Dictionary.

For people who live with a physical or mental disability, cities and buildings can be a minefield with blocked wheelchair ramps and countless steps to reach public transport, and inappropriately high sidewalks, etc. And also, the neverending noise, the physical and sensory clutter every big city has to offer, is another barrier for people on the autistic spectrum, another form of disability.[1] This is something Julienne Hanson from UCL describes as “architectural disability.”[2] So, what are we doing to change that?

What makes a city accessible?

Architects and urban planners are familiar with 10-year declarations made by the UN about sustainable cities and environmental challenges. However, this year’s “Agenda 2030” is quite different in terms of its scope. The next ten years are defined by the motto ‘Leaving no one, no place behind.’[3] Does it mean that our cities will start to be more sensitive? Or are we just going to see more ramps and tactile pavings?

We all agree that the future should be inclusive and accessible. Translate this to urban spaces, and you’ll find “universal design.” Universal design is nothing new; however, it started to make sense to designers, urban planners, and authorities fairly recently. Even though there is a debate that universal design is reductive and erasing diversity[4], I believe it might at least force people to think about doing things differently.

UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities describes the universal design as “…the design of products, environments, programs, and services that can be utilized by all persons, to the greatest extent, without needing adaptation or specialized design1, and for accessibility -the relevant measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others to the physical environment, transportation, information, and communications, including information and communication technologies and systems, and other facilities and services open or provided to the public, both urban and rural areas.”[5]

Everyone’s right to the city

There are some critical aspects of this description we all need to be aware of. That is, adopting a universal design perspective does not mean that local authorities put some accessible bathrooms here and there. It means that our living spaces, public or private, are designed to include all people with all kinds of disabilities and special needs. This; in be summarized as the right to the city (or country for that matter) and to public space as Henri Lefebvre put it so beautifully back in 1968.[6]

In 2003 the rock star of the urban planning scene David Harvey revisited the concept and inspired a whole new generation of designers. What he said was dead simple: “The right to the city is not merely a right of access to what already exists, but a right to change it.”[7]

It is important that the authorities who possess the decision-making capacity to realize that an accessible city is a fundamental human right. I don’t want to do injustice to some cities keen on employing non-discriminatory policies like Washington, Melbourne, Berlin, Kuala Lumpur, and so on. Those are some of the most accessible cities around the world. For example, the Washington metro is designed completely accessible for people who cannot move independently. And Hong Kong led a program between 2011 and 2017 that includes retrofitting public buildings to be user-friendly and accessible for all. Melbourne implemented beacon technology for a more accessible public space in recent years. Milan won the Access City Award in 2016.

When you talk to anybody who works in any department of the local municipality about the inclusivity and accessibility, you’ll find in front of you an avid supporter of the accessible city. However, if you ask what actions they take to make our living spaces more accessible, it is most likely that you’ll hear the same tired story of accessible public bathrooms and railings. Don’t get me wrong; I think these are great improvements since we didn’t even have them until the 2000s. However, the challenge doesn’t end there. An accessible and inclusive future is not limited to some special facilities. They are and should be, just the beginning.

The challenge is pretty much in understanding the necessities of humankind in general. As the Agenda 2030 states, the accessibility shouldn’t be limited to physical space but should expand “to information, communications, technology, procedures, products, and services.”

What does participation mean?

There was another long-standing debate in urban planning and governance: Participation. When it was introduced a couple of decades ago, no one exactly knew what that means; in fact, I presume, no one still does. However, an inclusive and accessible future means an accessible mechanism that ensures all segments of the society know how to participate and do not feel uncomfortable when raising their voices. Accessibility, for that matter, means that we all know that we have the right to participate. We know that when we act on our right to access, we will not face some difficulties that others are not facing.

According to the World Health Organization,  in 2018, 15% of the World’s population was living with some kind of disability or impairment.[8] Usually, I’m not particularly eager to share statistics because they fall short of illustrating the severity of the situation and reducing our lives in mere numbers. However, let me tell you, %15 is a big number. World’s population in 2018 was 7,594 billion people. 15% of it means more than 1 billion people have difficulties in reaching numerous facilities in their living environment.

Today, most of the world cities are busy, crowded, and overwhelming even for people who seem perfectly alright from the outside. And people with disabilities experience all kinds of problems in housing, education, employment, and even in reaching information. That means that these people have fewer opportunities for education, employment, and involvement in policies and politics.[9] And this is where participation fails. Spectacularly.

The Guardian article had it right; disability is not merely not being able to climb the stairs of the public library. It is other people’s assumptions. So this is what a truly accessible city is: A place for everyone free of assumptions.











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