At OpenCity, we have spent the last seven years learning about what motivates diverse people to spend time in a place and connect with others. Design for Diversity is a new way of viewing, planning and designing public space through a lens of inclusion and diversity. Over the coming weeks we will unpack the Design for Diversity manifesto to ease planners and city lovers into the practice.
In this post, we address the importance of “keeping doors open” – the fourth point in our manifesto. For those with mobility challenges, including the elderly, individuals who use a wheelchair, or the injured, the simple act of climbing a couple of steps or ascending a hill can be as big a barrier as a concrete wall. It seems obvious, but a crucial element of designing for diversity is ensuring that entering and moving around a public space is accessible to everyone. In order to address these kinds of physical barriers, in Ontario and many other jurisdictions, the principles of universal design are increasingly embedded in legislation that mandates changes to every aspect of our communities from doorways to sidewalks. It’s a positive trend, but it only addresses concrete design challenges. Expanding upon the idea of universal design and accessibility, it is also necessary to explore how perceptual barriers can be just as limiting as physical ones.
Going one step beyond universal design requirements for mobility like automatic doors, gentle grades, and barrier-free paths, there are other physical design elements that improve accessibility that are less obvious. For example, consistently-spaced light fixtures that illuminate a public space at night can transform it from a frightening space to a safe shortcut home after a night out with friends. Alternatively, ample seating serves as a signal to the elderly and others with mobility challenges that a space is safe for them to enter because they are able to see where they can take a break. Providing public washrooms significantly lowers the barrier to entry and participation for not only street-active or low-income individuals who cannot afford to use washrooms at nearby cafes or restaurants, but for families as well.
A final layer of accessibility through design relates to the overall configuration and distribution of the physical elements explored earlier in this post. A fenced-off public space with few or congested entrances sends a subtle message that there are proper and improper ways to access and act in a space. The opposite is also true, a park with clear sightlines, multiple exits and entrances, and multiple paths to internal and external destinations is extending a loud and clear welcome.
The added bonus of considering accessibility from this perspective is that these minor changes will result in a more lively and more animated public space not just a more accessible one. It’s all about creating as many options as possible with minimal intervention. The only difference, after all, between the use of stairs or a ramp to gain elevation is that stairs serve a smaller section of potential users. Accessibility is a challenge that cuts across every barrier. For those who are already discouraged from participating in a city’s public life, such as newcomers or minority community members, physical barriers exponentially increase their disenfranchisement.