The inclusive design of cities and spaces accommodates human diversity, not only disability, and thus benefits everyone.
In 2022, whether you are strolling through a remote Cumbrian village or fighting for your life on Oxford Street, there will be key features of the architecture that are the same no matter what. Curbs, steps, doors and bus stops are everywhere, and designing them in an accessible way doesn’t only cater to the disabled population. All of us benefit from having our towns and cities built with our needs in mind.
Following the second world war, the British disabled population increased by over 300,000, making accessibility in the towns we live in a suddenly pressing matter. Since the 1940s, architects all over the world have been working on designs that make our world accessible for everyone. One of the first of his kind was Selwyn Goldsmith, author of Designing for the Disabled (1963). The same year he became graduated from the University College London as an architect, he contracted Polio and became paralysed for the rest of his life. After interviewing wheelchair users in his hometown of Norwich, he designed the ‘dropped kerb’, which the council installed fifteen of around the city. The response was incredible and showed Goldsmith how huge of a difference such a simple alteration can make to people’s lives. Nowadays the dropped kerb is something we see all the time, whether it be on either end of a crossing, or at the ends of driveways. It had a great impact on the quality of life for everyone. Wheelchair users, mothers with pushchairs, cyclists, or simply people who have trouble with uneven footing.
An example of something quite old-fashioned coming in handy in a very modern way would be the Starship automated delivery robots of Milton Keynes, launched in 2018. The city was chosen to test out this new technology because of its famously easy-to-navigate road system and wide, flat pavements and dropped kerbs. After four years, the robots are said to be expanding to Northampton and Cambourne. Locals find them “rather cute”, and over the coronavirus lockdowns, they were a part of the country’s fleet of essential workers, making food and grocery deliveries safer by miles. When we think about housebound people, what may come to mind is the elderly, or disabled. However, COVID was a sobering example of a time where at any moment, any of us could find ourselves in a situation where we wouldn’t be able to function without the accessible infrastructure in place. Whether it be due to self-isolation, a twisted ankle, or long-term mobility issues.
None of us is fully abled all of the time. Therefore, designing buildings and towns which can be used fully, regardless of age, disability or size, is the best course of action. If you are walking through the office with a stack of papers, you suddenly don’t have the use of one arm, so doors are best designed with a bar handle, or even better – being pushable from both sides. Signs being in large, clear fonts with recognisable symbols are useful not only to those with low vision but also to seniors and people with reading or cognitive difficulties.
More examples of universal design are:
We should all be in support of creating a world in which everyone feels like they are welcome and their basic needs are being met. Encouraging your local council and businesses to be conscious of the spaces they build will benefit whole communities for years to come.