Disability Justice and Urban Planning

Disability Justice and Urban Planning is a collection of articles focusing on people with disability and the built environment. Lisa Stafford and Leonor Vanik remind us it is 60 years since the first campaigns for justice began. In their introduction to the articles they argue that despite legislation we still live in an ableist world. People with disability continue to be excluded and subjugated.

In urban planning and design, these prejudices are played out in the built and digital form. … disabled people are constantly reminded that “you don’t belong – the world is not built for you”. Dignity and control are still not realised.

A woman is pushing a man in a wheelchair up a ramp into the train. The train guard looks on. Another woman in a wheelchair waits for her turn. A man with a stroller is also in the picture.

Basic things like using public transport to attend an appointment are taken for granted by many. However, this same activity for disabled people can require exhaustive planning to account for things that might go wrong. Many trips are not make because it’s just too hard.

Then there is the complexity of other social dimensions. Indigenous disabled people, disabled people of colour, queer disabled people and disabled women and girls. However, there is a growing resistance to oppression and exclusion.

The collection of articles brings into view a large and diverse group of people who have been unseen for so long. The aim is to open up conversations about body and mind diversity. The authors are people with disability and so the content is written with heart – it’s not just another academic exercise.

It’s time for planners and designers to not just listen but to act. It could be their future self they are planning and designing for.

Aerial view of a city with tall buildings separated by green open space.

The title of this collection of short articles is, Disability Justice and Urban Planning and is open access. Published in Planning Theory & Practice.

The authors use the language of “disabled people” in line with critical models of disability.

Vulnerable citizens in floods and fires

Climate change is bringing increasingly dangerous and catastrophic weather events. Floods and fires are a regular occurrence in Australia, but not with the frequency and intensity that we are seeing now. While there are standards for building evacuations and fire risk management, these were developed without thought for vulnerable citizens. And when people need to evacuate to a communal place of safety, there is no guarantee it will be accessible.

Residents of the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales are not new to flood events. But the floods are getting worse as we saw this year. A major flood event occurred previously in 2017 and four researchers decided to explore the experiences of people with disability.

We found people with disability and carers are more likely than others to be affected and displaced. Their needs are more immediate and urgent than most, and their mental health is more likely to be compromised.

Road Closed signs and a barrier of a road that reaches down to a river in flood.

Their findings show the profound impact and systematic neglect experienced by people with disability and their carers. A longer term recovery period is required for people with disability with tailored supports. Consequently, people with disability should be included in flood preparations and recovery efforts.

The title of the article is, Exposure to risk and experiences of river flooding for people with disability and carers in rural Australia: a cross sectional survey. It’s not a very accessible document as the format is in two columns.

Fire safety

The NDIS aims to support people to live independently in a home designed around their disability. This usually means a step free entry and modified bathroom designs. However, little, if any, thought is given to the design of fire safety and safe evacuation in an emergency. Some NDIS participants will need extra support to prepare for and react in an emergency.

“Fire safety systems must be considered as a total package of risk management, equipment, maintenance, training and fire and evacuation drills. …Where disabled or immobile persons are concerned, the importance of the total package cannot be underestimated”

house fire photo taken at night time.

Hank Van Ravenstein outlines the role of the NDIS in his paper, Fire Safety and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The first part relates the history of the NDIS followed by technical considerations for safety. He argues that the National Construction Code regulations don’t fully address or reflect the needs and risk behaviours of NDIS participants.

If we are to take a universal design approach, if the fire safety regulations aren’t sufficient for people with disability, are they sufficient for everyone?

Bushfire safety

As cities grow and become more compact, some citizens feel the need to “go bush”. This usually means finding a forest haven amongst the trees away from urban living. Then there are those who have always lived in the bush and wouldn’t live anywhere else. But bush living is risky and can be costly in terms of lives and property. It is particularly risky for people with disability and consequently, a different risk assessment process is needed.

Despite fire and rescue authorities encouraging people to prepare for bushfires (and floods), many leave it too late. Some are unable to understand the instructions, or unable to carry them out.

A nighttime view of a major bushfire. The bright orange and red glow of the fire is reaching into the tops of the trees.

A paper by Bennett and Van Ravenstein spells out all the technicalities of fire prevention and control. They argue for a risk assessment approach to existing and proposed buildings for vulnerable persons. The aim of their method is to provide a consistent basis for assessment.

The title of their paper is Fire Safety Management of Vulnerable Persons in Bushfire Prone areas.

There is an related paper on vertical evacuation of vulnerable persons in buildings.

Making sure everyone can hear

According to Deafness Forum Australia, approximately one in six Australians has a significant hearing loss. Participants of any age in any learning situation might need some assistance to get the best learning experience. It could be a Zoom webinar or lecture, an in-person conference, or a roundtable discussion. The important point is, make sure everyone can hear.

Assistance can be as simple as sitting at the front of a lecture or presentation where lip reading can assist comprehension. Or it could be more complex with assistive listening devices and live captioning. Microphones also have a place as does minimal background noise.

Picture of an ear with sound waves

Most people lose their hearing after they have learned to speak, so they don’t learn Auslan (sign language). However, always check whether one of you participants or learners needs an Auslan interpreter. People who use Auslan often prefer to be referred to as Deaf rather than hard of hearing.

The ADCET website has more information on the impact of hearing loss. Although it is focused on school learners, much of the information is applicable in any learning or information sharing situation.

ADCET strategies for including people with hearing loss include:

  • Always speak facing the audience
  • Provide written materials to supplement lectures
  • Caption videos and provide a transcript
  • Keep hands away from your face
  • Choose venues with a working hearing loop or assistive listening devices
Adults seated at tables in a classroom setting looking forward to the instructor at the front of the room

Supporting participants online

COVID changed almost everything including being together in learning situations. In July 2020 ADCET surveyed disability practitioners from the tertiary sector to find out how this impacted their work. The result of this work was to develop a guideline for supporting Deaf and hard of hearing learners online.

Download the Guidelines from the ADCET website. They have specific instructions for using captions and transcripts and the different web applications that help the learning process. The free automatic AI captioning works adequately most of the time on Zoom. It can be activated in the settings.

The video below explains more.

Planning for gender inclusion

The notion that there are only two genders, female and male, has become a topic of discussion and research. So, there is a growing interest in planning and designing for people who identify outside this binary. But much of the research literature is based on the experiences of women. There is little research on people who identify as nonbinary, trans, intersex or genderqueer. However, in the meantime, some of the research on women’s experiences can act as a proxy for people who identify as nonbinary. The key issue is that gender inclusion is left out of planning conversations.

Masters student Carolyn Chu investigated the constraints women and nonbinary people face when using public space. These constraints have a profound effect on their health, daily living and safety. Chu wanted to understand gender differences in park usage, planning and design in Los Angeles parks.

Front cover of Planning for Gender Inclusion.

Chu says that planners should thing critically about gender by leveraging a feminist planning perspective. Participatory methods that favour marginalised voices in planning discussions are essential. And to explore creative design options for diverse populations across gender, ages, ability and housing status.

Key findings

• Women have diverse needs and opinions related to park amenities, services, and preferences.
• Women and nonbinary people are not the majority users of Lafayette Park. The most common uses for women park users were leisurely walking and supervising children. Very few women engaged in exercise or vigorous physical activity (other than walking) while using the park.
• In planning processes, as with other municipal processes, the loudest voices in a community often have disproportionately more power in decision making. These loud voices have historically been, and continue to be, the voices of white, middle-class, and cisgender people.
• Park planners need to balance competing needs for space, especially in dense city neighborhoods such as Koreatown and Westlake where Lafayette Park is located
• Parks are not just a place for leisure, but also settings for economic activity and shelter
• Women’s past experiences of harassment in public places have created anxiety and fear for their safety in parks. Women are careful about how they dress while using parks to avert unwanted attention on their bodies.
• Parks provision and staffing are chronically underfunded and embedded in broader political dynamics.

“The nonprofit planner urged that in order to build gender-inclusive spaces, women must be included in every step of the planning phase, from inception to funding, leading, outreach, implementation, and evaluation. They emphasized that gender inclusive parks are created at the time of park inception, early in the process, and cannot be “tacked on” after foundational decisions have been made.”

Title of the study is, Gender Inclusion: Gender-Inclusive Planning and Design Recommendations for Los Angeles Parks. The research is largely based around women’s experiences, but issues such as safety are shared by other marginalised groups. Community engagement is a core strategy for all aspects of planning and design. And that means more than holding the traditional town hall meeting.

Planning and Policy Recommendations

1. Think critically about gender by leveraging a feminist planning perspective that recognizes that people of all genders have multiple, intersecting, and dynamic identities that hold meaning and power.
2. Use participatory methods that favor marginalized voices, open planning discussions to a wider range of opinions, and make time for collective decision-making.
3. Build a network of diverse parks that can accommodate a range of different desires and partner with nonprofits to explore alternative stewardship and ownership practices.
4. Explore creative design and programming options that are designed with all abilities in mind and maximize limited space in inner cities.
5. Invest and fund our parks equitably with a particular focus on providing resources for communities that are park poor due to historically discriminatory planning practices.
6. Pursue further research on park users across the spectrum of gender, age, ability, and housing status.


Urban planning theory and practice have created gendered environments that mainly privilege the needs of cisgender men. Women, nonbinary, and genderqueer people face various constraints on their use of public space which has profound effects on their health, daily living, and safety. This research study seeks to understand gender disparities in park usage, planning, and design in Los Angeles parks and offers recommendations to mitigate those disparities through improvements to planning processes.

Implementing universal design in public places

What and where are the problems when it comes to implementing universal design in public places? Three Swedish researchers decided to find out. The first step is to consider all the actors that have a role in creating public places and spaces. They all make choices based on particular strategies. Then there are inherent conditions: topography, the space itself, time pressures, cost, and materials. Each one of these can impact how different people might use and design the environment.

How buildings, walkways and public places are designed is based on choices and strategies, affected by laws and policies, but also by the practitioners’ knowledge and experiences.

A fish market in Sweden.   Implementing universal design.

Knowledge of universal design is still limited among practitioners and even then, it is not understood in the same way. Perceptions that universal design is about access compliance further complicates matters. So how to change the mindset of practitioners? This is where the concept of diversity comes in. Old thought patterns of deviating from the norm have to be discarded as practitioners think of population diversity.

Aim of the study

The aim of the study was to identify the choices practitioners made during the urban development process. And then to find out what they need to better support the implementation of universal design. They used qualitative methods to find out and a quantitative analysis of the findings. The findings are presented in three sections:

  1. Critical choices and aspects – informal decisions also impact final result.
  2. Conflicting visions, goals and interests between departments and public and private actors.
  3. Critical recourses – supports and tools stakeholders need
aerial view of three people at a desk looking at a set of construction drawings

The paper concludes with 7 recommendations based on their findings.

The title of the paper is, Visions of a City for All. Resources, Choices and Factors Supporting and Impeding Universal Design in the Urban Development Process. It is a well written and clear paper. It has important information for all the stakeholders in urban design processes.

From the abstract

Despite laws, policies and visions to create cities and societies for all, barriers still exclude persons with disabilities from using buildings and public places. Our study aimed to identify choices made during the urban development process that include or exclude users in the built environment; how and when these choices arise during the process; and what is needed to implement universal design (UD) as a strategy and tool to secure all users equal opportunities in the built environment.

The study involved employees and private actors in city development processes. Four workshops were followed by qualitative interviews with key players. The analysis was based on qualitative data from workshops and interviews.

Aspects impeding and supporting UD and conflicting visions and goals were identified in all phases, as well as the need for tools to implement UD. The findings show that accessibility for all users is dealt with (too) late in the process, often giving rise to special solutions.

The findings also show how UD appears more clearly in remodelling projects than in new constructions. A strong vision from the start to build for all users clearly supports UD throughout the process. Other factors such as pre-studies that include human diversity, allocation of resources and experts’ early opinions also prove to be clear drivers for UD.

Overall, the findings reveal a demand for solutions that can maintain early visions and goals throughout the processes. We conclude by providing seven recommendations for addressing these challenges.

The Metaverse: inclusive and accessible?

The concept of the Metaverse is a continuous online 3D universe that combines multiple virtual spaces. It’s the next step on from the internet. It means users can work, meet, game and socialize in these 3D spaces. We are not quite there yet, but some platforms have metaverse-like elements. Video games and Virtual Reality are two examples. So, we need to keep a careful watch on developments to make sure the Metaverse is inclusive and accessible.

Another term for the Metaverse is digital immersive environments. It sounds science fiction, but this fiction is becoming a fact. Someone is designing these environments, but are they considering equity, diversity and inclusion? Zallio and Clarkson decided to tackle this issue and did some research on where the industry is heading.

Several companies are involved in the development of digital immersive environments. So before they get too far in development it’s important to define some principles for the design of a good Metaverse. Zallio and Clarkson came up with ten principles that embrace inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility and safety.

10 Principles for designing a good Metaverse

  1. is open and accessible
  2. is honest and understandable
  3. is safe and secure
  4. is driven by social equity and inclusion
  5. is sustainable
  6. values privacy, ethics and integrity
  7. guarantees data protection and ownership
  8. empowers diversity through self-expression
  9. innovates responsibly
  10. complements the physical world
A young woman is wearing a pair of virtual reality goggles and looking towards the sky.

Their paper is insightful and provides some important areas for discussion and research. We need developers to consider the essentials of inclusion, diversity and accessibility. Zallio and Clarkson advise that designers can learn from the past to reduce pitfalls in the future. As the Sustainable Development Goals say, “leave no-one behind”.

Diagram showing the 10 principles for designing a good Metaverse.

The title of the paper is Designing the Metaverse: A study on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Safety for digital immersive environments.

Synopsis of the paper

1. The Metaverse appears as the next big opportunity in the consumer electronics scenario.

2. Several companies are involved with its development.

3. It is extremely important to define principles and practices to design a good Metaverse.

4. Qualitative research pointed out to challenges and opportunities to design a safe, inclusive, accessible Metaverse that guarantees equity and diversity.

5. Ten principles for designing a good Metaverse embrace inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility and safety.

From the abstract

The Metaverse is shaping a new way for people interact and socialise. By 2026 a quarter of the population will spend at least an hour a day in the Metaverse. This requires consideration of challenges and opportunities that will influence the design of the Metaverse.

A study was carried out with industry experts to explore the social impact of the Metaverse through the lens of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Safety (IDEAS). The goal was to identify directions business has to undertake.

The results indicated the nature of future research questions and analysis to define a first manifesto for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Safety in the Metaverse.

This manifesto is a starting point to develop a narrative, brainstorm questions and eventually provide answers for designing a Metaverse as a place for people that does not substitute the physical world but complements it.

Caring cities are inclusive cities

Care is both a need and a service, but it is also a social value that helps qualify how services, assistance, and support are provided. The value of care aims to keep people feeling safe and maintains their dignity. And caring cities are inclusive cities. A policy paper for the World Summit of LoA narrow pedestrian street with market stalls and shops. A caring city is an inclusive city.cal and Regional Leaders at local government level proposes some thoughts on this.

A city that cares fulfils its human rights obligations as well as the needs and aspirations of everyone. Places and spaces should be available, acceptable, accessible, and affordable for everyone. This means city and community ecosystems need a new social contract to be caring. This contract should involve collaboration and be based on respect for people and the environment. 

The policy paper discusses the challenges and sets some recommendations for local and regional governments and some points on taking local action. This paper will be of interest to policy makers in all levels of government. 

Enabling Environments for Local Action

“The responsibility for caring extends across all of government. Local and regional governments need to be supported and enabled to make the necessary transformations in favour of caring systems. To this end, this paper recommends taking the following actions at the national level:

a. Enact adequate, inclusive regulatory and policy frameworks establishing the basis for green, sustainable, and accessible public services and infrastructure

b. Sustain adequate transfer and allocation of financial resources to strengthen local-level technical capacity and enable efficient implementation.

c. Establish the legal foundations to institutionalize meaningful participatory and multi-level governance that considers the whole of society, moving past political alliances and promoting government accountability at all levels.”

Joint way forward

Governments at all levels need to share responsibility for creating caring systems by collaborating with communities. The policy paper recommends establishing strong partnerships and collaboration to enable social change. Here are some of the key points: 

        • Care is a human right and a public good and universal access to it
        • Establishing collaborative platforms and social dialogue
        • Challenging the gendered division of labour of paid and unpaid care work
        • Respect for local and indigenous knowledge
        • Accessible and ethical information management

The title of the policy paper is Caring Systems and was presented at the UCLG World Congress and Summit of World Leaders held October 2022 in Korea.

UCLG = United Cities and Local Government.

Measuring transport accessibility

Transport planners are guided by regulations related to mobility, but accessibility requirements relate to what people can achieve.  Accessible transport systems cannot be measured objectively like length or weight but rather by what it enables users to do. So we need a way to merge accessibility measures with infrastructure measures. But how do you measure transport accessibility? 

Jonathan Levine presents some interesting concepts about accessibility and mobility in his discussion paper. He explores the conceptual barriers to shifting transport planning from mobility to accessibility. Levine also presents a technique for analysing project-level accessibility analysis. 

His thoughts highlight the different goals of accessibility and mobility and how they can be brought together. Transport rules and regulations are the current guiding tools focused on mobility. They are about traffic impact, land use, and transport demands. So embedding accessibility in transport planning requires some new accessibility tools. 

One of the issues with adopting equity principles is that they are usually only seen from a transport disadvantage viewpoint. But everyone benefits when their accessibility increases. Using an accessibility approach enables transport planners to focus on human performance rather than infrastructure performance. 

Ann Arbor is the subject of a case study where Levine analyses the accessibility impact on three land use development projects. This is where the paper becomes technical. 

Levine’s proposed method goes beyond the mobility focus and concepts such as the cost of congestion. The tool takes a standard traffic impact analysis and combines it with an accessibility analysis of an individual land development project. 

The title of the discussion paper is, The Accessibility Shift: Conceptual Obstacles and How to Overcome (one of) Them



Seeing Things: Haunted by design

Architect and neuroscientist Jan Golembiewski has been researching how psychologically manipulative environments can be. Design can suggest, motivate and support human behaviour – desirable or not. Haunted at Halloween is one thing, but being haunted by design is another.

Public toilet in Kawakawa New Zealand. It has large mosaic tiles all at different angles. The toilet seat is timber

In extreme cases, environments may trigger hallucinations, delusions and confusion. The effect can be even greater for people who are impressionable.

Jan Golembiewski

Golembiewski’s article in the Financial Times discusses how design is used to create feelings. “The way we respond to the environment is mostly determined by the stories they suggest.” Many ghost stories were told about the university student residence at Alanbrook Hall, but it is likely the building was only haunted by bad design.

A darker story is how architecture can be used as a weapon of war with buildings designed to intimidate. Giant bronze statues wielding swords against blood read marble walls wouldn’t make anyone feel welcome.

A tall imposing grey concrete building with four giant columns and a bronze statue to either side of the giant doorway.

In designed environments, the architect’s every decision is made to make us do or feel something.

Jan Golembiewski

The article uses many examples to show how architecture and design affects our psychology. Vulnerable people often react far more than people who feel secure and small changes can make a difference. Good environments can work wonders especially for people who are neurodiverse.

The title of the article is, Haunted by design: how buildings can make us see ghosts. “Our environments can be psychologically manipulative, triggering confusion, delusions – even hallucinations”.

Planning walkable neighbourhoods in Queensland

Front cover of the guide showing a montage of pictures: a tree-lined pathway, a group of new homes, children on a cycles on a cycle path.. Planning walkable neighbourhoods.New residential developments in Queensland must be walkable and encourage physical activity. Specific legislation requires among other conditions, connectivity, footpaths and street trees. Blocks must be no longer than 250 metres and residents must be within 400 metres of a park or open space. To help with planning walkable neighbourhoods there’s a guide. 

This move is supported by the Street Design Manual for Walkable NeighbourhoodsAnd Walkable, should also mean Wheelable. The manual is designed to help engineers, designers and planners to design more walkable and liveable residential areas. It was prepared by the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia in conjunction with the Queensland Government,

The guide covers open space, lot design, street design, active travel, public transport, landscaping and much more. At 160 pages is it comprehensive. There is a brief mention of people using mobility devices, children, older people, and parents with strollers.

Practice Notes

Front cover of the practice notes. A set of practice notes was added to the guide in 2020 and they are supported by real life examples. They cover:

    1. Walkable and Legible Neighbourhoods
    2. Increasing Trees
    3. Contemporary Lot Topologies
    4. Designing for Small Lots
    5. Rear Lane Design
    6. Design for Cyclists
    7. Building a Street Cross Section
    8. Traffic Volume

The second part on design detail was not available on the website at the time of writing. 


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