Co-creating urban development

The concept of universal design has evolved over the last 50 years, and so it should as we learn more about how to be inclusive. However, many authors continue to base their writings on outdated notions of universal design. So it’s refreshing to find an article on co-creating urban development that advances our thinking about the concept.

Nordic countries embraced a universal design policy for urban development at the turn of the century and continue to learn from their experiences. Universal design thinking has evolved to using co-design and co-creation methods in design processes. This the point at which Emil Erdtman takes up the ideas and develops them further.

Universal design is three things:

  • an ethical principle for inclusion of diversity
  • a vision of an inclusive society
  • a unifying approach to policy and perspectives
Drawings of 12 different people indicating population diversity.

In Sweden universal design is a guiding principle for policies, procurement and living environments. While it is applied in local projects, little is known about local practice. Hence Erdtman’s research. His explains the differences between consultation, partnership and co-creation in the graphic below.

A graphic showing three hexagonal shapes. One shows arrows going one way to represent consultation. One has arrows pointing outwards to represent partnership negotiations. One has arrows pointing to the centre depicting equal contribution of co-creation.

Consultation is a one-way facilitation process, partnership is a negotiating process between competing interests, and co-creation is equal contribution for innovation.

Erdtman describes the projects in his study and the methods he used which included conversations about participants’ understanding of universal design. The conversations allowed for critical discussions rather than “battles about words”.

Discussions about terminology are detrimental to the pursuit of inclusive practice so it was good to see the focus stayed on the concept itself. Nevertheless, universal design was only connected to impairment despite the intersectional nature of the concept. A focus on impairment hides a more general user perspective as social beings in urban life.

Co-creation at the local level

Erdtman found that universal design practice shows diversity and inspired new methods. However, changing municipal practice takes time. A concept like universal design does not replace routines of planning, negotiation and rational management.

Co-creative ways of collaborating is about integrating experiences from a diversity of people, not thinking in separate tracks. It’s about equal participation and responsibility. It is not about commenting on ready-made proposals or delivering experiences as information. Limiting accessibility as just for people with disability risks leaving out invisible needs of others.

Universal design must be contextualised

Universal design transcends conventional categories and fosters continuous improvement. It enriches urban development by integrating diverse user experiences. It must be continuously contextualised, and developed differently depending on the locality.

Universal design should inspire innovation beyond group interests, regulations and human categorisation. Otherwise it will be just another rationalistic planning model.

A large and diverse group of small plastic cartoon characters placed around a dark greet star shape.

The title of the article is, Co-creating urban development: local Swedish projects guided by Universal design. It was published in Design-for-All India. You can also download a copy in a font that is easier to read than the original.

From the abstract

This chapter contributes to knowledge about the understanding, implementation and co-creation of universal design. Interviews and group discussions were conducted and participant observation was made in three urban development projects.

The understanding of universal design was multifaceted. It is an ethical principle for inclusion of diversity, a vision of an inclusive society, and a unifying of policy and perspectives. Participants emphasised flexibility, predictability and personalised support. They linked universal design to accessibility as a separate and target group with a focus on regulatory compliance.

In the local context universal design practice will be expressed in diverse ways. Collaboration between municipalities and local disability organisations is formal and established. Different conditions and expectations created tensions about roles and interpretation of disability experience.

Disability experience is information for facilitating processes and for negotiation outcomes. However, there were conditions for co-creation.

Universal design, diversity and low hanging fruit

In the same publication there is another interesting article titled, Universal design, visualising diversity and two low hanging fruits. Here is the abstract.

To plan, design and build with diversity in mind is a complex process. While goals such as inclusion, participation and social sustainability may be present in the vision for a future product, service or environment, studies show that the initial vision isn’t always realized in the end result. There are still far too many products, services and environments that are hard to access or use for parts of the population. In this text we focus on comparatively simple, lightweight, tools – “low hanging fruits”.

Such tools are already available, there are personas, context cards, but also checklists and guidelines. Inspired by the existing work, we have developed one deck of cards, intended to serve as thought support by visualizing population diversity. In order to obtain a similar effect in digital environments (egin digital twins and other 3D environments used in planning and development) we have also developed 3D models (vehicles, devices and humans) that can be put in the digital environment, and serve as a reminder to the users of the digital environment of population diversity.

Selwyn Goldsmith and Universal Design

Architects Selwyn Goldsmith and Ronald Mace were leaders in the field of universal design. Both contracted polio in their childhood but this did not stop them from championing the disability rights movement. Today, Mace is widely recognised in the universal design movement. However, Goldsmith was very active in the UK and wrote four books. The last of which was in 2000, titled Universal Design.

Although the book is more than 20 years old, it remains a good reference for architects with some wise advice on attitude.

“The architect does not start with the presumption that people with disabilities are abnormal, are peculiar and different… [or] packaged together with a set of special-for-the-disabled accessibility standards, … presented in top down mode as add-ons to unspecified normal provision.” Image from The Guardian

Head and shoulders of Selwyn Goldsmith. Photo from The Guardian.

Today’s universal design campaigners still find this attitude within the general design community. The resistance to that paradigm change Goldsmith discusses remains 25 years on.

From the Routledge book description

Universal Design presents detailed design guidance for architects in an easily referenced form. Covering both public buildings and private housing, it includes informative anthropometric data, along with illustrative examples of the planning of circulation spaces, sanitary facilities, car parking spaces and seating spaces for wheelchair users in cinemas and theatres. It is a valuable manual in enhancing understanding of the basic principles of ‘universal design’.

The aim – to encourage architects to extend the parameters of normal provision, by looking to go beyond the prescribed minimum design standards of the Part M building regulation, Access and facilities for disabled people.”

The contents of the book include

  • Building users: Mobility Equipment; Ambulant disabled people; Wheelchair users; Scooter users; Pushchair users;
  • Anthropometric measures; Ambulant people; Wheelchair users;
  • Heights of fixtures and fittings; Mirrors; Windows; Shelves; Work surfaces; Digital code panels; Socket outlets; Vertical Circulation; Steps and stairs; Ramps; Handrails; Spaces for wheelchair manoeuvre; Movement through door openings; Entrances to buildings; Entrance lobbies;
  • Sanitary facilities; Cloakroom lobbies; WCs; Wash basins; Baths and bathrooms; Shower and shower rooms; Changing rooms and dressing rooms; Lifts; Platform lifts and stairlifts; Seating spaces; Kitchens; Bedrooms; Car parking spaces.
Front cover of Selwyn Goldsmith's book, Universal Design. Purple blue background with white text and graphic images.

Goldsmith’s first book was in 1963 titled Designing for the Disabled – an entirely new concept at the time. He expanded this publication in 1967. A third book in 1992, Designing for the Disabled – The New Paradigm, expanded his focus to children and prams. His research led to the first kerb cuts in the UK. Selwyn Goldsmith died in 2011.

10 Things to know about Universal Design

Page with 10 things to know about universal design.The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in Ireland has a comprehensive list that covers all the myths and misinformation about the purpose of universal design. Briefly, the 10 things to know about universal design are:
      1. Universal design strives to improve the original design concept by making it more inclusive
      2. Universally designed products can have a high aesthetic value
      3. Universal design is much more than just a new design trend
      4. Universal design does not aim to replace the design of products targeted at specific markets
      5. Universal design is not another name for compliance with accessible design standards
      6. Universal design benefits more people than older people and people with disabilities
      7. Universal design can be undertaken by any designer, not just specialists
      8. Universal design should be integrated throughout the design process
      9. Universal design is not just about ‘one size fits all’
      10. A universally designed product is the goal: universal design is the process
Editor’s comment: the CEUD website is looking a little dated, but the content remains valid and is good for newcomers to the topic. There are several guidelines for practitioners too.  See more detail about these 10 things and other resources on the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design website.  There are more explanations in the What is Universal Design section of this website. 

3rd Generation universal design

One of the conundrums of the quest for inclusion, is that individuals have to identify as excluded so that they can get included. That’s because the people already included are doing the including by deciding whether to invite you in. What if inclusion was thought about as “nonclusion”? This is the proposition in a paper on 3rd generation universal design.
“Nonclusive design means design that resists categorisations of bodies/roles and that does not come with predefined or presupposed limits in terms of who it is meant for.
Inclusion is one group looking at another group and thinking about "Them".
The authors say that “nonclusive design” is an essential element in the shift towards 3rd generation universal design. They define nonclusive design as a design that resists categorisations of bodies and roles. It does not come with with predetermined limits of who it is meant for. Therefore designs incorporate human diversity without reference to existing or traditional ways of doing things.
Nonclusive design is about intersectional thinking focused on unity rather than separation. The title of the paper is, Towards 3rd Generation Universal Design: Exploring Nonclusive Design. Universal design is more than 50 years old. The first generation began with wheelchair users and the public built environment. The second generation brought additional excluded groups into focus. But the real aim of universal design is to have no excluded groups at all – the 3rd generation concept.

Not yet for everyone

The authors argue that while universal design is for everyone, thinking largely remains in the first generation of universal design. By creating a new word, nonclusion, they hope it takes thinking to a place with difference is a fundamental element of being human. Creating a new word might help, but regardless, we are still thinking about a future that is yet to exist.
If we have nonclusive design, will a change of name from universal design change existing mindsets? The issue is also discussed in a 2009 paper, Turning Back Time for Inclusion for Today as Well as Tomorrow. Inclusion is problematic because it requires those who are already included to invite excluded people into the group. Semantics can be important. What we need is inclusiveness – that’s where inclusion has already happened and there are no exclusions. Inclusion is a futuristic concept because it is something we are striving for. If we were inclusive, no discussion would be needed.

From the abstract

In this paper, we identify and describe early signs of a shift towards 3rd generation UD, of which “nonclusive design” is an essential part. Nonclusive design means design that resists categorisations of bodies/roles and that does not come with predefined or presupposed limits in terms of who it is meant for. We outline seven themes characterising the shift towards nonclusive design:
  • from included to undefined users
  • from person to function
  • from adaptism to variation
  • from sparation to convergence
  • from reactive to proactive
  • from unaware to aware
  • from explicit to tacit
Graphic of stick people in various poses with the caption, "Inclusiveness,, looking at everyone
Nonclusive design directs attention to context instead of the individual, focusing on possibilities, functions and facilities. It highlights variation and unity rather than separation.
Nonclusive design presupposes awareness, knowledge and proactive development void of adaptism. It incorporates human variation without reiterating patterns of norm-deviation. We argue that the continued growth of universal design demands, is part of, and contributes to a shift in culture, with nonclusive, intersectional thinking as a key future driver. In such a culture, 3rd generation universal design can contribute as a common guiding mindset, as a source for innovation, as a way to listen for diversity Images created for the conference presentation, Turning Back Time for Today as well as Tomorrow.

Toilet signage and nonclusion

A further paper by the same research group discusses three versions of toilet signage in more detail than the paper above. The purpose is to find a way to be inclusive without depicting exceptions.
  • Addition – adding more pictograms of different persons
  • Combination – using composite pictograms
  • Nonclusion – not depicting persons, bodies or roles at all.
Image shows the version with additions
A toilet door sign with four icons: access, man, woman, baby change with a woman and a baby.
The title of the paper is, Moving beyond human bodies on display – signs of a shift in categorisation. Scroll down the list of papers to reach the paper which is in English. This paper is prelude to further research. The key issue underpinning this work is that the quest for inclusion relies on “the included” to do the including.  

Get started with universal design

The term ‘universal design’ has its early roots in the built environment, but it is so much more now. Meaghan Walls talks in a podcast about how she came to the universal design concept. She explains how universal design is now the design of everything.

a series of black icons on white background depicting people of all shapes and sizes, including a baby in a stroller, a person with a can and a wheelchair user. Universal design thinking. Universal design is about accepting and celebrating diversity as the graphic indicates. So, there are many ways to explain universal designTwo short videos can get you started with universal design thinking. 

This first video about universal design is powerful in its simplicity. One of the best explanations around. Great for introducing the idea of inclusion and universal design to newcomers. A good example of a universally designed video and universally designed explanation as well.

From the pixel to the city

Whether it’s a website or app, or a building or city, inclusive design principles can be applied. Inclusive Design: from the pixel o the city is a short video of designers’ comments, using animated drawings with voice overs. This adds A grey picture of the earth with raised areas symbolising citiesan interesting perspective to the topic of why we need to make everything inclusive – whether its about pixels or cities. It also shows that creativity need not be curtailed in designing information formats. The article also shows how the graphics for the video were created. The video has closed captions. 

The design of everything

The term ‘universal design’ has its early roots in the built environment, but it is so much more now. Meaghan Walls talks about how she came to the universal design concept in a podcast. She explains how universal design is now the design of everything.

The podcast is one of series by The Universal Design Project.  Meaghan Walls explains how she was first introduced to the concept during her master’s degree. She came to realize that it covered more than objects;

Head and shoulders of Meaghan Walls wearing a red top.

“universal design could be applied to all aspects of our community from services to programs, to processes and businesses. And that kind of blew my mind. And I realised you could take that common thread through all aspects of our engagement with the community.”

Logo for Good Fit Poor Fit podcast by The Universal Design Project.

Some nice points made in this 12 minute podcast that comes with a transcript. Walls discusses showers, invisible hinges, swing-away hinges, language, wayfinding and much more.

Evolving inclusive design is about desirability

Graphic with four vertical bars. From left Product Design, Interface Design, Experience Service, System Design.Inclusive design is about desirability.  Accessibility is part of it – useability for everyone. The concept of inclusive design in UK had a focus on product design, but it has moved on – evolved. A short film, Evolving Inclusive Design explains how the concept has evolved from product design to web design, to service design and then to system design.  

In the video Hua Dong emphasizes that inclusive design is important for everyone. She says: “As designers, we can design with people for people, design with disability for ability, design with old people for young people and design with diversity for unity.”

Hua Dong explains the concepts in a straightforward way in the film. In the earlier years the focus was on user capabilities. It then moved to an interactive focus and design became about the process of using things. User diversity introduces concepts of user experience. The video is 14 minutes but worth the watch. 

Although there is a particular focus on product and service design, many points can be transferred to the work with architecture.

The video is a great resource for design students and people new to the concepts. 

Inclusive design and universal design the same goals. However, there are some who would argue nuanced differences because they come from different histories. Regardless, we need to get on with the job rather than debating terminology. Besides, if universal/inclusive/design-for-all is also about diversity, we can have diverse ways of expressing the conceptThe key is to design for the diversity of the population.


What is universal design?

Slide at a universal design conference with the words, good design enables. Bad design disables. That is what universal design is.Universal design is understood internationally as a means of achieving an inclusive society. It is a simple idea. Why not design for the most number of people who can use a product, place, building, service or website? But is it actually that simple?

Several myths have arisen in the last 50 years since the term was coined. The term Universal Design is recognised internationally, but there are others including, Inclusive Design, Design-for-All, Human Centred Design, Accessible Design.

For easy reference here is a list of past posts and resources on universal design.

Resources for universal design

10 Things to know about Universal Design lists key benefits and dispels myths

Universal Design: Creating inclusion for everyone is a magazine article

Meet the Normals: Adventures in Universal Design, and Universally Designed Digital Life are two videos explaining the concepts well.

Whole of Victorian Government Universal Design Policy promotes universal design in public buildings. There is also a summary version. They are both in Word. 

Diversity of Explanations of UD lists some of the everyday words that can be used to help explain. UD is about diversity so why not have a diversity of explanations.

8 Goals of Universal Design express the principles in a practical way. Easily adapted to any context by using terms and language that suit.

7 Principles of Universal Design are often quoted, but not always the best explanation for people new to the topic. 

Principles of Inclusive Design by the Commission for Architecture and Built Environment (CABE) in UK. 

Hobsons Bay Universal Design Policy is a very useful example of how to devise a policy for an inclusive community. 

Digital and web accessibility have their own section on this website. 

Library building with wide level paved pathway to the entrance. Picture taken in Berrigan NSW.“UD is an increasingly important feature of nation states seeking to develop a fairer society for people unable to access and use, with ease, the designed environment. It is based on the premise that the design of products and environments ought to ‘be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design’ (Mace, 1988: 1).” (From Universalising Design website which also has more information on universal design in homes.) 

Inclusive – Universal Debate

A man in a checked shirt and wearing a beard looks as if he is talking while pointing his finger at someone.The academic debate about nuanced differences between universal design and inclusive design continue. But to what purpose? Nevertheless, it is useful to know where this began and why it continues. The Inclusive Design Research Centre in Canada explains:

“We have defined Inclusive Design as: design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.”

Is this not the same as universal design? It all depends on your perspective and whether you care about semantics or just getting the job done.

Universal design vs inclusive design

Professor Jutta Treviranus has a particular view about the differences. She founded the Inclusive Design Research Centre in 1993 in Canada. It was previously known as the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre. The Center for Universal Design was also established in North Carolina around this time. Due to its origins in adaptive technology, the emphasis began with information and communication technology. 

The Inclusive Design Research Centre website has a page spelling out their position. In a nutshell they explain why they use the term “inclusive”:

“While Universal Design is about creating a common design that works for everyone, we have the freedom to create a design system that can adapt, morph, or stretch to address each design need presented by each individual.”

They agree that the goals are the same – inclusion. However, they say the context is different because they come from different origins. Universal design from the built environment, and inclusive design from digital technology. They also claim that universal design is about people with disabilities and that the design methods are different. That is debatable. 

Followers of universal design would no doubt take issue with phrases such as “one size fits all” and that it seeks only one solution to creating inclusion. The Center for Universal Design chose the term “universal” because they could see that all people could benefit from designs that included people with disability.

Academia continues to discuss nuances when there is so much real work to be done. We need more research on finding out why we still don’t have more inclusive/universal design in practice.

Are universal design and inclusive design rivals?

Harding, in his dense academic paper, appears to base his argument on universal design being about the “widest range of users”, whereas inclusive design is about “offering everyone access”.  He then goes on to claim that universal design is “first generation” and inclusive design is “next generation”.

Using a study of transportation in UK, Harding proposes that the “rivalry” between UD and ID hasn’t helped the cause for inclusion. The barriers to inclusion are far more complex than terminology. However, terminology is very important to academics if they want to compare their work. 

Whether you use universal or inclusive, the aim is to cater to diversity, and that includes diverse ways of explaining universal/inclusive design for an inclusive world. Most academics use the terms interchangeably and include “Design for All”.

The title of the paper is, Agent based modelling to probe inclusve transport building design in practice. John Harding is based in the UK where they have stuck by the “inclusive design” term throughout, whereas Europe has favoured Design for All, and most other countries have followed the UN Convention and use universal design. Most academics recognise the convergence of concepts rather than rivalry.

The chart below provides an overview of the relationship between inclusive design elements. However, the 8 Goals of Universal Design are probably more practical and instructive. 

A chart showing the relationship between aspects of inclusive design.



UD, ID, DfA, UX: A terminology muddle

A hand holding a coloured pen is poised over a green post it note. There are drawings on the table and a smartphone. It indicates UX design.  UD, ID, DfA, UX, UA muddle.

Researchers find it frustrating not having one term to cover the concept of equity and inclusion. One term would ensure we are all talking about the same thing.  But how about practitioners? It’s confusing for them too. The aims of universal design (UD), inclusive design (ID), design for all (DfA), and user experience (UX), have the same aim – inclusion. So why should we have a terminology muddle?

Most designers and practitioners who understand the underpinning principle of inclusion, say it’s not a big deal. But shouldn’t the key issue be about implementation rather than discussing the nuances of terms? Even if we had one term, would that alter designer and practitioner attitudes towards inclusion?

The complaint about terminology among academics has resulted in many papers on this topic. New terms are proposed as a solution but serve only to confuse more. Some even put forth arguments that they are all different things. 

A paper from 2014 is still relevant today because the arguments are still current. This paper discusses historical, methodological and philosophical aspects. It’s a long paper, probably best suited to academics. It covers just about every aspect of the issues. It also draws in the ICF (International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health) and international standards which is quite useful. 

The title of the paper downloadable from ResearchGate says it all, Universal design, inclusive design, accessible design, design for all: different concepts—one goal? On the concept of accessibility—historical, methodological and philosophical aspects.

What’s it called?

Picture of the back of a house that is being built. The ground is just dirt. Overlaid are words in different colours: Adaptable, Universal, Visitable, Usable, Accessible, Disabled, Flexible Different disciplines, different practitioners, and different countries have evolved their own terms. Academics find this problematic as it makes it difficult to build an international body of research on a topic where terminology can vary so much. Regulations and codes have not helped the cause:

Editor’s note: I also wrote on this topic in 2009: Calling a Spade a Shovel: Universal, accessible, adaptable, disabled – aren’t they all the same? Or you can get the quick version from the PowerPoint presentation.


Promoting the efficacies of universally designed built environments has been one of the ongoing quests of disability and ageing advocacy groups, and more recently, governments. The underpinning principle of universal design is inclusiveness – that is, to design across the population spectrum for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. This means ensuring architectural features do not inadvertently become architectural barriers to inclusion in everyday social and economic life.

The drive for social and economic inclusion for people with disabilities has recently moved up the political agenda and new policy directions at national and state levels are emerging. Political will is a necessary but insufficient condition to guarantee inclusion if industry does not understand what constitutes inclusiveness in design, and does not understand the differences in terms used in the built environment in relation to inclusion, disability and ageing.

Using the NSW Government’s call for tenders for social housing, and an academic paper as examples, this paper discusses how using various terms such as accessible and adaptable interchangeably might defeat the objective of inclusion, and how the misuse and confusion in terminology hinders not only the uptake of universal design in a practical way, but also stymies academic debate on the topic.

Meet the Normals: Adventures in Universal Design

Stick figures represent the family members. The video is in black and white. This is one frame from Meet the Normals, Adventures in Universal Design.
Meet the Normals

Having trouble convincing others that universal design is for everyone and not ‘disabled’ design? Meet the Normals is a 6 minute video that takes you through an everyday family activity.

It shows the family leaving the house and catching a bus. It goes through the process of how to design for everyone. “For many of us we don’t think twice about how we use technology, travel, move in and out of buildings or use the web…” The video explains how universal design is good design for everyone.

The video was produced by the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in Ireland. A good example of both closed captions and audio descriptions. 

Universal Design: Creating inclusion for everyone

A mid grey doormat viewed from above with the word welcome in blue. At the bottom of the picture you can see the tops of a pair of red and white sneakers. Creating inclusion for everyone.From the Editor: I wrote an article for Inner Sydney Voice Magazine that gives an overview of universal design, what it means, and some of the myths that are often applied to it. The article will interest those who are not clear on the concepts underpinning universal design and inclusive practice. In a nutshell, it is about creating inclusion for everyone, everywhere. The title is, Universal Design: Creating inclusion for everyone.

The article discusses the differences between accessible, adaptable and universal design, housing and the public domain. Sustainability and healthy built environments are also discussed. The article remains relevant as progress towards inclusive environments is still evolving. 

Inner Sydney Voice is the Inner Sydney Regional Social Development Council.

Jane Bringolf

Principles of inclusive design

Front cover of booklet on principles of inclusive design.Universal design is diverse in its terminology and explanations. In the UK, the term “inclusive design” is used more often that universal design.

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) describes inclusive design as: 

“Inclusive design is about making places everyone can use. It enables everyone to participate equally, confidently and independently. Inclusive design is everyone’s responsibility. That means everyone in the design and construction process”. CABE has  in more detail and with photos:

1. Inclusive design places people at the heart of the design process.
2. Inclusive design acknowledges diversity and difference.
3. Inclusive design offers choice where a single design solution cannot accommodate all users
4. Inclusive design provides for flexibility in use.
5. Inclusive design provides buildings and environments that are convenient and enjoyable to use for everyone

CABE says, if the principles are applied, developments will be:

Inclusive so everyone can use them safely, easily and with dignity.
Responsive taking account of what people say they need and want.
Flexible so different people can use them in different ways.
Convenient so everyone can use them without too much effort or separation.
Accommodating for all people, regardless of their age, gender, mobility,
ethnicity or circumstances.
Welcoming with no disabling barriers that might exclude some people.
Realistic offering more than one solution to help balance everyone’s needs
and recognising that one solution may not work for all.

At the heart of all explanations is the quest to include as many people as possible in every design. The list above has similarities with the classic 7 principles of universal design and the 8 goalsBarclays Bank also has a set of principles for inclusive design for the digital world

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