Footpath clues: where are they?

Research by Guide Dogs NSW/ACT reveals there are new footpath and urban design challenges faced by people with low vision or blindness. The research is part of a longitudinal study to understand what environmental and footpath clues are needed and used. Tactile indicators are only part of the story even when they are present and properly placed.

A total of 622 people with low vision or blindness from around Australia took part in the survey. Many challenges impact their confidence in getting out and about. New-style urban design features are creating additional challenges.

Image from Walking for Everyone Guide

A woman wearing bright blue clothing is holding a white cane while walking along a residential street.

The first survey was conducted in 2015. The 2023 survey revealed new challenges not mentioned in the earlier survey. Micro-mobility, shared paths, shared roads, and crowd protection barriers are now on the list of challenges.

Shared paths

The application of shared paths has increased significantly since 2015. Consequently, this emerged as a major issue in 2023. The speed and unpredictability of cyclists and micro-mobility users means these paths feel unsafe.

Flush finishes

Another new and popular urban design feature is flush finishes. Not surprisingly, 80% of respondents lacked confidence in crossing roads when the footpath and road were at the same level. Places where the road and footpath are level are often found in shared zones and flush finish intersections. Respondents over the age of 65 find these finishes particularly unsafe.

The absence of clear distinctions and continuous finishes hinder straight-line navigation. This is made worse by street furniture, goods displays and outdoor dining positioned along the building line.

Flush finishes at intersections with traffic lights where there are no gutters, kerbs or kerb ramps are a significant challenge. With multiple lanes of traffic in both directions, together with buses and light rail, create high levels of anxiety for safety. Consequently, they are often avoided.


Key wayfinding factors for safe travel are based on maintaining a straight path, safe road crossings, and knowing where it safe and hazardous. This is regardless of whether the person is using a cane, a guide dog or their remaining sight.

Kerb ramps are vital markers. People who are blind or have low vision know to pause and assess the situation. They also reinforce appropriate guide dog behaviour when approaching roads.

Read more about this research in an article in Access Insight. It’s titled, Environmental clues: Using them and losing them. The article explains why newer street and urban design features are preventing people with low vision or blindness from equitable use of our public domain.

From a universal design perspective, many design features that are essential for some, are also good for others. Children are taught to stop at kerbs for safety, and older people prefer clear separation between footpaths and other zones. People with neurodiverse conditions, including dementia, also need clear signals to navigate the built environment.

Walking is supposed to be good for us, but not if street design causes anxiety and prevents people from making journeys.

Waterfront Accessible Design Guidelines

More than twenty years ago the various levels of government committed to an upgrade of Toronto’s waterfront area. The Waterfront Toronto organisation was formed at that time. Since then parking lots and derelict buildings have given way to distinctively designed neighbourhoods. At the end of 2023 the Waterfront Accessible Design Guidelines were published.

“A key part of Toronto’s waterfront revitalization is providing safe, easy and enjoyable access for everyone to the shores of Lake Ontario.”

Image from the Toronto Waterfront Accessibility Guidelines

The Guidelines aim to go beyond minimum compliance and refer to many other guidance documents. For example, street design, pedestrian crossings, and cycling infrastructure.

An accessible waterfront

The section on the Waterfront covers docks and piers, gangways, canoe and kayak launching, and recreational fishing nodes. Boardwalks, pedestrian bridges, and water’s edge all receive attention. The Wave Deck is an interesting feature – more of an art installation than a place to walk or wheel. It is described architecturally as “whimsical” and inspired by the undulating shorelines. Because of the design, a separate and level path of travel is provided.

Liveable communities

The focus of this section is on the design of streets, play spaces, seating, and wayfinding. The advice for streets without kerbs is to have different surface finishes for the different zones. However, it is not clear how people who are blind or have low vision can negotiate these streets. This section does not include housing developments.

The guiding principles for the Guidelines are:

  • Nothing without us
  • Raising the bar for diversity and inclusion
  • Promoting wellness
  • Pursuing design excellence
Aerial view from Toronto Tower across the bay and waterfront showing buildings, roadways and a marina.

The guide is titled, Waterfront Accessibility Design Guidelines: Creating an Accessible Waterfront. The waterfront webpage has more general information about this extensive redevelopment and other documents.

Emergency awareness and universal design

A smartphone with a map and wording of Fires Near Me. It is the app of the NSW Rural Fire Service. It helps with emergency awareness.

Why do some people appear unable to take in what is happening around them in an emergency? Being able to act quickly requires a good sense of the situation. However, not everyone has a sense of emergency awareness. Consequently they find decision-making difficult and fail to act appropriately. A Norwegian study has investigated a universal design approach to mitigate this lack of awareness.

In an emergency, sight, hearing, use of hands and ability to concentrate can all be impaired. Smoke, dust, cold, noise and paralysis from fear can affect anyone’s ability to think clearly. Smart phone apps are a good way of reaching people quickly with important information, but do they account for likely cognitive and physical changes?

The issues and solutions for “situational disability” are outlined in a technical paper from Norway. It raises our awareness that individuals are likely to behave in unexpected ways during a disaster. With an increased rate of climate-based disasters, and the move to digital information systems, this is a timely study. The underlying concern of how people respond is an important one. The paper shows that universal design principles can guide the way in compensating for a lack of emergency awareness.

The full title of the article is, Towards Situational Disability-aware Universally Designed Information Support Systems for Enhanced Situational Awareness.

Emergency Design: Designing as you go

A woman is sitting on the ground and is being helped by a person in protective clothing and a hi vis vest. The woman looks distressed.

Designing FOR an emergency IN an emergency requires a different design approach to existing tried and true methods. When urgency is the driver of design, processes and methods need a re-think. COVID-19 is a clear case of designing for an emergency during the emergency. So how can “designing-as-you-go” be done?

Designs for emergencies, such as wars or an earthquake, are usually devised before the event. Or they are designed after the event in preparation for future events. The COVID pandemic arrived without notice and few countries were prepared. Hence the need to design for the emergency while it is happening.

A different approach

A case study from Brazil shows how a totally different design approach was required. Rather than using standard methods the researchers took an organic approach to the problem. It was basically designing on the run. The process encouraged the inclusion of people who are often marginalised. While history tells us that Brazil is has not fared well during the pandemic, the study still has value for future situations.

Their approach is based on qualitative techniques. They relied on the knowledge of local people and processes of working together in a horizontal rather than hierarchical format. This approach also allowed participants to see how they could deal with the current situation as well as improvements for the longer term. 

“As a path, we point out the importance of identifying areas of convergence of interests, the creation of win-win policies and the daily encouragement of a culture of collaboration at the differing levels.”

The title of the paper is Design amid Emergency. It charts what they did, how they did it and what they learned from the process. Identifying areas of common interest and developing win-win policies to encourage a culture of collaboration was key. In summary, they found the co-creation design process the key to success. It can lead to improved quality of life in both the short and longer term. It also helps to embed resilience within the population. 

The government saw the value of co-design with citizens. It remains to be seen if they actually follow through on this networking approach to solving issues.

From the abstract

This article presents the process for the “Design of services under the COVID19 emergency social protection plan”. It was drawn up by a team of researchers and designers from Porto Alegre in collaboration with the Porto Alegre City Government.  The focus was on the provision of essential benefits to homeless and other vulnerable people during the pandemic.

The process was developed for the designers involved: without prior notice, within very short time frames and completely remotely, using only digital platforms. As such, the process was developed to respond to the emergency and amid the emergency. The objective of the article is to discuss how to design amid emergency.

The experience was guided by the methodological principles of action research and research through design. In addition to presenting the design results solutions aimed at the short, medium and long term. This article highlights the need to aim for the recognition of difference, the suggestion of alternative views, social innovation, the systemic transformation of society and sustainability.

Evaluating cognitive accessibility

Taking a cognitive perspective to architectural design is something architect Berta Brusilovsky Filer is passionate about. So she has written a book about it, Evaluating Cognitive Accessibility. Her free book is open access with the help of La Ciudad Accesible with the hope of reaching more people.

Cognitive accessibility is a fundamental aspect in the design of public spaces in the urban environment. At last this topic is receiving more attention in schools of design. The concept takes in easy reading, spatial orientation, signage and processes of interaction.

We rely on our brains to process information to make sense of the environment around us, but we don’t all process information in the same way. Consequently, if we design in a way that assists attention, perception, memory and problem solving, everyone benefits. Reducing cognitive load (too much going on) and maximising comprehension are key principles for independent movement around urban environments.

The book draws on the disciplines of architecture, social science and neuroscience, and presents an evaluation methodology for designers. However, it also provides a recent history of neuroscience and the role our brains play (or not) in making sense of things.

Lots of examples and photographs enhance this PDF publication. The chapter on recommendations covers the many elements of spatial orientation. The concluding chapter addresses the importance of involving people with cognitive conditions in the design process.

The full title of the free book is Evaluating Cognitive Accessibility: Scientific keys to strengthen the role of the evaluator with functional diversity.

Aged care design guidelines

Designing aged care facilities is a specialised endeavour but it can include some universal design thinking, such as co-design processes. Some aspects of these specialised designs have application in the design of mainstream homes and neighbourhood places and spaces. The new National Aged Care Design Principles and Guidelines are worth looking at for that reason.

Design Principles:

  • Enable the person
  • Cultivate a home
  • Access the outdoors
  • Connect with community

Plus, co-design processes involving all stakeholders.

Front cover of the National Aged Care Design Principles and Guidelines. Yellow background with black text.

The Aged Care Design Principles and Guidelines is a comprehensive, evidence-based resource designed for anyone with a stake in residential aged care. This includes accommodation providers and design professionals, staff, regulators and policymakers, and older Australians and their families.

The four design principles underpin the guidance which includes residents with dementia. Around half of aged care residents have dementia and half have reduced mobility. As expected, the designs benefit others with age-related health and care needs. Staff needs are also included. The key point is the importance of ‘home’ to residents – a place that reflects people’s needs and aspirations.

Six Personas

Personas cannot take the place of real people, but they are useful for explaining design ideas. That’s because they often provide the ‘why’ of a design. The guidelines use three resident personas, and three staff personas.

Each design principle has an objective and details on how to achieve it. For example, the objective for ‘Enable the Person’ is to support people to maintain health, wellbeing and sense of identity. Scenarios for residents and reasons why some things are important lead to checklists and a narrative for positive outcomes.

Mainstream applications

Considerations such as noise and clutter are just as relevant for people with dementia living in their own homes. Acoustic comfort is especially important for people with hearing loss, and everyone benefits from clean air and good lighting. Tonal or colour contrast becomes more important as people age rather than the fashionable all-white colour schemes.

The guidelines for bathrooms, ensuites and kitchens also have elements that help people in their own homes as well as home care staff. The main point is make them safe without looking like a hospital.

The title of the guideline is, National Aged Care Design Principles and Guidelines. The guidelines include design checklists and links to supporting evidence. Photographs enhance the publication.

Think about the windows

Guy Luscombe cover pic

Architect Guy Luscombe recently returned from a study trip in Europe focusing on living arrangements for older people.  His comprehensive report featuring case studies from Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and Netherlands, reveals eight key design features important to older people. Windows was top of the list.

He says, “The traditional ‘nursing home’ and ‘retirement village’ are not only outdated, they can actually foster separation and ‘otherness’, isolating people from their family, friends and interests. The aim of this project is to explore how architects can design better environments for older people that improve their enjoyment of life. It starts with rethinking some of our design language.” Many in the universal design movement would agree with this.

Luscombe found 8 key design features with windows as the first priority for both light and seeing out into the neighbourhood. He makes some good comments. For example,

“Aged-care buildings are necessarily beset with constraints and regulations, some good, some outdated. However, many of the regulations put in place to ‘protect’ older people are very often seen as key design features of the building. They become the ‘end’ product. Buildings are seen as either compliant or non-compliant, rather than, say, promoting wellbeing and liveability.”

Download Guy Luscombe’s report which includes several excellent photos. It’s titled the NANA report

Spaces for all ages: three guides

Population ageing is a global phenomenon and the policy response is to focus on aged care and congregate living. The majority of older adults live in ordinary neighbourhoods, in ordinary homes. This policy blind spot means that anything to do with ageing is seen as a health or care responsibility and not an urban planning one. We need places and spaces for all ages and that means planning policy has to catch up with demographics.

It’s likely that ageist stereotypes underpins the policy blind spot. The World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly Communities Framework covers all aspects of life. Assumptions based on ageist stereotypes might also be why education is not on the WHO’s list.

Image: Eight Domains of Age-Friendly Cities by WHO.

The 8 domains of the WHO Age Friendly Cities Framework. They are presented in a circles and listed as: transportation, housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication and information, community support and health services, outdoor spaces and buildings.

An article in Rethinking the Future briefly covers the issue of population ageing from a global perspective. High income countries are reaching the peak of their population ageing where up to 30 percent of the population is over 60 years old.

Making cities age-friendly is everybody’s business. It is the business of policy, planning, housing, transport, social services, corporations, small business, etc. The article introduces three guides for age-inclusive cities and public spaces.

The Alternative Age-friendly Handbook for the Socially Engaged Urban Practitioner discusses actions such as mapping, auditing, fixing and collaborating.

Age-Inclusive Public Space is a book that documents interaction with 19 practitioners – architects, geographers, psychologists, and social scientists. Each has a view of designing, using and transforming public space to be more inclusive.

Shaping Ageing Cities focuses on 10 European cities facing ageing populations. This report looks at the built environment, housing, mobility and digital environments.

The article concludes by saying cities will have to adapt to changing needs with inclusivity – age-inclusive design practices. There is a short reference list at the end.

Design for the autistic community

The Autumn 2023 Access Insight magazine has an article by John Van der Have on designing for autism. He introduces a design guide by Magda Mostafa and her work on design for the autistic community.

Van der Have begins his article with an older medical description of autism (ASD) and some statistics. As many people know, sensory overload is common for people within the neurodivergent community. Too many sights, sounds, smells and tactile experiences can cause stress and anxiety. That’s why the choice of building materials and systems need additional consideration.

Minimising noise and unwanted sounds through good acoustic design is a vital criterion. But how much acoustic insulation is enough, and how much is too much? Questions such as these have implications for construction costs.

A man is placing headphones over his ears. He is facing away from the camera. The background is blurred from traffic or public transport.

Biophilic principles are beneficial for everyone, but for the autistic community, these elements can enhance their sense of wellbeing. Natural lighting, natural ventilation and views of nature are especially helpful.

Van der Have discusses educational settings and a time-out room where children can still learn in a supportive environment. A calming space at home, as well as a room fitted out to suit a child’s preferences is also a good idea.

As we begin to understand autism and neurodiversity, it’s possible there will be moves to regulate suitable designs. However, regulation should not be needed if designers take action themselves to be more inclusive. Van der Have’s article is on page 18 of Access Insight. It is titled, Design for People on the Autism Spectrum and introduces the work of Magda Mostafa.

Autism friendly design guide

Magda Mostafa, an architect and researcher, developed a design framework for incorporating the needs of the neurodivergent community. The framework is based on 7 design concepts:

  • Acustics
  • Spatial Sequencing
  • Escape
  • Compartmentalisation
  • Transition
  • Sensory Zoning
  • Safety

In Cities People Love, Mostafa talks about her experiences as an architect working as an autism design consultant. She says designers have to rethink the tools they need. A human-centred approach to design, such as focus groups, assumes everyone is able to speak and participate. She wants to see the principles from the Autism Friendly University Design Guide applied more widely.

The Autism Friendly University Design Guide was developed in collaboration with the Dublin City University and is applicable in other settings. The first half of the 116 page detailed guide covers the research, and the second has the guiding principles. Mostafa’s work is worth following for anyone interested in designing for neurodivergence.

This edition of Access Insight also has an article on water safety for autistic children on page 4.

Aged care design principles

While the principles of universal design aim to enable people to stay in their own home for as long as they wish, the principles are also applicable to aged care settings. Four principles underpin the Australian Government’s National Aged Care Design Principles and Guidelines. These principles are:

  • Enable the person
  • Cultivate a home
  • Access the outdoors
  • Connect with community

The four principles are, of course, applicable to any dwelling or place of accommodation. This is an example of universal design where specific features are essential for some and good for everyone. Consequently, the document is useful for anyone designing any type of home.

Front cover in bright yellow of the National Aged Care Design Principles and Guidelines.

The guideline provides detail on each principle. For example, the first principle covers acoustics, air quality, lighting, tonal contrast, supportive seating and comfortable temperatures. Before and after illustrations as shown below provide additional information. At the end of each sub-section is a checklist.

The authors have chosen to use six personas to bridge the gap between abstract concepts and lived experience of residents and staff. Three personas for each group is possibly too few and runs the risk of limiting a designer’s vision of the breadth of diversity. For example, cultural diversity is considered, but other characteristics such as marital status and sexual orientation are not.

The outcomes for the resident personas are explained alongside each checklist. They provide some of the “why” certain features are required by individuals.

Overall, this is a useful guide for aged care in any context – indeed for all people. After all, home is the centre point of our lives. Below is a page from the guidelines showing before and after illustrations.

A page from the Aged Care Design Principles showing before and after designs.

Social Value Toolkit for architecture

Design impacts both social and economic value to a community, but how do you measure and track it? The RIBA Social Value Toolkit has the answer. The Toolkit makes it easy to evaluate and demonstrate the impact of design on people and communities. A research project by the University of Reading provided the evidence for the Toolkit.

“If we cannot define what we mean by value, we cannot be sure to produce it, nor to share it fairly, nor to sustain economic growth.” (Mazzucato, 2018)

“Social value is created when buildings, places, and infrastructure support environmental, economic and social wellbeing to improve people’s quality of life.” (UK Green Building Council)

Front cover of the Social Value Toolkit. Deep blue with light blue text.

The underpinning concepts for the Toolkit are based in the wellbeing literature. Social value of architecture is in fostering positive emotions, connecting people, and in supporting participation. The Toolkit has two parts. A library of post occupancy evaluation questions, and a monetisation tool that links to other post occupancy evaluation processes.

Eilish Barry says that if we don’t define and measure the social impact of design, it will be pushed further down the priority list as costs rise. Generating social value is useful for potential future residents as well as designers and developers. Barry poses five recommendations for industry in her Fifth Estate article:

  • Knowledege sharing is vital
  • We need a common language
  • Social value should be part of the design process
  • Methodologies need to be flexible
  • Opportunity for collaboration (Eilish Barry pictured)
Eilish Barry is smiling at the camera. She has dark brown hair and is wearing a black top.

The Social Value Toolkit

The library of questions means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They cover positive emotions, connecting, freedom and flexibility, and participation. Each of these has a monetary value attached.

The dimensions of social value in the built environment context.

A diagram showing the dimensions of social value in the context of the built environment. Jobs, wellbeing, designing with community, learning, using local materials.

The approach to monetising social outcomes is based on Social Return on Investment. There are several different ways to measure this.

  1. Value for money: Willingness to pay extra for something you value.
  2. Time is money: The value of savingtime.
  3. Subjective Wellbeing valuation: Putting a value on wellbeing – most appropriate to understanding the impact of design on end users.

The Toolkit references the UK Social Value Bank, an open access source that contains a series of values based on subjective wellbeing valuation. There is also an Australian Social Value Bank with resources.

The Toolkit is briefly explained on the Royal Institute of British Architects website where you can download the 2MB document. Or you can access the document here.

Architecture & Design online magazine also featured this topic with more from Eilish Barry.

Dementia friendly outdoors

We know that people want to stay home as they age. This does not change for people with dementia. Staying safe at home also means staying safe in the neighbourhood, not just at home. That means we need a dementia-friendly outdoors.

Ash Osborne writes in the Access Insight magazine about dementia and outdoor environments. Although dementia is NOT a normal part of ageing, one in ten people over the age of 65 experience dementia. It is the single greatest cause of disability for this group. 

A black and white paved area. The black pavers are laid in an "S" shape and look like a long black snake against the white pavers. Not very dementia friendly outoors.

Osborne takes us through the key design elements that support people with dementia as well as other groups. Depth perception often changes and that means strong changes in contrast can be perceived as steps or a hole. This can lead to falls.

Sun cast shadows through a pergola with large beams create shadows on the footpath that look like steps.

Wiggly lines in paving and sun-cast shadows from a pergola are similar situations. A black mat at a doorway looks like a hole in the ground and pooled lighting can be confusing. So the images show what NOT to do.

Distortions of perception are not just experienced by some people with dementia. So, once again, think universal design.

hallway with lighting across the floor making it look like steps.

Osborne’s article, Age and Dementia Friendly Outdoor Spaces is an informative introduction to the topic. 

Dementia and urban design

In Improving the lives of people with dementia through urban design, Barbara Pani presents four brief case studies: a gated community, a dementia-friendly city, intergenerational housing, and health services at a neighbourhood level in a social housing estate.

The article provides technical information and in the conclusion raises several points. Retrofitting existing buildings could be better than a massive redevelopment.

Consideration of people with dementia could also be good for the wellbeing of people with mental health issues, and the importance of developing social spaces at the neighbourhood level. 

Many people with dementia are able to live independently for several years before they need constant care and support. Studies are showing that the design of the built environment is influential in supporting people with dementia to maintain their sense of well-being and independence.

Out and about with dementia

Getting out and about is good for everyone’s physical and mental health. However, the fear of getting lost or confused when outside the home prevents many people with dementia from leaving home. Consequently, they tend to limit their time away from the house. But with good planning and community help, people with dementia can maintain the benefits of walking and taking a holiday.

“I am a person.

Sometimes people like to go for walks, even people with dementia. Sometimes people get lost, even people without dementia”

Taken from Kate Swaffer’s poem, ‘Wandering along the beach’. (2014)

Front cover of Walking with Dementia.

Dementia Australia has two booklets, Walking safely with dementia, and Travelling and holidays with dementia. These booklets are designed for people with dementia and their families. However, the information is good for communities who want to make their places and spaces dementia friendly.


The walking guide features strategies people can take to make sure they stay safe and know what to do if they become lost. They can be as simple as carrying identification and establishing familiar routines and places. The section on safety involves avoiding crowds and disorienting entry and exits. Double entry and exits in shopping centres can cause confusion for people without dementia. Directional signage on the way out of the toilet is useful for everyone.

Dementia Australia has a Dementia-Friendly Communities program where people can learn more about dementia and how they can help. There’s a list of things you can do if you meet someone who may be lost.

“My mother has dementia, but her life continues to be enriched with fulfilment. We went on a cruise last year that provided us with uninterrupted time, gave me some time to relax and just be there for my mum while our needs were taken care of. It was difficult at times, but so rewarding to have shared this time together”

Front cover of Travelling and holidays with dementia.

Travelling and holidays

Similarly to the walking guide, careful planning is key to success. The holiday booklet covers travel by sea, air, car and public transport. There’s a checklist of things to consider and how you can plan to optimise your level of capability. When it comes to accommodation, it’s useful to notify hotel staff. Some hotel accessible rooms might be more comfortable.

There is nothing in this booklet for transportation agencies for people with dementia. However, it gives travel and accommodation providers insights into the lives of people with dementia and their families.

Accessibility Toolbar