The Caring City: Inhabit not Inhibit

View from high building in Brisbane overlooking building roofs and the Brisbane river and bridges. Jacaranda trees can be seen in the street.A caring city is one that understands the dynamic relationship between individuals and their surroundings. But are our cities caring or careless in their design? Carelessness makes cities uncomfortable, ugly and dull, with traffic movement taking priority over pedestrians. This extends to a multitude of steps and stairways making access difficult or impossible for some. 

Charlotte Bates argues that we need more caring in our cities. Her book chapter is a discussion based on three case studies that illustrate ways to configure care in the design of urban environments. The examples are of an open space, a hospital complex, and a housing estate.

In each example, people are have the opportunity to come together or to retreat into private space. Intimacy and spontaneity are encouraged so that “caring spaces enable connections to be made”. As Bates says, the notion of caring design challenges the designs based on property-led narratives.

black and white photograph of an open terrace at the top of a building. It has a row of stretcher beds facing out to the view.The title of the chapter by Bates, Imrie and Kullman available on ResearchGate is, “Configuring the Caring City: Ownership, Healing, Openness”.  Or you can directly download a PDF of the document.  It was published in 2016 in Care and Design: Bodies, Buildings, Cities.

The research underpinning this chapter was funded by the European Research Council.


Building the Inclusive City

Front cover of the book.Most academic writing about inclusion, disability and urban design is based on Western culture and traditions. Building the Inclusive City, an open access book, covers a recent history of disability in city planning and the cultural context of a middle eastern approach. It brings together social sciences, politics and disability studies for an integrated approach to policy.

There are three underpinning themes in the book: disability research needs to be placed in context, access and inclusion is both local and global, and planning education should apply a disability lens to the field.

Victor sits casually and smiles at the camera. It looks as if he is sitting in a wheelchair.The book by Victor Santiago Pineda can be downloaded in full or by chapter from the SpringerLink website. It’s good to see this important book has free access. Pineda is based in California.

Table of Contents

    1. Introduction
    2. Understanding Disability in Theory, Justice and Planning
    3. What makes a City Accessible and Inclusive?
    4. The Evolving Transformations of Disability in Dubai Between 1980 and 2012
    5. Exploring Functionings and Freedoms in Dubai
    6. Laws, Rights, and Norms
    7. Laws are Not Enough: Unlocking Capabilities Through Innovations in Governance
    8. Charting Access and Inclusion in Future Cities 

The full title of the book by by Victor Santiago Pineda is, Building the Inclusive City Governance, Access, and the Urban Transformation of Dubai

The website’s introduction to the book:

“This Open Access book is an anthropological urban study of the Emirate of Dubai, its institutions, and their evolution. It provides a contemporary history of disability in city planning from a non-Western perspective and explores the cultural context for its positioning. Three insights inform the author’s approach. First, disability research, much like other urban or social issues, must be situated in a particular place. Second, access and inclusion forms a key part of both local and global planning issues. Third, a 21st century planning education should take access and inclusion into consideration by applying a disability lens to the empirical, methodological, and theoretical advances of the field. By bridging theory and practice, this book provides new insights on inclusive city planning and comparative urban theory. This book should be read as part of a larger struggle to define and assert access; it’s a story of how equity and justice are central themes in building the cities of the future and of today.”

Picture of towering buildings in the Dubai skyline with river in the foreground
high rise buildings in Dubai

Editor’s note: I travelled to Dubai in 2015 and found much of the new infrastructure very accessible. I was impressed with the air conditioned bus stop shelters. 

Care, Bodies, Buildings and Cities

black and white photograph of an open terrace at the top of a building. It has a row of stretcher beds facing out to the view.Designers are carers, but they might not see themselves this way. Everything they design has the potential to enhance the wellbeing of others. The book, Care and Design: Bodies, Buildings, Cities takes this perspective. 

Imrie and Kullman (editors) are interested in the intersection of design and care and the ways caring is expressed through design practice. They suggest that care should be considered from a societal perspective. It’s not something to be considered separately. Hence designers, among others, are potential carers in the broader sense.They discuss what makes good urban form and how easy it is to create “misfits that limit the caring potential of everyday environments”.

Their chapter, Designing with Care and Caring with Design is available on ResearchGate. The book is published by Wiley. Understanding the notion of care from this broader perspective is another way of understanding universal design. It shows how universal design is an attitudinal concept and more than just resolving inclusion issues in the design process. 

Table of Contents

  1. Designing with care and caring with design. Rob Imrie and Kim Kullman
  2. Age-inclusive design: a challenge for kitchen living. Sheila Peace
  3. Curating space, choreographing care: the efficacy of the everyday. Daryl Martin
  4. ‘I don’t care about places’: the whereabouts of design in mental health care. Ola Söderström
  5. The sensory city: autism, design and care. Joyce Davidson and Victoria L. Henderson
  6. Configuring the caring city: ownership, healing, openness. Charlotte Bates, Rob Imrie, and Kim Kullman
  7. ‘Looking after things’: caring for sites of trauma in post-earthquake Christchurch, New Zealand. Jacky Bowring
  8. Empathy, design and care – intention, knowledge and intuition: the example of Alvar Aalto. Juhani Pallasmaa
  9. Architecture, place and the ‘care-full’ design of everyday life. Jos Boys
  10. Ageing, Care and the Practice of Urban Curating. Sophie Handler
  11. Caring through design: En torno a la silla and the ‘joint problem-making’ of technical aids. Tomás Sánchez Criado and Israel Rodriguez-Giralt
  12. Design and the art of care: engaging the more than human and less than inhuman. Michael Schillmeier
  13. Afterword: Caring urban futures. Charlotte Bates and Kim Kullman

Urban life: the political and the architectural

Street scene of Oslo showing footpath dining and 2 cyclistsHow do you draw together the right to an urban life with practical policies? It’s a case of weighing up democratic values and architectural design. Urban life is more than just a place outside of home to visit. It’s also about being visible in public places – a concept much valued by people with disability. The underpinning value is social justice. Universal design is both a concept about inclusion as well as design initiatives. Finding the balance between them is the key.

A  study carried out in Oslo, Norway sought the views of urban experts. They included local government representatives, disability rights organisations and property owners. To sum up, public places can protect equality and dignity if all stakeholders share the same knowledge and understanding.  Once again, we see that inclusion requires knowledge sharing across disciplines. 

The article is titled, “Implementing universal design in a Norwegian context: Balancing core values and practical priorities“.

Excerpt from abstract:  How can urban planning processes include perspectives from people with disabilities? This paper discusses the implementation of universal design and accessibility in a local urban context. Universal design consists of both core values, such as inclusion and equal status, and specific design initiatives, such as design of pavement surfaces and benches. The aim of implementing universal designing strategies is to achieve equal access for all citizens. Based on an empirical study of an urban redesign project, I argue that equal access must imply both access to public places and to political processes.


Designing in a research lab

A person is being tested for balance in the WinterLab. She is protected by a harness.
Testing in the WinterLab

Sometimes it isn’t possible to do research in the field so that’s where research labs come in. In Toronto, Canada, they have a giant lab with several simulators where researchers can test their theories, products and ideas.

A view of the simulator from ground level. Two people stand nearby and they look very small in comparison.
One of the simulators at the KITE lab.

The Kite Research Institute has simulator labs for the design of hospitals, driving ability, and assessing falls, homes, stairs, and streets. Their website features each one of these with descriptions of what they are researching. For example, the WinterLab recreates typical Canadian winter conditions with ice and winds up to 30km per hour. It’s all done with safety in mind under controlled conditions. That includes tilting the simulator to create sloping ground. It is used to test clothing and footwear and improvements to mobility aids. 

HomeLab is a home within a lab where products are tested with volunteer participants. Researchers can observe the volunteer undertaking home activities from an overhead catwalk.  The focus of the research now is on intelligent home systems.

Research labs like these are essential for the development of environmental design and the design of products. Something as basic as stairway design can always be improved.  Have a look at their current research and the simulators. 

The video below provides an overview of the labs when they were owned by iDAPT. 

Editor’s comment: While attending a conference in Toronto I was fortunate to visit this lab. It’s an amazing set-up.


The science of universal design

An aerial view of Grand Harbour Malta showing the many bays and dense population.Can universal design be regarded as a science? As more guidelines are produced with technical specifications, there’s a danger that the spirit of the concept is getting lost. When we drill down to the skills required to design inclusively we find it goes beyond well-meaning guidelines. This is what makes designing universally a science. 

Reporting on case study of a design proposal for a floating sea terminal in the Grand Harbour in Malta, Lino Bianco explains why. The case study also includes a heritage centre, a maintenance workshop and offices. The article details technical aspects supported by drawings and design considerations.

Bianco begins with the background to universal design and how it relates to EU and the Maltese context.  As a member state of the EU, Malta is obliged to follow the legal requirements for accessibility and inclusion. 

Bianco argues that the universal design philosophy has evolved into the systematic development of design guidelines. Consequently, the guidelines have become mandatory for built infrastructure projects. This has lead to a compliance approach which is contrary to the original aims of universal design. This is why the holistic application of universal design principles is a science not a format.

His concluding comments propose that universal design should be descriptive and not prescriptive. “Adopting a performance-based approach is what UD as an applied science involves. It leads to designs with inclusive environs beyond the prescriptive requirement at law”.

The title of the article isUniversal Design: From design philosophy to applied science. 

Abstract: Universal Design (UD) philosophy is inspired by the social responsibility that no discrimination is present in the use of the built environment. During recent decades UD philosophy led to a systematic development of design guidelines for architectural and urban projects aimed at rendering the built environment accessible to all. In Malta, such guidelines are endorsed by central and local government entities and non­governmental organizations and they are covered by legislation which i s actively enforced. Moreover, the law stipulates that the planning regulator makes it mandatory that a given development permission complies with these guidelines. This ensures that no barriers can hinder the usage of a given development. The objective of this paper is to demonstrate that UD is not only a legal requisite emerging from a socially sensitive design philosophy and grounded in official design standards that ensure legal compliance, but an applied science aimed at ensuring mobility for all. Using a case study from this European Union Member State, this paper argues that setting the focus on technical specifications relating to access for all falls short of addressing the inherent interdependencies; consequently, it does not tackle UD issues. UD goes beyond the prescriptive requirement established by law and underpins a performance-based design, thereby intrinsically enhancing the quality of any given element, whether a space or a product. UD is an applied scientific discipline; it is a multifaceted, interdisciplinary branch of learning. It involves the application of current formal scientific knowledge to pragmatic scenarios in order to attain contextual specific solutions. UD is not just an applied design philosophy; it is an applied science integrating anthropometrics, medicine and design; it is universal design science.

Bianco, L. (2020). Universal design: from design philosophy to applied science. Journal of Accessibility and Design for All, 10 (1), 70-97

Including everyone in the library

A row of computer workstations line a wall. There are no people in the picture.The digital age has transformed libraries with computers taking centre stage. Library computer kiosks are part of this transition. Consequently, computer kiosks and work-spaces need to be accessible and inclusive.

In a semester long project students were tasked with designing a library kiosk using universal design principles. The process and outcome is reported as a case study. Some components were already available, such as height adjustable desks and fully adjustable seats. The technology was assessed to ensure assistive devices could be used.

The paper covers additional considerations in the design and discusses lessons learned. In concluding, the authors say accessibility is everyone’s responsibility. It is the key role of librarians to provide leadership for inclusion in all aspects of the institution. That includes facility design, collection management, technology and instruction. 

The title of the paper is, Universal Design Creates Equity and Inclusion: Moving from Theory to Practice.

This paper is not just about designing a library kiosk, it is also about educating students and other library staff. This kind of project demonstrates a leadership role for inclusion across the institution. 

Abstract: Universal design focuses on small changes that can be made to benefit everyone. Universal design principles can be applied to both physical and virtual environments and help provide universal access to technology and information. This paper provides a case study of the design of a library computer kiosk in an academic library, using principles of universal design to create a universally accessible workstation. The paper provides an overview of features included in the workstation, images of the workstation, and includes discussion of additional considerations and lessons learned from the design experience.  

Designing women in and out of urban environments

A young woman attends to a small child in a child seat on the back of the bicycle. The bike has a shopping basket.When it comes to active travel and bike riding, fewer women take up these options than men. The City of Sydney wanted to find out why this inequity exists and commissioned a study. It’s part of their overall strategy to apply a gender lens to planning. With an historical bias towards designing cities for men, the status quo in planning is likely to remain. 

Using participatory methods and a gender lens they found the drivers, enabling factors and barriers affecting women’s transport choices. The report resulting from the study is comprehensive.The key recommendations for supporting women to walk and cycle are: 

    • perceptions about women bike riders 
    • there’s a gender bias in transport planning
    • Safety beyond street lighting and cycle-ways
    • the need to work hand in hand with public transport
    • the need for end-of-trip facilities 

Women’s travel habits are more complex than those of men. That’s because of home and work responsibilities. It’s not just a case of getting from A to B. Women often have more than one stop such as school drop-offs, running errands and doing the shopping.

The report recognises that infrastructure needs to be friendly to all ages, abilities and backgrounds, not just women. The title of the report is, On the Go: How Women Travel Around Our City: A case study on active transport across Sydney through a gender lens.

There are other research reports on active travel on the City of Sydney website. Bike riding is one of the City’s strategies for mitigating climate change.


Glass stairways: Not for everyone

A curved open tread glass stairway in a New York retail store. It has little contrast with its surroundings.Architecturally, glass stairways have an aesthetic of their own, but intuitively they seem more dangerous than regular stairways. So are they, and if so, by how much? 

An observational study of two public stairways, one glass and one concrete, showed that the glass stairway had significantly more incidents. This was in spite of more caution being used on the glass stairway. Indeed, they were eight times more likely to have an incident. 

Encouraging people to take the stairs is one of the proposed strategies of healthy built environment movement. But if the design excludes users because of the design, or is less safe, this is discriminatory. And yes, there might be an elevator, but this is not equitable access. Regardless, everyone should have the opportunity to use the stairs if they wish.

The title of the study is, “The effects of glass stairways on stair users: An observational study of stairway safety”. It is open access on Academia, or you can download the 2MB PDF file.  There is an earlier stairway study on ResearchGate, “The effects of interactive stairways on user behavior and safety” by the same authors.

Abstract: The purpose of this study was to assess the safety of a winding glass stairway by observing the behavior of stair users and to identify issues that should be studied in a laboratory setting. A checklist for coding stair use behaviors was developed. Video observations were conducted in a retail store with a glass stairway (GS) and a shopping mall with a conventional stairway (CS). Key behaviors related to safety (tread gaze, diverted gaze,handrail use) and stair incidents on the two stairways (GS and CS) were identified from the recordings and compared. On the glass stairway, more users glanced down at the treads (GS: 87% vs. CS: 59%); fewer users diverted their gaze away from the stairs (GS: 54% vs. CS: 67%); and handrail use was higher (GS: 32% vs. CS:24%). Incident rates were much higher on the glass stairway (6.2%) compared to the conventional stairway(0.7%). Walking on winding treads made of glass may be more dangerous than walking on conventional materials due to reduced visibility of the tread edge or reduced friction between shoes and treads. Recent laboratory research suggests that stairway users may behave more cautiously using stairways with glass treads but the results from this study demonstrate that the benefit of increased caution can be negated in real world conditions.

Dementia design and equality

An older woman with white hair holds a bouquet of flowers to her face. Her eyes indicate she is smiling.People with dementia are not always seen as having the same human rights as other people with disability. So design for dementia is often viewed as an added extra to existing disability requirements. To help facilitate a better understanding, the World Health Organization published a guide on human rights and dementia. An article from the UK builds on these issues and provides recommendations for policy, practice and research. 

The title of the article is, Accessible design and dementia: A neglected space in the equality debate.

The article can be accessed from Sage Journals, but you’ll need institutional access, and via ResearchGate where you can ask for a free copy of the paper.

Abstract: This paper addresses the issue of accessible design in the context of dementia. It is not difficult to design buildings and outside spaces for people with dementia but you do have to follow clear design principles and values. However, unlike other disabilities, accessible dementia design is still viewed as an added extra and not a vital component of facilitating citizenship. In 2015, the World Health Organisation published guidance on human rights and dementia. People living with dementia are frequently denied their human rights even when regulations are in place to uphold them. This paper will focus on accessible design from a human rights perspective using the PANEL principles. PANEL stands for Participation, Accountability, Non-Discrimination and Equality, Empowerment and Legality. We will then conclude with recommendations for policy, practice and research to ensure that accessible design for people living with dementia does not continue to be a neglected space in the equality debate.