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 However, many authors continue to base their writings on outdated notions of universal design.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.

Accessibility Toolbar