It’s not a case of difficulty or lack of knowledge about how to make places and spaces inclusive and accessible. It has to be something else. Whatever it is, can a universal design approach make a difference? And what are the policy and political barriers to inclusion? That’s what Lilian Müller wanted to find out.
Müller’s thesis explores the complexity of why a universal design approach gets lost in planning processes. Paradoxically, solutions are not only exclusionary and stigmatising, they also add cost to projects. We have normalised “accessible/disabled” toilets, ramps and parking places dedicated to wheelchair users. These are viewed as normal add-ons for compliance with legislation. This is not a universal design approach, and it’s not inclusive.
Updating heritage buildings for tourists has lead to more inclusive places. But new buildings are not getting the same treatment.
Five ways to look at it
The thesis explores five different aspects and perspectives. Briefly they are:
One: “Young mobile and highly educated cyclists: How urban planning and policy disables users”. Older people and people with disability are made invisible, but youth, health and mobility are put to the foreground as the norm.
Two: “Planning for human diversity – patterns of universal design”. Where this worked well in projects the focus was on people and function. Universal design goals failed to materialise where projects categorised users and high demands were put on their abilities. Interestingly, universal design seemed easier to implement in existing buildings than new constructions.
Three: “Visions of a city for all – resources, choices and universal design in urban development”. Conflicting visions and goals, and resources, support and tools to implement universal design were critical aspects in the process. The challenge is to maintain an early vision and goals throughout the process.
Four: “Citizens’ experiences of inclusion, exclusion and unequal living conditions in the built environment.” Go-along interviews revealed the essential elements in being able to visit the city centre. And also, what made them welcoming and inclusive.
Five: “Who are we building for? Tracing universal design in urban development”. This study is builds on studies one and two. There are competing and conflicting interests inside the city’s organisation and between society interests and profit interests. There is also a distorted conception of user’s conditions and abilities.
When will the barriers drop?
The thesis covers all the relevant literature on the topic. When it comes to the built environment, good policy intentions fall away and a universal design approach remains elusive. Müller deals with the complexities of this dilemma in a practical way. Her findings mirror those in Australia and elsewhere.
We continue to wait for the paradigm shift from special arrangements to designs for all. A policy for an inclusive society is one thing – politically enforcing it is another.
From the abstract
The ongoing exclusion of persons with disabilities from the built environment does not result from a lack of knowledge on how to remedy existing obstacles nor of how to avoid creating new ones. There must be other reasons.
This thesis explores how to achieve more equal and inclusive environments by using universal design to incorporate human diversity in all stages of planning and construction. The thesis consists of three studies which are the bases of five articles.
The first is the theoretical framework that involves planning and construction processes and forms of governance. The second is the view of the users of the built environment and how they are categorised, and choices and priorities in the planning process. The third is theories of universal design.
The studies included a document study, a multiple case study, semi-structured interviews, workshops and go-along interviews in three cities. The findings show numerous factors that influence the conditions for how human diversity is included or not in urban development processes.
These factors include the norms and categorisations of the users, current urban building trends, and planning practices. Examples show how universal design can be implemented in the entire process – from idea to finished construction. The findings show the need for several changes.
All studies demonstrate the importance of protecting significant societal goals throughout planning and construction processes. This indicates that public actors must take greater responsibility to lead planning processes and follow up on the results.
The municipalities are at the forefront of defending social goals and operationalising conventions that Sweden has undertaken to follow. Being able to access and use the built environment is a fundamental human right.