Can universal design create social sustainability?

aerial view of a big city with skyscrapersApplying the principles of universal design at the formation stage of planning can lead to harmonious, accessible, sustainable and healthy cities. This is the conclusion of a European study.

The study looked at the design and development of city space from the perspective of the varying levels of human capabilities. The overall aim of the research was to raise the quality of urban planning, and to develop tools for healthy cities compatible with the principles of sustainability. You can download the PDF of Sustainable Urban Development: Spatial Analyses as Novel Tools for Planning a Universally Designed City, by Joanna Borowczyk.

Forgotten social sustainability 

Downtown Calgary showing a pedestrian mall with tall buildings on each side. The sun is shining.When it comes to sustainability, how many people think about social sustainability as well? Environments and people are inter-linked. The Sustainable Development Goals make this clear and one unifying factor is universal design. A new book chapter investigates the issues further. 

The title of the chapter is, Forgotten sustainability: A socially conscious paradigmatic shift in design. The title of the book is Situating Design in Alberta. You can request a copy of the chapter from the authors who are from Queensland University of Technology. The webpage has this synopsis:

“In this chapter, Rieger and Iantkow discuss socially sustainable design, especially its emphasis on universal and inclusive design. They argue that social sustainability is often left out of sustainability discussions, but that there has been a history of this work in Alberta. They present a history of thinking on accessible design in Alberta, which has moved toward greater inclusion and a greater recognition and response toward complexities and paradoxes in human needs. They also explain the incorporation of these concepts in design education and a greater social consciousness toward the need for accessibility. However, they stress that this isn’t enough.

Local environments aren’t adequately accessible, which will become increasingly clear with the aging population. Like many other authors in this anthology, Rieger and Iantkow discuss local mind-sets toward design. They note that Albertans are becoming increasingly aware of accessibility issues and expect accessible environments, but that this could go even further. It is also important to encourage the population to adopt new ways of understanding the built environment and demand innovation and forward thinking in design.”

Compression and depression

View from high building in Brisbane overlooking building roofs and the Brisbane river and bridges. Jacaranda trees can be seen in the street.Compressed urban footprints might be related to higher rates of depression. Drawing a long bow here? Maybe not. In, Mind over matter: The restorative impact of perceived open space, the authors argue that the loss of natural open space could be having a detrimental affect on mental health: “By 2050 three out of four people will live in urban environments.This premium on open space will reduce vital access to the healing effects of undisturbed nature”. The article by David Navarrete and Bill Witherspoon discusses some of the neuroscience about enclosed spaces, lack of natural light and other factors and how they relate to our perceptions of the world around us. There are references for further reading at the end of the article. The article was posted on the Conscious Cities website.

Weathering the weather

A wet roadway with reflections of traffice and buildings and a person's legs walkingIf you think that the weather is something people just cope with while getting on with their lives, it might be time to think again. A new study has found that the weather has a significant impact on urban walkability.  Itai Palti explains in his article that while the elements of many cities are very similar, only some take the weather into consideration in urban design. He compares rainy London with rainy Kyoto, and points out that London seems not to care about the rain in urban design, whereas Kyoto does. The article refers to an international study, The effect of weather conditions on the seasonal variation of physical activity. It provides some interesting data on weather and walkability. While it might seem obvious that people don’t go out in the rain or heat waves, it is good to see some actual data. There are lots of links to other information in Itai Palti’s article.

How weather affects the experience of the city

Environments in an Ageing Society

Front cover of the publication.White background with purple line graphics and textThis year the topic for the annual review of Gerontology and Geriatrics is Environments in an Ageing Society: Autobiographical Perspectives. The contributors have long-standing research careers – some are well known in Australia: Edward Steinfeld, Jon Pynoos, Laura Gitlin, Susanne Iwarsson, and Sheila Peace. The chapters cover home, neighbourhood, ageing in place, and social change. Each chapter is written from the researcher’s perspective providing reflections of their experience and learning. As an academic publication you will need institutional access for a free read, or you can purchase chapters separately. Here is the introduction:

Through the autobiographical perspectives of 16 preeminent researchers and scholars of Environmental Gerontology, this state-of-the-art Annual Review critically examines the broad range of topics that comprise this interdisciplinary field. The writings of these individuals, who have contributed to and shaped the growth of the field over the past three-plus decades, trace the growth and evolution of Environmental Gerontology and provide understanding of, and insights on, the role of environments for older adults and an aging society at multiple levels.    

Hobsons Bay Universal Design Policy Statement

Three circles in blue sitting inside one another. Centre light blue is minimum BCA compliance. Next circle is extension for Australian Standards, and third all embracing circle is for universal design.
Graphic from the Universal Design Policy Statement

Hobsons Bay City Council is situated south-west of Melbourne with a significant stretch of coastal area. As with many local councils in Victoria they are keen to embrace the principles of universal design in their planning policies. As part of their access and inclusion strategy they plan to implement universal design principles in new buildings, buildings with significant upgrades, retrofits of existing buildings, features and public open space. They started with a Hobsons Bay Universal Design Policy Statement.

The policy statement includes a table where the 7 classic principles of universal design are translated into specific guidelines for council staff. The policy statement discusses the myths, regulatory framework and how to implement universal design, and how to go beyond compliance. 

A short document and a good template for other councils to use. Policy statements don’t need to be long and wordy. This one gets to the point.