The way we design our public space and local roads continues to change for the better.
In recent years, there has been a shift towards more inclusive design principles that account for the needs of a range of users beyond just motorists, including better provision for pedestrians and cyclists.
It’s a welcome move for the construction industry, creating attractive, engaging places that support community life and encourage more active means of travel. However, we still have work to do if we are to fully realise this ideal.
In particular, there has been a growing recognition within our industry of the need to rethink public realm design to improve accessibility for vulnerable groups.
The latest evidence submitted to the women and equalities select committee’s inquiry into disability and the built environment suggests barriers to access remain for the 11.9m people in the UK living with a disability and the 11m people aged 65 or over.
Design trends for public spaces are clearly still not delivering for all community groups. Designing a public realm that works for the whole community is challenging and complex. However, there are some simple but effective steps planners, designers, local authorities and contractors can take to create truly inclusive and accessible public spaces.
The foundations of good design
First of all, any project should be initiated with a comprehensive consultation and engagement programme to incorporate the views of different parts of the community. Insights from these processes should set the foundations for design concepts to make sure they are developed in a sensitive and practical way.
“A recent study found a lack of street benches and basic amenities in town centres was leading some elderly people to avoid public areas altogether”
For example, accessibility is a key consideration when it comes to street furniture, but this is often viewed as simply a decluttering exercise.
Schemes have seen the rationalisation of street furniture in many of our public areas in recent years, aiming to create more streamlined space by minimising street objects, from benches and lighting columns to kerbs and road signs.
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These initiatives have brought benefits for our street scenes, establishing design cohesion and removing unnecessary clutter that can obstruct access and hinder pedestrian flow. However, these schemes can also impede access if not properly managed.
A study from care and housing charity Anchor recently found a lack of street benches and basic amenities in town centres was leading some elderly people to avoid public areas altogether. The benefits of decluttering, therefore, should always be weighed against wider user needs.
A smarter approach
We all know there is no one-size-fits-all solution – hence the need for local consultation – and public realm designs therefore should always be considered in the round.
Instead of removing public seating altogether, for example, it may be possible to integrate it into quieter ‘refuge’ spaces within public areas, where vulnerable groups can avoid large crowds, ensuring the overall aesthetic of a scheme is maintained without isolating members of the community. The palette of all materials should be considered to ensure level changes are clearly identifiable and that surfaces are slip-resistant.
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Thinking about the interaction between materials, not just aesthetically but also in terms of performance and maintenance requirements, is important and will bring long-term benefits for our public areas. Selecting appropriate, durable materials that are more resistant to wear and tear, for example, will help to minimise the need for future upgrade and repair programmes, saving not only on whole-life costs but also helping to keep our public spaces usable for longer.
“The palette of all materials should be considered to ensure that level changes are clearly identifiable and that surfaces are slip-resistant”
In addition, projects should look at simple innovations that can be introduced within a wider design. Sustainable urban drainage schemes, for example, improve surface run-off, futureproofing assets against the effects of weather while also improving access for those who may have trouble traversing areas in the wet – an all too familiar hazard of poor design and material choice.
We still have a way to go to meet the needs of all users all of the time, but the solutions to creating more accessible public spaces are within reach. Ultimately, the key to more inclusive design is, in fact, to make the design process itself more inclusive.
Robust engagement processes are a good start. Closer collaboration and knowledge-sharing across the construction industry will ensure this knowledge is successfully integrated into a seamless design and construction process, helping us to create a public realm that is accessible for all.
Stephen Wojcik is head of consultancy services at FM Conway