Professional Practice

Universal Design

aerial view of Tongva Park
Tongva Park and Ken Genser Square in Santa Monica, California, are easily accessible to everyone from surrounding streets, feature seating with arms, wide paths and ramps, an accessible bathroom near the street, seating in the shade, consistent lighting, and diverse plant life. ASLA 2018 Professional General Design Honor Award. Tongva Park and Ken Genser Square, Santa Monica, California. James Corner Field Operations LLC / Tim Street-Porter

If we want everyone to participate in public life, we must design and build an inclusive public realm that is accessible to all. Public life can’t just be available to the abled, young, or healthy.

Everyone navigates the built environment differently, with abilities changing across a person's lifespan. The sizeable global population of people with physical, auditory, or visual disabilities, autism or neurodevelopmental and/or intellectual disabilities, or neuro-cognitive disorders will face greater challenges if we don’t begin to more widely apply universal design principles.  

While the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are typically met in public spaces like parks, plazas, streets, and gardens in the United States, these requirements are a minimum standard for accessibility. Because of their focus on technical aspects of accessibility over experiential quality, ADA standards often result in spaces that are still very challenging for people with disabilities to access, leaving them physically and mentally disconnected from public life. Many countries do not have basic accessibility requirements.  

Landscape architects and designers can apply universal design principles to create more inclusive spaces for underserved communities, which include those who experience:  

Disabilities: One billion people, or 15 percent of the worldwide population, experience some form of disability.

Aging: The global population of people over 65 years of age is expected to double, from 8.5 percent to 17 percent, by 2050, totaling 1.6 billion people.

Limited mobility: The World Health Organization estimates 75 million people, or 1 percent of the global population, require a wheelchair, with nearly a third of that group unable to access them.

Lack of community access:
 26.8 million, or 56 percent, of Americans over 65 live in suburbs, while 11 million, or 23 percent of Americans over 65 live in rural areas, with limited access to public transportation. Given older Americans prefer to age in place, rather than moving to a retirement community, neighborhoods must be designed for all ages and levels of mobility.

Neuro-cognitive disorders: Cognitive disabilities like Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are more prevalent in older populations. Some 44 million, or 0.6% of the global population suffer from Alzheimer’s. 16 million people in the U.S. alone have cognitive disabilities. Diminished sensory, cognitive, and motor skills limit people’s ability to navigate public spaces.

Neurodevelopmental and/or Intellectual Disabilities: Roughly 70 million people, or 1 percent of the world population are autistic. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 6 children in the United States had a developmental disability in 2006-2008. As of 2014, 1 in 59 children aged 8, or 70,000 8-year-olds, in the US, are autistic. Autistic people are often overwhelmed by visual stimulation, the acoustic environment, lighting, and odor present within the built environment.

Blindness and Low Vision: Worldwide, 1.3 billion people, 17 percent of the population, have some form of visual disability, 217 million people, 3 percent of the population, have a moderate to severe vision disability, and 36 million people, or 0.5 percent of the population, are blind. Intersections, poorly-lit spaces, and sudden level changes can be dangerous for people with low vision.

Deafness and Hardness of Hearing: Worldwide, there are 466 million people with a hearing disability, a number expected to grow to 900 million people by 2050. Some 70 million deaf people around the world rely on visual communication (sign language). There are over 300 documented signed languages in use around the world.

Universal landscape planning and design ensures people with disabilities can better participate in public life. These principles, which build off The Center for Universal Design’s principles, should guide the planning and design of all public spaces, regardless of intended audience: 

Accessible: All public spaces should be physically accessible to everyone, regardless of their physical, cognitive, or mental ability. Specific areas of public spaces shouldn't be designed for people with specific disabilities; all public spaces should work for everyone. 

Comfortable: A feeling of safety is the baseline for feeling comfortable, but an inclusive sense of belonging helps everyone to feel comfortable in a space. Universal design offers options for people with a range of abilities and disabilities, fostering feelings of belonging. 

Participatory: Landscape architects and designers should always co-design with people with disabilities. Abled landscape architects and designers won’t know all of the difficulties that people with disabilities experience in environments designed without them in mind. Disabled landscape architects and designers can also bring their unique experience and understanding to create more accessible spaces. Note: Some people, such as those with advanced dementia, may not be able to clearly articulate their challenges with the built environment. In these instances, landscape architects must work with healthcare providers to create solutions. 

Ecological: Exposure to nature and green space is proven to provide mental, cognitive, and physical health benefits for people of all ages and abilities. Universal design should provide these benefits throughout the built environment, creating spaces people want to visit and spend time in, while fostering ecological resilience and supporting biodiversity. 

Legible: Clear and understandable designs, with very legible multi-sensory signage and signals, help people of all ages and abilities to understand how to move through spaces. Delineating places of movement and relaxation can help people understand how spaces are meant to function as well.   

Multi-Sensory: Navigation in the built environment depends almost entirely on visual cues. Incorporating design elements that can be accessed through different senses provides other systems of navigation. For example, the use of auditory, haptic, and textural cues can aid in wayfinding and enrich experiences for all.

Predictable: Maintaining the same clear and understandable design cues throughout a public space creates predictable environments for people of all ages and abilities, increasing comfort and safety.

Walkable / Traversable: Often, people with disabilities are limited in the distances they can travel. In too many communities, walking or using a wheelchair are not options because the environment has been designed primarily for cars. Walkable / traversable communities, which feature wide sidewalks and bicycle lanes, provide amenities like shops, restaurants, and medical facilities nearby, meaning those with limited range can manage and maintain many aspects of their lives independently. 

A special thanks to our expert advisory panel for their guidance: Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities, AARP; Brian Bainnson, ASLA, founder, Quatrefoil Inc.; Melissa Erikson, ASLA, principal, director of community design services, MIG, Inc.; Emily O’Mahoney, FASLA, partner, 2GHO; Clare Cooper Marcus, Hon. ASLA, professor emerita of architecture and landscape architecture and environmental planning, University of California, Berkeley; Danielle Toronyi, OLIN; Alexa Vaughn, Associate ASLA, Deaf landscape designer at OLIN.

The guide was written by Ian Dillon and Jared Green. 
This guide is a living resource, so we invite you to submit research, studies, articles, and projects you would like to see included.





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