Cities for All: The Project Driving Global Urban Accessibility
On 3 December, an historic Global Compact on Inclusive and Accessible Cities was launched to drive increased accessibility for people with all types of disability across the world. Lucy Ingham speaks to Dr Victor Pineda, urban planning expert, leading disability advocate and president of World Enabled, to find out how the project is set to drive improvements in city design and what it means for architects
At the start of December, a campaign was launched that is set to have an historic impact on how cities approach disability access. Launched at an event in Berlin, the Global Compact on Inclusive and Accessible Cities is set to drive dramatic improvements in the accessibility of urban areas.
Launched by 130 organisations, including global disability rights non-profit World Enabled, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme UN-Habitat and the Disability Inclusive and Accessible Urban Development Network, the Compact will see a host of cities around the world commit to making their cities accessible for all citizens, regardless of physical or mental disability.
The initiative has attracted backing from Microsoft, Accenture and Mastercard, as has already seen 12 cities of a variety of sizes commit to improvements.
“We have some big ones, but we're also noticing that smaller cities want to be part of the story,” explains Dr Victor Pineda, president of World Enabled and Senior Research Fellow and visiting scholar at the Hass Institute, University of California, Berkeley.
A leading disability advocate and urban planning expert who was appointed to the US Access Board by US President Barack Obama, Pineda is passionate about the importance of accessibility, and taking a practical approach to driving change in city planning.
“As a child I was discriminated against. I had difficulty walking, and when my mother went to take me to school, she was told that I wouldn't be able to go to school, because she was told that it's better to keep me at home so I wouldn't be teased, and that I would never work or do much or amount to much, because I couldn't walk,“ he says.
“So all of this is a very personal commitment to change that narrative, but it's also a very practical approach to supporting cities in their efforts.
“Nobody sets out to build a city that isn't accessible. It's just that they oftentimes don't know how, and people don't know what they don't know.”
Dr Victor Pineda, urban planning expert, leading disability advocate and president of World Enabled. Image courtesy of the Hass Institute, University of California, Berkeley
The Global Compact on Inclusive and Accessible Cities
Part of the wider Cities For All campaign, which has been running for several years, The Global Compact on Inclusive and Accessible Cities is set to drive change by getting 100 cities to be certified as accessible over the next five years.
“We've partnered with the Union of Cities and Local Governments, which has 4,000 city governments as members. And we're going to be working with them over the next three years on a series of activation events, then we're going to create a global summit on accessibility of cities,” explains Pineda.
“ National governments can sign onto this charter, as well as city leaders and other stakeholders like universities. ”
“National governments can sign onto this charter, as well as city leaders and other stakeholders like universities.”
Some cities have already committed to the Compact, and Pineda is confident that many more will join as the initiative progresses.
“We have an initial founding group of 12 cities, and we want to grow it to 100 within the next few years.”
Supporting improved accessibility in cities
World Enabled also undertakes considerable efforts to improve urban accessibility, in the form of a rapid assessment framework that helps city leaders understand their current level of disability support, and what can be done to improve it.
“There are consultants that do accessibility audits, which are very meticulous: width of doors, slope of ramps, and that's great. We are more on the policy side so we're looking at: what do the laws say? What are the standards?” explains Pineda, adding that the role of urban leaders is also considered.“What is the leadership like? Is the mayor, deputy mayor talking about this issue, and are they also allocating budget towards this issue?”
“ We are more on the policy side so we're looking at: what do the laws say? What are the standards? ”
These issues form two of five pillars that World Enabled uses to review a city’s level of accessibility.
“The third is institutional capacity: how do you manage issues around disability, not just in one agency, but across different agencies in a government?” he says.
“That's where all of the attempts fall short, because the school might be accessible but not the bus to get you to the school, or the bus could be accessible but not the bus stop where you need to get out of the bus to move around.”
The fourth pillar concerns attitudes within the city towards accessibility, which can play a vital role in determining the level of true accessibility a city achieves.
“If we still have low attitudes about people with disabilities, we're not going to implement things fully, we're always going to have this attitude of: 'Oh, it's not really that important, there are no people with disabilities in this city',” he says.
Finally, fifth concerns sensitive participation: ensuring all types of disabilities are included and supported.
“Our organisation is representing people that have cognitive disabilities; people that have developmental disabilities; people that have psychosocial disabilities; not just people in wheelchairs. They're part of the conversation as well.”
Why architects can benefit from increasing focus on accessibility
With the Global Compact on Inclusive and Accessible Cities driving ever-greater accessibility design in urban areas, architects, argues Pineda, need to recognise that the issue is about far more than just following legal requirements.
“I think in terms of what architects need to know is that we've built a set of principles and design standards: these aren't just regulatory compliance,” he says.
“ These aren't just regulatory compliance. These are human rights ”
“These are human rights. And if you deny an alternative entrance, or an entrance where you insist that they only way to get into your building is through stairs, or you insist that there is no tactile path or something else that you're basically actively denying people of their human rights.”
Notably, with such a growing focus on the issue, he argues that practices that commit to universal design also have greater financial opportunities.
“We’ll start to see the architectural companies that use universal design be much more successful, much more profitable, have a bigger profit margin, have more revenue,” he says.
“And so I think there's a huge demand for inclusive design, and I think that there's an opportunity for us to scale it up.”