Our societies are becoming more urbanized. Between 1950 and 2009, the number of people living in cities rose from 732 million to 3.4 billion, and the urbanization rate rose from 30% to 50%.
The United Nations predicts that the urban population will reach 5 billion people in 2025.
This means that the architecture of our cities must adapt to the needs of those who live there by improving the number of services as well as the quality of what is provided.
The UN has also highlighted the huge problem of limited access.
Removing architectural barriers (i.e. barriers that make it difficult for people to act independently when accessing,
moving around or traveling to certain places) is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to creating urban spaces.
Although the legislation aims to prevent these barriers to access to public and private buildings, the application of these rules has not yet been generally implemented.
There are five types of obstacles that prevent people from moving freely:
- Urban barriers: Found in streets and public spaces (for example, stairs at the entrance of a building).
- Internal Barriers: Obstacles within spaces (for example, when the bathroom is located upstairs or downstairs and can only be accessed via stairs).
- Transportation barriers: Prevent the use of public transportation, the lack of elevators in a subway station is a good example.
- Barriers to use : Related to things that are difficult to use (for example, due to distance or physical limitations).
- Communication barriers: Prevent people with disabilities from communicating or receiving a message, such as no traffic lights for the hearing impaired or no Braille signage for the visually impaired.
Universal design and cities for people
There is some support available at the legislative level, and in its Guide on the Accessibility of Public Urban Spaces, the Madrid City Council says:
“It is clear that improving accessibility will increase the ease of their use, ultimately improving the quality of life.”
The document refers to “universal design,” that is, goods, products, services and devices designed for use by all types of people.
This refers not only to people with disabilities, but also to elderly people who need places to rest,
parents with strollers, people who want or need to ride a bike, and many other groups.
In her book The Caring City (Catarata, 2020), Chinchilla discusses what is lacking in urban spaces, which typically focus on productive work.
Activities such as sitting down to rest, drinking free clean water, or using public toilets are part of our daily lives, yet are rarely included in the design.
As Chinchilla explains, these things are essential for vulnerable people and “prioritizing some activities over others in the design of our cities creates environments that run counter to inclusivity.”
How to improve accessibility
Removing architectural barriers means improving livability at all levels.
According to the 2021 Fundación Addeco report, six out of ten people with disabilities stop traveling to certain tourist areas due to lack of accessibility.
Although we still have a long way to go, many organizations have begun to improve various spaces in our cities.
The European Commission, in cooperation with the European Disability Forum, presents the annual Access City Award.
All European cities with a population of more than 50,000 are eligible for the award.
Luxembourg was the winner of the 2022 edition, while Helsinki and Barcelona came in second and third place, respectively.
Avila won in 2011, making it the only Spanish city to receive this honor in the past 10 years.
Award-winning Mexican architect Gabriela Carrillo explained, “The city we live in is hostile in every way, and not just to people with disabilities.
“Existing solutions like accessible sidewalks are just band-aids for a poorly designed city.”
Carrillo offers several different ideas, including playing with natural light, transparency of buildings, integration with nature, and open spaces.
She believes that we should think about how to change the way we interact with each other, both inside and outside the home.
That’s why you focus on people and their needs rather than just choosing different materials or changing the design.
Digitization in the name of accessibility
As we move towards a new kind of urban design, we can start using digital tools.
The city of Seattle offers Accessmap, an app created by the University of Washington to help people with disabilities, who may use a wheelchair or crutches, map accessible routes.
While Wheelmap works in a similar way but is a global open source platform for people with disabilities in wheelchairs.
Anyone can identify and add public spaces that meet green standards (fully wheelchair accessible),
Or yellow criteria (partially wheelchair accessible), or red criteria (not wheelchair accessible).
Ibuild is all about making the process of building a home for yourself easier.
This tool has been selected by the World Bank as a potential solution for affordable housing in emerging countries such as Indonesia, and it allows people to control the construction process.
It also allows people to design their homes, incorporating desired elements and dividing the space to suit different needs.
Technological advances coupled with the desire to design more people-friendly cities is the way of the future for architecture.
It is a type of architecture that is accessible in every way, including one of the most important: allowing people to participate in the design of the cities, public spaces, and homes in which they want to spend their lives.
Read also: Essential tips for designing guest bedrooms