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Making the right to the city a right for all

09 July 2015 Author:

In all of the debate about whether London is becoming a city only for the rich – and what to do about it – other just as significant aspects of inclusiveness are often ignored. An example is whether in design terms cities are open and accessible to all. Inclusive planning means planning for everyone, regardless of age, ability, gender or background.

The reality is that many large cities aren’t. Consider this step-free tube map showing just how limited your choices are if you can’t use stairs in the London tube network:


 In effect, the whole of the centre of London is inaccessible to you. In a recent article in City Metric, Peter Apps discussed this further and identified some of the most and least wheelchair accessible cities.

The concept of inclusive design aims to remove the barriers that create such separation, to enable everyone to participate independently in everyday activities. Inclusivity was one of the themes in our Planning Horizons paper last year on Promoting Healthy Cities, and also the focus of a conference on Cities for Accessibility, Jobs and Inclusion I recently attended in Lisbon.

One of the key messages from the conference was that cities with such barriers worsen the health and wellbeing of those with access issues, such as some older people and the disabled. Any loss of ability to live independently and to participate in the economy and society hurts individuals, but also society and the economy as a whole. So while able-bodied people understandably might not be conscious of what London looks like if you have access issues, everyone should be.

Disabled people and their families are much more at risk of poverty and social exclusion, especially those of working age, since they are often less able to access workplaces and social services. According to the Design Council’s online inclusive hub (in which the RTPI is a partner), disabled people also have an estimated spending power of £212 billion, yet according to Disability Rights UK 83% of disabled people have decided not to make a purchase due to access issues. With regards to travel, a study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has shown that without accessible transport people with disabilities are more likely to be excluded from services and social contact; a lack of transport options is often the most important reason for disabled people being discouraged from seeking work.

In contrast, an accessible and supportive environment can support healthy behaviours during people’s lives, lower barriers to access and compensate for declines in individual mobility. For example, adaptable housing – flexible enough to accommodate future special needs users – produces public savings for healthcare and social services, as well as benefiting individuals. For older people, the ability to live for a longer time in their own house rather than going into institutional care allows them to maintain their social networks. In the UK, a cost-benefit analysis of Lifetime Homes by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown a £1,080 saving over 60 year per dwelling built in adaptation.

Despite these personal and collective benefits, in many countries there is limited or no requirement for the accessibility of dwellings and consideration for an inclusive environment. As populations are ageing in many countries, these issues need to become a priority in public policy as well as planning practice.

WHO, for example, has a useful resource page on age-friendly environments. Such resources demonstrate that ensuring the active inclusion of older and disabled people extends well beyond the labour market and requires a comprehensive approach that includes the built environment. Building inclusive cities has to be a holistic approach, encompassing housing, education, workplaces, health and social services, retail and leisure services, and culture and sporting facilities.

While many cities are failing to increase access, others have made increasing inclusion a priority. For example, Lisbon itself has created a Pedestrian Accessibility Plan team. Through GIS analysis, this team identified that the biggest barriers to better mobility in the city are cars and the lack of space for pedestrians (including pavement obstructions in many places). The focus of policy became to adapt infrastructure and to stop creating new barriers in the environment and public spaces, mobilising other city departments but also the community and the private sector.

Similarly, the city of Ljubljana adopted a holistic approach to their inclusion strategy for the disabled. This involved several city departments responsible for employment, transport and urban planning, as well as third sector organisations working for the rights of people with disabilities. A number of changes have been made to improve accessibility, including the installation of tactile paths for the blind, the re-cobbling of the old town centre, and installing lowered curbs and ramps in non-pedestrian areas. The city has also invested in accessible public transport, and today the city centre of Ljubljana is completely renovated and pedestrianised. A particular factor contributing to the success of this work is that people with disabilities regularly take part in identifying and resolving accessibility issues.

So, how can we ensure that people with disabilities can participate fully in daily activities? Some of the lessons from the conference were that first, we need foresight in the planning and design of residential neighbourhoods. Planners can help create a more inclusive society through the making of place, ensuring our neighbourhoods, cities and regions are designed to be accessible and inclusive for everyone. The RTPI’s Location of Development project will look at the spatial implications of new housing developments, including for the mobility of different groups. What are the consequences of dispersed developments for people with disabilities, for example?  Second, we need to plan collaboratively and to associate political commitment with community engagement, work with the community not only for them. Third, as the example from Ljubljana shows, a holistic approach is crucial.

For our own part, the RTPI is one of 14 key organisations which has committed to creating more inclusive buildings and design through the Built Environment Professional Education (BEPE) project. The Institute is also reviewing its Chartered membership professional development requirements and continues to promote best practice to members. But we – planners, the Institute, policymakers, city authorities and others – all need to do more if we are to make the right to the city a right for everyone.