how can universal accessibility help improve post-pandemic city life?
Disability inclusion is one of the social issues that have been gaining prominence in recent years as an essential part of sustainable development. This social approach, based on a human rights perspective, is amplified by the importance of disability inclusion in urban planning, design, and mobility.
When it comes to plan and design cities for productive social life, universal accessibility has a lot more to contribute. The participation of people with disabilities in the social and economic life of cities is enhanced by a built environment that consciously includes their mobility and accessibility needs. This principle is already understood and applied in Nordic and most OECD countries.
Evidence shows that “while creating inclusive societies will involve financial investments, the costs of inaction – economic and otherwise – dwarf any programmatic expenses”
The current coronavirus pandemic and the need for social distancing is reshaping city life and revealing the need to rethink urban planning, design and mobility for a new concept of sustainability and resilience. In this context, many classical demands from disability inclusion have become critical needs. That is why the universal accessibility contribution must be brought explicitly to light in order to help on adapting environments, infrastructures and services to post-pandemic city life.
For this to be possible, the first thing is understanding that although disability inclusion is founded on a human rights approach, it covers different areas. Universal accessibility in cities is the area oriented to adapt the built environment to human’s scale, putting functional diversity at the center of technical development, design and planning. In addition to improving the quality of environments and services for the entire population, it multiplies the options that PCDs have in their daily decision-making process.
Recent data from cities that have been experiencing social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic shows that mobility patterns are changing. LCities around the world registered a reduction in public transport ridership, where passenger numbers are down 70 to 90%. These changes had led some cities to invest in urban interventions that can adapt streets and infrastructures to the needs of social distancing, most of them connected to universal accessibility principles applied to urban design and planning:
Controlling and assessing mobility patterns. Mobility restrictions have been implemented around the world limiting the time, schedule, and distance of trips. Assessing mobility options and patterns in different city areas made it possible to evaluate the possibilities of public space in relation to density and functional limitations.
Signaling the distance. Communication and signage in the streets have been improved to warn and inform about distance measures. Also, different types of sensors are being used to show awareness of distance between individuals.
Expanding pedestrians’ areas. The circulation space for pedestrians and non-motorized means of mobility have been expanded.
With this humane, universal and futuristic approach, what are the urban planning and urban design principles for disability inclusion that can help on shaping post-pandemic city life? Five ideas are synthesized below:
Planning and designing for city life: reducing distances is essential for accessibility. Improving access to public goods and services in different city areas improves life quality for all, especially for people with disabilities (PWDs). This means planning and designing a city that provides the maximum accessibility for the maximum human’s functional diversity level.
Planning for safe and accessible pedestrian mobility: reversing the mobility pyramid from 80% dedicated to vehicles to 80% dedicated to humans. This is a radical but necessary change. Using origin – destination principles for pedestrian mobility planning at the interphase between housing and neighborhood, and to the public transportation network. Prioritizing accessible pedestrian routes that “guarantee the non-discriminatory use and an autonomous and continuous mobility for all people“.
The need for public open spaces at the neighborhood scale: optimizing mobility and access for the first and last mile using standard parameters for 5, 10, and 15 minutes of displacement from the access point. The Singapore urban mobility model comes to mind. Also, providing neighborhoods with green and recreational areas and parks accessible for all, even as “urban acupuncture”. A principle successfully applied in Medellín.
Health must be part of the equation: both physical and mental health needs of citizens must be addressed. The role of public space as a complement to housing has been evidenced in the pandemic. Spaces to walk for fun and for health must be created. A walk-easy parameter for street re-design, sidewalks that accommodate more pedestrians, particularly those with disabilities. Also the impact of urban planning and design over health must be systematically considered.
Understanding disability inclusion also as urban productivity: universal accessibility can provide a quantum leap in urban productivity. A clear example is that designing public transportation vehicles and stops with maximum access to the maximum functional diversity improves service efficiency and frequency. The benefits are not only for PWDs, but also for operators and society.
Around the world, experts from different areas are reflecting on the announced “new normal” for social and economic life in cities that must come after Covid-19. It is not yet possible to determine how “new” it will be, but certainly this unprecedent situation that affects the whole world presents an opportunity to help on creating inclusive cities, aligned with the key commitments of the Global Compact on Inclusive and Accessible Cities. Universal accessibility is key for promoting more just, productive, efficient, and inclusive ways to live in cities, that can remain once the pandemic is left behind. For all humankind.
Guest Author: Eliana Pires de Souza
 BANKS, Lena M., POLACK, Sarah. The Economic Costs of Exclusion and Gains of Inclusion of People with Disabilities: Evidence from Low and Middle-Income Countries. International Centre for Evidence in Disability, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. 2017
 PINDADO, Pilar V., LÓPEZ, Fernando A. La accesibilidad del transporte en autobús: diagnóstico y soluciones. IMSERSO. 2006.