Planning Magazine

Why Planning Education Should Embrace Universal Design

With billions in federal funding potentially slated for infrastructure, accessibility must be prioritized to achieve justice in the built environment. Properly training planners is the first step.

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Tongva Park in Santa Monica, California, was designed with universal features like wide sidewalks, ramps, an accessible bathroom, shaded seating, and lighting. Photo by Tim-Street Porter, courtesy of James Corner Field Operations.

Viewpoint is Planning's op-ed column. The opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the publication or the American Planning Association.

For centuries, everything from a home entrance step to park benches has been designed for a 5-foot-10 able-bodied male, an approach that excludes a majority of people.

Of the staggering one in four people who will experience a disability during their lifetime, a large portion will have limited mobility. But less than one percent of all housing in the U.S. is readily accessible to people who use wheelchairs. That's evidence that all the inclusionary zoning, progressive housing policy, and equitable planning strategies of the past half century have failed people with disabilities.

We are entering a new redesign and rebuild mode during decades of seismic change. Universal Design, or design usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible without adaptation or specialization, can be a vital planning tool in meeting those demands. It's one of the most sustainable, flexible, durable, and economical ways to create spaces that support all — but it has yet to be fully embraced by the design community.

Steve Wright

Steve Wright is a design marketing storyteller with 40 years of experience in urban design, town planning, inclusive mobility, and universal design. He lives in Miami's Little Havana with his wife Heidi Johnson-Wright, who uses a wheelchair for mobility and is an Americans with Disabilities Act expert. Contact him on twitter @stevewright64 and visit his urban design and accessibility blog. Photo courtesy Steve Wright.

As the U.S. dedicates billions in funding to new infrastructure, these principles will be crucial in building a more inclusive and equitable approach. For planners and policymakers, incorporating Universal Design into formal and continuing education at the university and professional certification levels is the first step to making that happen.

More than a checklist

Most urban designers are familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Some government agencies even have a prequalification process to train planners, architects, and engineers to remove barriers to produce compliance.

But ADA compliance alone doesn't achieve what Universal Design does; it's mired in bare minimums, measurements, and a lawsuit avoidance mentality. Too often, it results in last-minute "fixes" more interested in checking off a list than improving quality of life for people of all abilities. And good, lasting policy has never been crafted as an afterthought.

Universal Design, on the other hand, holistically incorporates livable, comfortable, and durable standers into the design process from day one. It produces spaces that are welcoming to people of all ages and abilities, including those with mobility, hearing, visual, and cognitive disabilities. By promoting housing with basic access features, access to employment that provides economic freedom, and suitable means to move from one place to another, Universal Design ensures that people with disabilities are not excluded, segregated, or set up to fail by our built environment.

Incorporating this practice and its principles into formal education would empower planners to lead the charge in creating access for all, and with creativity and innovation, not ignorance and anxiety. Mid-career leaders in the field must also be given hands-on learning that demonstrates the barriers that remain, as well as the ways Universal Design can remove them in an expedient and cost-effective way.

Importantly, both groups should be taught by experts in accessibility, including people with mobility, visual, hearing, and cognitive disabilities.

The time is now

Momentum for this shift is building. The Harvard Graduate School for Design recently published "Designing for Disability Justice," a comprehensive essay that interrogates the failings of ADA and examines the ways our built environment has failed to accommodate every body.

"I think the biggest barrier, of course, is the limited imagination that standards tend to create," Sara Hendren, a professor at Olin College, says in the article. "Because it's a checklist and a liability matter, the rhetorical framing of disability gets subsumed under that logic: a cloud over the excitement of a project, or a 'don't forget' matter of inclusion."

This should be kept front of mind as we reimagine our cities following the pandemic. Many urban areas and thought leaders are now embracing the 15-Minute City, a concept coined by Colombian-French scientist Carlos Moreno, which calls for every daily need to be met within a 15-walk from where you live. And in theory, compact, transit-rich development is ideal for people with disabilities. But the in-vogue concept is undermined by dozens of cities with inaccessible subways and elevated trains, sidewalks too narrow for wheelchairs, and recreation space in need of retrofitting to provide basic access. Without eliminating these kinds of barriers, the 15-Minute City and other concepts like it will simply perpetuate our existing failings in accessible design.

Some of the strongest forces on earth — economics, policy, politics, and a pandemic — will change the way we plan for the rest of the century. As we strive to ensure that those plans support everyone, formally teaching Universal Design at the university and professional certificate level is one of the best ways to guarantee that good planning rises organically from the diverse and unique needs of end users.


Please send column ideas to Lindsay R. Nieman, Planning's associate editor, at lnieman@planning.org.

Steve Wright is a design marketing storyteller with 40 years of experience in urban design, town planning, inclusive mobility, and universal design. He lives in Miami’s Little Havana with his wife Heidi Johnson-Wright, who uses a wheelchair for mobility and is an Americans with Disabilities Act expert. Contact him on twitter @stevewright64 and visit his urban design and accessibility blog urbantravelandaccessibility.blogspot.com.

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