Urban Planning

How Do We Make Our Cities More Accessible?

APRIL 2, 2021

Darby Lee Young has a cheeky nickname for the nondisabled people in her life. She calls them “TABs.”

“Temporarily able-bodied,” Young explains. “Because sooner or later you’re going to end up like me. Whether you fall on the ski hill, you fall off your bike or, yeah, you just get old and end up in a chair. Sooner or later, accessibility is going to impact everybody, one way or another.”

Young, who uses a scooter, was frustrated by the barriers she faced while going out with friends—small spaces, stairs into restaurants, careless or non-existent snow-clearing—that left her feeling like an afterthought. She founded Level Playing Field, an accessibility consulting agency that helps a range of organizations implement accessible best practices.

Her business is one piece of the solution to building cities that are accessible and inclusive for more of their citizens, but it’s an invisible problem for a lot of people.

Dylan Itzikowitz of The Forward Movement says that awareness around inaccessible spaces is severely lacking and nondisabled people often don’t see it—or simply don’t care. That was his experience prior to spending eight months in a wheelchair following an accident several years ago.


The Forward Movement aims to reframe the conversation around disability by advocating for the implementation of the Dynamic Symbol of Access, pictured above.

“We as a society have become much more inclusive and vocal about diversity and inclusion, but I think accessibility and disability rights still sit far behind the rest in terms of being spoken about,” says Itzikowitz.

The Representation Equation

Another piece of the solution is casting accessibility as not only a social justice issue, but also an economic one. That’s the tact taken by the cofounders of Pedesting, a wayfinding app that helps people navigate cities both indoors and out with barrier-free routes, including accessible washrooms.

Photographer: ReeAod | Source: Shutterstock

“Good accessibility means it’s good for all of us,” says Pedesting cofounder and architect Erin Shilliday. “Society benefits on many levels, but economically is our first approach to that.” Pedesting can help by making it easier for people who use mobility aids to get around a city, eat at restaurants, go shopping, and work. That economic impact and representation—that is, more people seeing their neighbors who use mobility aids navigate the city and work alongside them—will coalesce, and more accessible design will follow, Shilliday says.

Nabeel Ramji, Pedesting’s other cofounder, notes that The Conference Board of Canada found that Canada could gain $17 billion in GDP by 2030 by substantially improving disability access. And it’s possible similar gains could be made globally.

“Based on research that we’ve done, we think that we’re the largest minority group on Earth,” says Ramji. “About 1.4 billion people in the world have a disability of all kinds. About half of those have a mobility challenge.”

For Ramji, who uses a power wheelchair, improved access—from proper snow clearing and well-designed curb cuts, to stairless access and reliable transportation—would mean being able to live a vastly more spontaneous life.

“There have been times in the past where I [did] feel isolated, [or lacked] the opportunity to be spontaneous pre-COVID,” Ramji says. “I would have had the feeling that if I wanted to do something last minute, would it work for me?”

Designing Moments of Delight

Diversity in architecture means inclusive and more welcoming cities, says architect Chris Downey. Downey had a 20-year career as an architect when he suddenly lost his sight in 2008.

The Sustainability Pavilion designed by Chris Downey in partnership with Grimshaw studio for Expo 2020 in Dubai, UAE. Pictured here: the river walkway leading down to a lower-level entry court at the center of the pavilion. The gently sloping path makes it simple for all users to queue up and follow gravity toward the entry. | Rendering by and courtesy of Grimshaw (lead architects)

“Through rehabilitation, I found myself relearning things about architecture, and about the city, systems … in terms of how it’s used by people that we’ve typically just not given much consideration and certainly not in a very creative way within the design process,” says Downey. “You think about how something visually beautiful stops you in your tracks, and you just stop and gaze at it; this is that same kind of experience, but it [is] a tactile thing.”

Architecture has been dominated by nondisabled white males “for decades, generations,” says Downey. “And that is such a narrow slice of humanity and it’s such an imperfect and incomplete slice of the human experience.”

The City of Tomorrow

The ideal city of the future looks different for everyone.

For Ramji, it’s a place where he can live a spontaneous life with easy public transit access and seamless shopping, and where he can go to a job interview without facing barriers or discrimination.

For Young, it includes a seat at every table for people who have lived experience, and not tacking on accessibility as a post-script on a building or community project.

Designed by Chris Downey, this reception area in San Francisco's LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired is designed to evoke optimism and excitement among visitors via multi-sensory strategies, including visual and acoustic design of the space, e.g., lighting and effective color contrast for those with low-vision conditions. | Photographed by Jasper Sanidad / 544 Media | Courtesy of Mark Cavagnero Associates Architects

And for Downey, it’s a diverse group of architects building beautiful, functional cities we can all enjoy moving through safely.

“There’s so many different ways of looking at things, and imagining things, and creating things, and different perspectives to embrace,” he says. “The more we can embrace those different perspectives with more and more people, the better off we’re all going to be.”

And if it is a world where he is just one of many architects working with a disability, Downey says he looks forward to that day.



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