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August 01, 2016

Designing Visually Accessible Cities

Picture yourself standing on a city street corner. 

You are absorbing the sounds of people, traffic and the hum of the unfamiliar city around you. How do you go about navigating this space, understand where you are and how to get where you want to go?  Are there signs nearby that clearly indicate the street names, are they close and easy to read, are they consistently located?  Are there maps that indicate your location and nearby amenity?

Now, imagine that you are one of 50,000 Canadians who experience some form of visual limitation such as complete blindness, or have a visual limitation such as limited field, low vision or limited depth perception.  How does this change your experience?  What aids do you require to navigate this space independently?  There are many types of disabilities, some physical, others mental, and many more that are not obvious.  Visual accessibility is only one form of disability and how it relates to urban form must be considered by planners under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

Planners can help improve this street experience by starting this think about how our urban design choices can better enable people with varied levels of vision.  Blind architect Chris Downy provides some further insights from his personal and professional experience in planning with the blind in mind.

This is not just a visual opportunity!

Enabling mobility for those with visual limitations can easily be linked to areas of planning practice that are already engaging our communities. 

Moving people through public space is the essence of wayfinding.  As our cities and communities become increasing urbanized with more people and economic activity we as planners need to become better at connecting people with points of interest in their environment.  For further information on the principles of wayfinding I recommend reading The Wayfinding Handbook by David Gibson. 

Complete streets have also become a growing theme for a number of cities designing streets that accommodate all forms of movement: they can also incorporate all forms of mobility.  A number of Ontario municipalities including the City of Ottawa and City of Toronto have already adopted both complete streets and wayfinding policies.  These two approaches both require cross-profession collaboration between planners, architects, designers and users. 

There are practical solutions

From paint to textures, audio guides to pedestrian oriented signage, practical solutions are being applied in communities of all sizes.  A podcast series by The Urbanist draws out some innovations happening around the world.

Do you want to learn more? Devin has developed a website on visually accessible cities which outlines the next steps to advance the discussion. 

Read Devin's bio

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Devin Causley, RPP

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