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Truly inclusive design means a fundamental rethink of our streets

Tom Roberts iStock

Designing streets around walking and cycling has multiple benefits, argues Tom Roberts, from promoting inclusivity and supporting health to preventing disability

Inclusive design is about creating places everyone can use. In July, the UK government published a policy paper, The Inclusive Transport Strategy: Achieving Equal Access for Disabled People (ITS). This is an important topic and the strategy makes some laudable promises, but this is just one facet of inclusive design. Ultimately, we need a much broader agenda that tackles the fundamentals of how we approach people, place and design.

Survey after survey shows the main barrier to regular cycling is the perception of unsafe roads, or a hostile traffic environment. This has a disproportionate effect by both age and gender. Women are almost three times less likely to cycle than men. Simply put, many people are excluded by the basics of street design.

If we designed cities through the eyes of a child, we would probably make different choices. How many public realm schemes would actively discourage skateboarding? How many inner-city streets and spaces display ‘No Ball Games Allowed’ signs? And more crucially, would we do more to tackle the worryingly harmful levels of air pollution in so many of our towns and cities?

“Streets could also play a much greater role in preventing disability, not just adapting to accommodate”

Instead, the ITS focuses on two specific topics on streets: Shared space and pavement parking. Ultimately, the ITS recommends a review of both, asking local authorities to pause the former, but not the latter.

‘Shared space’ is a broad term, but arguably it is an approach built on an inclusivity agenda – by reducing the dominance of motor traffic and improving the pedestrian experience. But schemes have been criticised by  visually impaired groups.

This is still an evolving approach in the UK, and its critical designers act on concerns. More recently, schemes like Frodsham Street in Chester have been praised by visually impaired groups – showing that it is possible to design shared space that works for all users. Conversely, pavement parking can only serve to exclude. There has been a ban on pavement parking in London for over 40 years, and it is time this was extended to the rest of the UK.

But streets could also play a much greater role in preventing disability, not just adapting to accommodate. Several studies show there are big health benefits to walking and cycling, with significant reductions in risk of cancer, stroke, depression and cardiovascular disease. Rethinking how we design streets and providing the right infrastructure will give everyone the confidence use them.

Tom Roberts is placemaking lead (North) at Mott MacDonald


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