Designs on equality: City planning is a mechanism of discrimination – it mainly serves the able-bodied

Okay, I admit it, the Canadian Urban Institute’s new report doesn’t exactly have a catchy title.

But don’t be deceived – Repositioning Age-Friendly Communities: Opportunities To Take AFC Mainstream, far from being a staid policy tract, is actually counselling a radical shakeup in the way cities plan.

The operative phrase is “universal design,” and the idea is to cease and desist creating public infrastructure that privileges one particular group, whether it’s car drivers, the able-bodied or those with paycheques, and start envisioning people with parallel but not identical mobility and sociability needs: children, teens, seniors, new immigrants, those on low incomes, parents, those with sports injuries or with physical and mental limitations, and those who care for any of the above.

Did I leave anyone out? This is a new paradigm for democratic planning, and, as the CUI report points out, you get to its essence when you apply the seniors test. “Design for the young and you exclude the old; design for the old and you include everyone,” the report quotes late UK gerontologist Bernard Isaacs as saying.

It’s interesting that I was looking at this study in the midst of the current showdown over transit – subways vs LRT– because in many ways the mayor has forced us to debate yesterday’s issues, not tomorrow’s. Too bad the discussion is being dominated by themes that demographics will quickly overshadow.

Public transit is currently mainly geared to able-bodied people going to and from their jobs, not to moms with strollers, people in wheelchairs or dragging shopping buggies – or seniors either. Making retrofits for inclusivity will require not only millions of dollars but also a rethink about the way infrastructure, paid for by all, often turns into a mechanism for discrimination.

Of course, a significant cadre of design experts is already familiar with the ABCs of this proposition.

If you’ve seen a clear logo for washrooms, you’ve seen universal design that’s sensitive to those who don’t read English or fine print. If you’ve not tripped at a sidewalk that slopes instead of drops to the street, you’ve walked on a design aimed simultaneously at people in scooters, athletes in foot or leg casts, moms with baby carriages, seniors with canes or walkers.

If you’ve pulled a door handle instead of twisted a knob, you’ve got a grip on universal design that welcomes those recovering from strokes or suffering from arthritis, or a child with weak wrists and arms. If you’ve walked a ramp instead of taking the steps, you’ve joined others with luggage or bicycles, those in baby carriages or on tricycles, who’ve found a way opened by this form of equality planning: inclusive mind over exclusive matter.

The City of New York, the report points out, has given pedestrians a few more seconds to cross at more than 400 intersections, with older folks in mind, and if bike lanes are constructed to suit seniors, they will work for kids, too.

Almost every service for any “minority” can be universally and economically designed to meet the needs of multiple user groups. That’s the new math behind the CUI report.

So the seniors agenda is synonymous with the one for a livable metropolis: community walkability, an end to big boxes, local service and shopping hubs so people don’t have to travel excessively, more main streets in this city that has so few,  planting trees to mitigate heat stress, benches for rest and loitering, etc.

Design can create mutually inclusive abundance instead of mutually exclusive scarcity – something that’s been lost sight of over 50 years of grievance-based pressure groups lobbying for their own causes.

But the big news is that planners now have a framing device that can give them some leverage. If right-wing politicians don’t care about moms, those with low-incomes or the disabled, they have a hard time ignoring the bloc most likely to show up at the polling booth – the one, if things go well, that everyone hopes someday to be a member of. Let seniors save the city.

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