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New ‘universal design’ guide wants to make public spaces pleasant for all

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The American Society of Landscape Architects’s guide lays out best practices for designing inclusive streets, parks, playgrounds, and more

Aerial shot of public park with curving paths around patches of green.
2018 ASLA Honor Award in General Design, Tongva Park + Ken Genser Square / Santa Monica, CA, USA / James Corner Field Operations LLC.
Photo by Tim Street-Porter courtesy ASLA

When the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990, it set forth expectations around how buildings and public spaces should be designed to accommodate limited mobility. Over the years, the guidelines helped create more accessible parks, buildings, schools, and neighborhoods, but for many architects, the rules stop short of ensuring people with physical and mental disabilities have a pleasant experience in those places.

That’s why the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) decided to create a new guide for “universal design,” a fancy way of saying design created with truly everyone in mind. The ASLA’s guide lays out best practices for designing neighborhoods, streets, parks, plazas, playgrounds, and gardens that are inclusive for people of all abilities.

Instead of building spaces that cater to specific disabilities or meet quantifiable requirements, the ASLA recommends broadening the definition of accessible design to the point where a spaces account for all possible use cases. “All public spaces should be physically accessible to everyone, regardless of their physical, cognitive, or mental ability. Specific areas of public spaces shouldn’t be designed for people with specific disabilities; all public spaces should work for everyone,” the organization writes in the guide’s introduction.

And it’s not always as complicated as it sounds. The organization lays out several simple examples that prove its point: parks with wide, sloped pathways; brightly-lit bathrooms, gardens with flower beds at various heights, additional benches on the sidewalk. If all this sounds like good design 101, you’re right. It turns out that designing a space that’s accessible to people of all abilities ultimately leads to better, more thoughtful spaces for everyone.

You can dive into the guide here.