Everyone navigates the built environment differently, with abilities changing across a person’s lifespan. One billion people, or 15 percent of the global population, experience some form of disability. The global population of people over 65 years of age is expected to double by 2050, totaling 1.6 billion people. Universal design means that everyone, regardless of ability or age, can access and participate in public life.
ASLA’s guide provides a comprehensive view of which communities are underserved by the built environment. It also offers a set of new universal design principles that address the needs of deaf or hard of hearing, blind or low vision, autistic, neurodevelopmentally and/or intellectually disabled, and mobility-disabled adults and children, as well as concerns for older adults. These include: accessible, comfortable, participatory, ecological, legible, multi-sensory, predictable, and walkable/traversable.
“This guide serves as an entry point into Universal Design, asking designers to assess our existing design models and projects, and to include disabled folks as stakeholders and experts in the design process,” said Alexa Vaughn, Associate ASLA, a landscape designer at OLIN. “As a Deaf landscape designer, I am elated that landscape architects, designers, planners, elected officials, and beyond have started to think about Universal Design.”
Landscape architects, urban planners, elected officials, and community advocates can implement these real-world solutions in their communities to ensure that the built environment is accessible to all.
“As our society ages, those of us involved in creating public places must understand the unique challenges that accessing public spaces has for older adults,” said landscape architect Brian Bainnson, ASLA, founder of Quatrefoil, Inc. “The simple concepts captured in this guide provide clear, achievable steps that will make our public spaces safer and more accommodating for everyone.”
More About the Guide
The ASLA Guide includes hundreds of freely-available case studies, research studies, articles, and resources from non-profit organizations around the world.
Projects and solutions are organized around different types of public space that landscape architects and planners design: neighborhoods, streets, parks and plazas, playgrounds, and public gardens.
New design principles identified ensure that public spaces are:
Walkable / Traversable
The guide was developed with the assistance of an advisory group that includes disabled landscape architects, designers, and experts: Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities, AARP; Brian Bainnson, ASLA, founder, Quatrefoil Inc.; Melissa Erikson, ASLA, principal, director of community design services, MIG, Inc.; Emily O’Mahoney, FASLA, partner, Gentile Glas Holloway O’Mahoney & Associates; Clare Cooper Marcus, Hon. ASLA, professor emerita of architecture and landscape architecture and environmental planning, University of California, Berkeley; Danielle Toronyi, OLIN; Alexa Vaughn, Associate ASLA, Deaf landscape designer at OLIN.
The guide was written by Ian Dillon, master’s of landscape architecture candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jared Green, senior communications manager at ASLA.
At Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., DeafSpace, a concept developed by campus architect Hansel Bauman, is now guiding the development of buildings and landscapes in order to better address the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing people, which also results in better spaces for everyone. Gallaudet University — the oldest university for the deaf community in the country and the only university in the world where all programs and services are designed with deaf and hard of hearing people in mind — is creating a new 2020 campus master plan that expands DeafSpace beyond the buildings and into the historic campus designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and the surrounding neighborhood.
DeafSpace is focused on five key elements that impact how deaf and hard of hearing users navigate buildings and landscapes: sensory reach, space and proximity, mobility and proximity, light and color, and acoustics.
The focus is on these elements because they are too often overlooked in the design of the built environment. And as Alexa Vaughn, Associate ASLA, a deaf landscape architect at OLIN, demonstrated through a project she called DeafScape, DeafSpace principles can be readily applied to many types of landscapes.
Bauman has been the campus architect at Gallaudet University for 15 years. In a conversation on Gallaudet’s campus, he said the masterplan is guided by Gallaudet’s heritage, its desire for sustainability, and its need for accessibility.
Understanding and interpreting the history of the campus is central to the development of the new master plan. Gallaudet was founded as a school for deaf and blind children in 1857 and was granted the ability to confer college degrees in 1864. Fredrick Law Olmsted designed the 99-acre campus in 1866 to include campus buildings, a small farm, and a large forested area. At the time of the university’s founding, it was outside the planned area of Washington, D.C. The area immediately surrounding the campus has subsequently urbanized over the last century and a half.
The original campus and its buildings, which are now on the National Register of Historic Places, were mixed-use; academic and private life was integrated. A working farm mixed with academic instruction, professors and students lived in the same buildings, and academic and living spaces lined the same hallways. Daily life happened throughout the campus core, resulting in what Bauman calls “vibrancy.” For the deaf, communication is primarily visual, and the centralized core of the campus offered a visually-accessible space interwoven into daily life. “Olmsted created a scuffy, working, living landscape.”
Olmsted was successful in establishing corridors for visual communication, while planting trees that created shade. He didn’t plant any understory that would block sight lines. But it is unclear if he deeply understood the issues facing the deaf and hard of hearing community. Bauman points instead to the original buildings on campus as models: higher ceilings and large windows bring in more natural light, glass transepts over doorways let deaf and hard of hearing people see if rooms are occupied or not, and the mixed use of buildings help create a sense of life.
During subsequent campus expansions in the 1970’s, unfriendly large Brutalist buildings were introduced along the north side of campus. This expansion was necessary in part because of the Rubella outbreak of 1964 and 1965, which resulted in nearly 20,000 babies born with Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS), which can result in deafness. Many of these buildings were designated as dorms, separating academic and private life. The vibrancy found in the heart of the campus was stretched out, preventing a central visual zone for daily life.
Restoring the vibrancy of campus is the primary focus of the 2022 campus plan. Maintaining visual connectivity throughout the center of campus will be balanced with planting more shade-giving trees. Many of the sidewalks will be widened to allow groups to sign to each other comfortably while walking through campus. For Bauman, “aesthetics are something to experience, not to look at.”
Using urban designer Jan Gehl’s methodology, Bauman and his students have been mapping the vibrancy of the current campus by observing and recording when, how long, and where people are moving through the campus or stopping to communicate, then turning this data into graphics. Using the historical documents of the campus, the designers are also creating similar maps for past configurations of the campus. These maps allow Bauman to see where students are avoiding spaces because the built environment isn’t conducive to visual communication and where design interventions would be the most beneficial.
The team at Gallaudet University are already using data from these analyses and applying DeafSpace guidelines to improve navigation throughout the campus. The new Kendall School Division II Memorial landscape design conforms with the principles, said Elizabeth Brading, director of program development at Gallaudet. There have also been piece meal efforts to plant more trees to create more shade and reduce glare in between buildings, update lighting, and expand sidewalks, explained Christopher Hoffman, a campus architect and manager of design services.
The university is partnering with the JGB Companies and the DC department of transportation to develop the corridor, which will include the first new public landscapes designed with DeafSpace principles. The goal is to better integrate the edge of the historic campus into the neighboring, gentrifying Union Market area and create a whole district accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing community.
In order for the design teams competing to understand the challenges the built environment present to deaf and hard of hearing individuals, architects and designers were asked to close their eyes and rely on touch and smell, so they could better understand the importance of these senses for those who use them to mentally map spaces.
Bauman said the development’s new streets will include 12 to 15-feet wide sidewalks that are consistently lit, ensuring people using sign language and lip reading can see one another. Circular seating will allow groups of varying size to sign to one another while maintaining a visual connection.
Lightweight, flexible seating will incorporated, allowing deaf and hard of hearing people to arrange seating so they can face one another. High tables offer people places to set down coffee, bags, or other items and use both hands to sign.
2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus’s founding in the city of Weimar, Germany by architect Walter Gropius. The legacy of the Bauhaus has been felt throughout nearly every design discipline, in part because of the towering stature of its faculty and their many game-changing works of architecture, design, and art, but perhaps more deeply because of the body of theory produced, practiced, refined, and extolled at the school.
The ABC’s of Triangle Square Circle is a new edition of the 1991 collection of essays edited by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller that uses text, images, and experimental graphic compositions to explain Bauhaus art and design theory. “Triangle Square Circle” is derived from a theory that artist Wassily Kandinsky put forth about the intrinsic properties of the three shapes and their association with a primary color. As Lupton and Miller state in the introduction: “This is a book about theory. A theory is a principle that attempts to explain diverse phenomena, a concise concept capable of shedding light on countless situations.”
Bauhaus theorists saw simple geometric forms as the essence of natural, organic shapes. The bookend essays, Elementary School by J. Abbott Miller gives insight into how Bauhaus theorists reduced landscape and natural forms to simple geometric ones, and Beyond Triangle Square Circle: Fractal Geometry by theoretical physicist Alan Wolf explains how Bauhaus thinkers tried but ultimately failed to acknowledge nature’s complexity in their theories on geometry.
In 1925, Gropius designed a new complex for the Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany, moving the campus from Weimar. The architecture designed in the international style became the emblem of Bauhaus architecture and thought, despite architecture not being taught at the school until 1927. The building is the centerpiece, a sculpture among a sea of rectilinear patches of grass, with ankle-high fencing to prevent people from walking on the green spaces. The landscape of the Bauhaus campus is a formal exercise, a decoration of the plinth the building sits on.
In Elementary School, J. Abbott Miller focuses on the development of the core principles of the Bauhaus through the creation of Friedrich Frobel’s kindergarten (or child garden).
As Miller explains, the name was “metaphorical as well as literal: early in his career as a teacher, Froebel discovered the importance of play in education and made gardening a central part of his pedagogy.” While gardening was lost in the Bauhaus school, playing with shapes and composition was fundamental to Bauhaus teachings.
The focus of Frobel’s teaching were a series of “Gifts and Occupations” comprised of geometric blocks (gifts) and basic craft activities (occupations). The gifts increased in complexity as the child progressed through the educational system, culminating in enough complexity to construct representations of their world with the blocks. The children began to see the world as a construction of basic elements, a theme continued and propagated by Bauhaus teachings.
Distilling the complexities of the world to their intrinsic properties became a central tenet of the Bauhaus. For Kandinsky, these often resulted in complex representations comprised of basic shapes and lines.
The practice of geometric simplification began in early education and continued through the university for those studying at the Bauhaus.
It is no wonder then that the complexities of natural forms were represented by rectilinear green shapes in the landscape of the Bauhaus campus in Dessau. They didn’t have the geometric language to represent the complexities of natural forms; fractal geometry wasn’t discovered by Benoit Mandelbrot until 1975.
In Beyond Triangle Square Circle: Fractal Geometry, Alan Wolf explains the mathematical principles of fractals as an abstraction of natural geometries that cannot be expressed through an intrinsic or simple geometry, only through an increasingly complex internal relationship between its parts.
Bauhaus’ attempts to distill all natural elements to their essences doesn’t work in a chaotic world. Today, complexity is central to our contemporary understanding of how natural and cultural systems work. For example, landscape and ecological processes, rather than formal qualities, guide projects like Fresh Kills Park by landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations.
The Bauhaus’ use of geometry to represent the world still holds, but the geometry we use to represent it has evolved alongside our updated conception of nature as an interwoven set of systems interacting in increasingly complex ways.
As Alan Wolf writes: “since the discovery of fractal geometry in 1975, it is no longer possible to represent nature with a starter Lego set limited to such simple forms as triangle, square, and circle. Now we know that we need an advanced set of building blocks, which includes fractal forms of various types.”