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.
The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, a new book from designers and curators Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps, is a compelling survey of the emerging field of sensory design. The book accompanies an interactive exhibit of the same name by the authors on display at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum through October 28th. While The Senses is not quite the manifesto for multi-sensory design practice its authors claim it to be, the book captures the poetics and science of sensory design and in doing so conveys some useful lessons for landscape architects.
Sensory design’s historically-narrow application has broadened as our own understanding of the senses has gained sophistication. Add to that the potential of emerging technologies to create and augment sensory experiences, along with the urgent need for more inclusive design, and you have the swell in popular attention the field is currently experiencing.
It’s worthwhile to ask whether, as landscape architects, we are guilty of treating hearing, taste, scent, and touch as second-class senses. Put to any landscape architect that the senses other than sight are important and you’re likely get a nod of agreement. What isn’t as clear is whether this acknowledgment commonly manifests in our design work.
Sensory experience commands greater consideration in landscape architecture than most design fields, and so landscape architects are better attuned to their designs’ effect on the senses. But we often conceive of and deploy landscape architecture as a palliative to harsher environments than rich sensory environments in and of themselves. As to how we might improve and innovate in this regard, The Senses offers some inspiration.
The first step is to bring to sensory design the same level of critical thought brought to visual and spatial design. What are the qualities of an environment where all five senses have been weighted equally in the design process, not simply manufactured under “the tyranny of the eye”?
The Senses features an interesting case study in San Francisco’s LightHouse for the Blind and Visually impaired. There, light and space are maximized, materials are chosen for their acoustic properties over their appearance, and details such as tapered handrails and textured steps are integral elements, not tacked-on details.
One recurring practice among The Senses’ featured designers that has an application for landscape is layering. Layering allows for the creation of environments rich with hierarchy and nuance.
Snarkitecture’s undulating wallpaper, Topographies, is one example, as is the Rich Willing Brilliant Studio’s attitude towards lighting. According to these designers, sound, smell, light, flavors, and texture can be layered to form thresholds and barriers, ceilings and corridors. If this seems architectural, that’s intentional. Perfumer Christophe Laudamiel stresses the multi-dimensional quality scents take on when layered and allowed to develop volume. Laudamiel is a master of evoking landscapes with his scents, such as meadows dense with wildflowers and the Bosporus Strait.
If there’s one project in the book the offers a more grounded idea of how landscape architecture and sensory design can interface, it is Tactile City. Expanding on existing tactile paving systems, Tactile City illustrates how streetscapes can be designed to benefit the visually impaired. Highly-textured paving tiles can signal features of the environment to someone relying on a walking stick. Indications of street furniture, bus stops, or construction can be imprinted in the landscape. “Sensory design can shape the beauty and function of a place – and address dangers and obstacles,” the authors write.
Much of the exhibition and book is concerned with new technologies: The Scent Player, emitting smells instead of music, or a device that converts reverberations against the skin into dialogue for the deaf. These technologies, while not immediately translatable to landscape architecture, underscore the fluid nature of our senses. The authors do an excellent job of conveying how senses feed and play off of one another. Sights can trigger smells can trigger tastes, with past experience setting some of the rules for these exchanges.
Experience of the landscape should engage all of our senses. Sensory design is about maximizing that experience and making sure others of differing abilities can as well. The Senses is a worthwhile read for landscape architects wanting to pursue these goals.
“Dementia used to be viewed as a psychological problem, a mental illness. There was a stigma associated. Now, we know it’s an organic problem related to cell death in the brain. It’s a medical condition,” said P.K. Beville, founder of Second Wind Dreams, at the Environments for Aging conference in Las Vegas. Dementia, which includes diseases like Alzheimer’s, some forms of Parkinson’s, Lewy body disorders, and others, is now called a neuro-cognitive disorder. It affects more than 5 million Americans and their families.
Throughout the conference, perhaps the major focus was how to orchestrate a shift to more empathetic or patient-centric care for those with neuro-cognitive disorders. Just like with autism, it’s now understood there is a spectrum of neuro-cognitive disorders. One person with the disorder is really one person with the disorder. Designers, physicians, and researchers are partnering to better understand what it’s like to have a neuro-cognitive disorder and then create more sensitive processes and empathetic spaces that can help alleviate the pain these patients experience while institutionalized in memory-care facilities.
With these disorders, there is a loss of cognitive abilities. Our ability to hear, speak, read, and understand come from different parts of our brain. If there is cell death in these areas, then forging understanding connections with others becomes much more challenging. For many of these patients, long-term memory may be intact, but not short-term episodic memory. Also, semantic memory, which deals with abstract concepts, and procedural memory, which helps people remember how to get from point A to B, may be damaged. With the loss of abstract memory, “the goals or intentions of life is lost,” explained Terry Zborowsky, a researcher with HGA architects and engineers in one session, which is why they need “so many cues from the environment.” The loss of procedural memory means those care environments become incredibly confusing, so designers must be really thoughtful to make them more legible.
In her keynote, P.K. Beville said she wants caregivers to better understand why patients with neuro-cognitive disorders behave the way they do. When this is achieved, we can create spaces to better meet their needs. For example, Alzheimers patients in advanced stages “don’t get warning signals when they have to go to the bathroom.” All of the sudden it just comes on and they have to go. If the bathroom is far away, they may miss it and then be labeled incontinent and placed in briefs. “That’s a horrible threat to their dignity. How can we get them to their bathroom faster?” Some ideas: make the bathrooms more easily accessible via hallways, instead of hiding them, and put them in direct line of sight from beds.
Patients with neuro-cognitive disorders often have macular degeneration, which will put a large black spot in the middle of their vision. Their peripheral vision will also be significantly degraded. Their field of view is then limited to just a few feet, which is why they often look down to see where they are going. Beville said, knowing this, “it’s really silly that caregivers are still sitting to the sides of patients when they feed them. Imagine this fork flying out of space into your mouth.” When a patient balks or refuse to eat, they are then labeled difficult and that behavior gets “charted.” It makes much more sense to sit directly in front of the patient and create dining spaces that enable this.
In neuro-cognitive patients, degeneration of the reticular activating system is “what’s causing all the mess. It removes what’s important, causing a loss of focus. When this area of the brain is damaged, the brain picks up all sensory input, relevant or irrelevant.” These patients will hear everything — a door being slammed, a vacuum cleaner, a TV, and even the HVAC system. A dog barking or baby crying will be incredibly painful. When these patients are overwhelmed, they will begin to rock or become agitated. It’s important that memory care facilities then eliminate all sounds that can cause an annoyance. “The dining room can become a cacophony of sound. No wonder the residents don’t want to eat.”
Beville has created an amazing virtual reality tour that demonstrates what it’s like to have a neuro-cognitive disorder like Alzheimer’s. Working with leading medical professionals, researchers at Georgia Tech, and patients, she modeled the effects using goggles, which layers the effects of macular degeneration on whatever you are looking at; gloves that reduce fine motor skills; and headphones that mimic the aural sensory overload these patients can experience. Some two million caregivers in senior facilities have taken the tour.
At the conference, she modeled the newest iteration of the tour using Samsung Gear virtual reality (VR) headsets, instead of goggles, which augment a user’s field of view. The woman who tested it said it was a “terrifying experience.” She said she had “no perception of depth or peripheral vision; it was very hard to hear. I was very, very anxious.”
Studying the responses of the caregivers who have taken the tour, Beville found they exhibit the same behavior as those with Alzheimer’s and other neuro-cognitive disorders. They mumbled or hummed in an attempt to focus and block out the extraneous noises. They were agitated, wandered, rummaged, made negative statements that indicated they felt overwhelmed or depressed. Just 8-10 minutes in the headset caused some to have “strange or bizarre behavior.” Now imagine someone struggling with this condition for years.
Through the tours, Beville found older patients with this condition need “three times the light to see than younger people.” So facilities and their landscapes need to be well lit. The reaction time of the pupil is also delayed, so any changes in lighting causes major issues and should be avoided. Noise needs to be reduced to eliminate distractions. And patients want clear guidance — “something to do” — to help them focus.
After taking the tour, more caregivers agreed with the statement that neuro-cognitive disorder patients “don’t get the care they need.” The tours then help facilities begin to institute performance-based systems to improve quality of care. After taking the VR tour, caregivers say they will be “more patient and understanding with patients, will take more time and provide more attention, and communicate better.” Beville and her group are measuring the changes before and after sensitivity training to demonstrate improvements, which can be measured in adaptive behaviors among patients (engagement, communication, wayfinding, and social integration) and maladaptive behaviors (aggression, confusion, disorientation).
In another session, we heard how to take empathetic design to the next level. Architect Alana Carter, with HGA architects and engineers, explained how she checked herself into a healthcare facility she was redesigning, pretending to be a stroke victim with degraded capabilities on her entire left side. She was fed, washed, and helped in the bathroom. She called the experience “extremely humbling,” but it gave her insights into what needed to be done better from a patient point of view.
Carter and her colleague Zborowsky called for “walking in the footsteps” of patients first, using a comprehensive design methodology to uncover design solutions that will improve environments for aging. Their teams put GPS tracking devices on staff and patients and apply sensors that generate heat maps to understand the flow and popularity of areas in a facility. This kind of analysis can reduce inefficiencies in layout and help discover what features patients feel most comfortable around. Using VR headsets, HGA then prototypes Revit designs of new spaces in real-time, working with caregivers to optimize layouts and features. Finally, they test implemented designs through comprehensive pre- and post-occupancy reviews.
Carter concluded: “We need to move design for seniors out of the care facilities and into museums, galleries, movie theaters, and the home. We need to bring empathetic design to all places. We need to design for the outliers.”
The senior population is growing. By 2050, a third of the U.S. will be 65 and older. The World Health Organization, AARP, and other organizations have called for more age-friendly communities, with parks and open space that offer what seniors needs to feel safe, but not enough are heeding their call. One question that came up in a session at the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Seattle is whether future parks need to be designed to be inter-generational, or designed specifically for the elderly. Two academics and a landscape architect argued the research shows seniors do better when they are around all age groups, but they need specific things to feel safe and comfortable in parks and other open spaces. If they don’t have them, they are far less likely to venture into these places.
Lia Marshall, a PhD student at the Luskin School of Public Health, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), said older adults have a preference for “aging in place,” meaning staying in their community. They need independence. This group — like any other broad category — is amazingly diverse, both socially and culturally. Walking is their most common physical activity, so “distance to the park affects use.” But many older people are also at the risk of isolation, which can result in mental health problems. This group is also among the least active, which can also lead to physical health issues.
Parks are too often created for children or able-bodied adults. But they can be designed with a set of aging principles. Through a set of 8 focus groups conducted with elderly about their park use in Los Angeles, Marshall found that they all share “an enjoyment of natural beauty, with an appreciation for tranquility, plants, and fresh air.” Being in a park encouraged social interactions, which led to more physical activity. “Group activities — like Tai Chi in the park — lead to friendships and more exercise.”
But the elderly polled were also fearful, with their greatest fear being falling. “Breaking a hip can mean losing their homes and moving into a retirement facility.” For them, other primary threats were “disrespect by younger generation, robbery, drugs, and crime.” Environmental threats include: “uneven ground surfaces, trash caused by the homeless, a lack of visibility with walking paths, a lack of shade, and excess heat or cold.” Those with canes, walkers, and wheelchairs feel even more vulnerable outdoors. Marshall pointed to a park right next to a senior center in Los Angeles that wasn’t used by the elderly because “gang members are there.” Overall, “seniors are afraid of their communities but also want to be involved.”
Improve control: Provide orientation and way finding with large, visible fonts. “The park layout needs to be legible.” Signs should be 54 inches off the ground or lower, so people in wheelchairs can also see them.
Offer greater choice: “Everyone values options, such as passive or active recreation, sun or shade, single or multiple seating. Chairs should be movable.” Brozen emphasized that the group older than 65 is incredibly diverse, from “not old to advanced dementia,” so they have different needs.
Create a Sense of Security: “There should be shade but not too much so it feels enclosed.” Parks should enable “eyes on the street.” Isolated areas need good maintenance. Sidewalks should be wide and smooth. Check spaces between paved and unpaved areas to make sure there aren’t spots where a cane or wheelchair can get caught.
Accessibility: If a park is a good distance from a senior facility, add benches along the way so there are place to stop. Parks should have no more than a 2 percent grade for those in wheelchairs.
Social support: Design should facilitate interaction. Parks can feature bulletin boards, outdoor reading rooms, sculptures and fountains that help start conversations.
Physical activity: Parks should also feature mile markers for encouragement. “These kinds of things are low impact, high benefit.” Exercise machines should be under shaded areas.
Privacy: Use buffer plants to reduce street noise.
Nature: Bring in water features, which are relaxing and beautiful. Make sure they are wheelchair accessible. And lastly, parks should highlight natural beauty.
For Portland-based landscape architect Brian Bainnson, ASLA, Quatrefoil Inc, and ASLA Oregon Chapter Trustee, there is even more that can be done, beyond A.D.A. requirements — and, really, the guidelines listed above. “ADA is really just the bare minimum. It leaves out so many users.” Bainnson said when designing for seniors, “you are really designing for everyone, but there are other hazards you have to be aware of.” For example, contemporary parks often feature these sleek, backless, armless benches that are essentially useless for the elderly. “Without an armrest, they can’t lower themselves into the bench or get out of it, so they just won’t use it.”
Bainnson recommended the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) guidelines, which call for “scheduled, programed activities that create park use; access ramps; raised beds; a profusion of plant-people interactions; and benign and supportive conditions.”
Plants should appeal in all four seasons. Park and garden designers need to be aware of wind direction and the sun path to create both wind-free and shaded areas. He added that designers must reduce sharp differences between light and dark. “Hip fractures from falling can occur as the elderly navigate the transition from deep shadow to bright light. They think it’s a step and they can trip up. There should be a middle ground, a transition zone.”
Bainnson has designed more than 20 therapeutic landscapes, including the Portland Memory Garden and parts of the Legacy Emanuel Children’s Garden. The Portland Memory Garden, which is designed for users with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia as well as well as their care-givers and families, is an enclosed loop, with a central entrance and exit, which is not only soothing to those suffering from dementia but ensures they don’t wander off.
The single entrance and exit means nurses or family members can also keep an eye out from a central place. Built in 2002 with $750,000 in privately-raised funds, the Memory Garden has “no dead ends or choices. You just follow the curve.” Concrete pathways are tinted to reduce glare. Their outer edges have a different color. Raised curbs on the edge of the sidewalks help ensure users don’t fall into the lawns. Bathrooms are extra large in case nurses or family members need to go in with someone in their care.
For true open spaces, seniors also have special needs. Bainnson is now working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on national wildlife refuges near Portland to make them more accessible to seniors, by putting in trails, accessible paths, and readable signs. He said they may not be able to access the whole system — as the city wants to keep the trails as natural as possible — but these steps will make it easier.
Marshall, Brozen, and Bainnson all made the case: consider seniors when designing public spaces. Why exclude? “What works for seniors will work for everyone.” These spaces will also work for all those people with any other cognitive or physical challenge, like veterans dealing with PTSD, people with prosthetic legs, or anyone in a wheelchair.