Accessible Design: Capitalizing on the Benefits of Nature

The West Studio presented Accessible Design: Capitalizing on the Benefits of Nature  at the 2016 WASLA conference ‘Imagine Tomorrow’.  This years theme questioned the past, present, and future of landscape architecture; in particular, what our future holds for the profession. Keynote speakers, Steve Austin JD ASLA and David Rubin ASLA FAAR, provided a bridge to reflect on our cumulative past, address the environmental reality we face; and then contemplate the climax of the 21st century.

The conferences collective discussion of social and environmental equity through balancing people, earth, action, and place, really set the stage for the West Studio’s presentation. Entitled Accessible Design: Capitalizing on the Benefits of Nature, we shared our passion for seeing design through the lens of inclusivity and how we can provide equitable access to the benefits of nature experiences. Engaging with nature affects us on a multitude of levels by providing physical, mental, social, and cognitive health benefits.1 Nature can afford powerful and beautiful experiences that can enrich the lives of every member of our communities.

To that end, design should be inclusive regardless of age, gender, ability, culture, language, or state of health. Here are just a few examples of why we should be thinking about universal or inclusive design:

ABILITY: Just over one in four of today’s 20 year-olds will become disabled before reaching age 67. 2

AGE: By 2030 our elders 65 and over will make up more than 20% of the population in the U.S. 3

COMMUNICATION: Barriers come in many forms and are experienced by residents and visitors alike. From dialects to disabilities, gender to generational bias'. 4

Our studio stresses the importance of providing quality access to nature for all because very often those who could benefit the most from nature encounter barriers to equitable access. As we discuss the need for environmental equity, now is the time to walk the talk in our design processes. As a society, as designers, we have an opportunity to take responsibility for our varied and diverse communities and adapt our world to become a more holistic and inclusive place.

Understanding Accessible Design Through the Ability Box Exercise


Our volunteers having their abilities altered.

To help us get a better perspective on who we are designing for, we conducted an interactive experiment with the audience using our Ability Box exercise. Simple enough, we outfitted four volunteers in restrictive boxes which covered either their head, torso, arms or feet. Then, with the help of each other and a few assist tools, they had to travel around the room.

Our volunteers did a fabulous job of illustrating the difficulties some of us encounter everyday. One volunteer, who wore a box over her head to represent vision impairment, had a blind cane to help her around the room; yet she intuitively stayed close to the walls to help guide herself around the room. Another volunteer had to rely on a walker because she could only shuffle her feet rather than use a full walking stride.

Accessibility: Ability Box Exercise

Taking a lap around the room to test their new restricted abilities.

The idea behind this exercise was to get people to think outside their own box, and experience a small sample of what it is like to experience and maneuver around a space in someone else’s box.

At the end of the day our main goal was to get people engaged and thinking about opportunities for inclusive design. We want people to understand the importance of our role as landscape architects and the collective power we have, not just to bring more nature experiences into our communities, but to design equitable opportunities for the greatest number of people. We must adapt from the minimum standard practices so these discussions of equity can start to become reality.

We are continuing to develop this presentation to be specific to a variety of supportive environments, including those for elders, children, housing and community. We welcome all invitations to speak to your firm or organization as we all strive to maximize positive outcomes for our communities.



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