Comment, Accessibility, Designing for disabilities, DesignMENA Summit

Are regional cities designed for people with disabilities?

At a recent roundtable held by Middle East Architect and Commercial Interior Design, architects and designers who work across the GCC were invited to discuss potential topics that should be addressed at this year’s designMENA Summit. During the conversation, the topic of designing cities to be inclusive of people with disabilities and elders came up, and whether or not regional cities lacked in providing complete accessibility.

Those in attendance included Samer Touqan, projects director at Dewan; Sahar Fikree, founder and creative director of OCD Spaces; Lama Harb, associate director at JT+Partners; Duncan Denley, managing director at desert INK; Ahmed Bukhash, director of masterplanning at Dubai Creative Clusters Authority and founder of Archidentity; Christian Merieau, managing director and partner at MMAC Associates and Hilda Impey, design director at Wilson Associates.

“We live in a city that [lacks] accessible spaces,” said Touqan. “To live here, it seems that you must be of a certain age and [condition], but there is a large population that needs to be better considered.

“And whenever we talk about disability, we seem to only refer to those in wheelchairs,” he continued. “We neglect individuals with other disabilities, such as visual and hearing impairments. Design that responds to all of that is missing, and if we truly want to create a place where everyone can live, where there is a healthy mix of people, we truly need to look at the building codes and actually address all levels of disability and integrate them.”

According to the World Bank, over a billion people – about 15 percent of the world’s population – have disabilities, and almost 80 percent of them live in developing countries, which are witnessing rapid urbanisation. And while technology is being heavily integrated into the smart cities of the future, people with disabilities still face a range of constraints on a daily basis, including inaccessible buildings and public spaces, limited transportation options, inaccessible housing, and barriers in using technology-enabled virtual environments.

Harb added that across the region, cities also need to better respond to the needs of older generations. It’s one of the biggest issues facing urban design, she said.

“We have very few pedestrian sidewalks, and the ones we do have aren’t easily accessible. You have to walk through gravel and sand before you actually reach a pathway. Cities need to be designed for all age groups, from infants to elders, and at the moment, I see design in the region mostly catering to young professionals.” 

Bukhash, who works with a government authority in the UAE, confirmed that legislation that requires the consideration of physical disabilities and the conditions of different ages is currently being incorporated, especially in Dubai; however, at the moment it seems to be mostly focused on the increase of pedestrian pathways. However, improving building codes and regulations is the first step in becoming more inclusive.

Other steps forward include capacity development of policy makers, which means creating a community in which legislators and people of disability can exchange information and create better-informed design; using information and communication technology as an enabler, which refers to technology innovations and ICT-enabled services; and respecting cultural diversity and promoting participatory design.

“The potential of cities to provide increased educational opportunities, public transit, and diverse employment fields have made them attractive places for persons with disabilities to live in,” wrote Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez in an article titled, ‘How should we design disability-inclusive cities?’. “We must take this into consideration in urban planning and development.”