Let me ask you a question.

  • Are you, or were you ever, a young child?
  • Second question: Have you ever twisted an ankle?
  • Third (final) question: Are you ever baffled in non-English-speaking countries?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, then you will appreciate universal design.

Universal what?” I hear you cry.

Design. Shaping our surroundings. Everyone has a universal design moment at some point in their life, whether through being old, young, pregnant or unwell. We all have the right to leave our homes and travel around easily, but unfortunately this isn’t always an option.

The public realm – streets, parks and places – needs to work for all members of the public. In Auckland, this adds up to 1,739,000 people(external link), all of whom have their own requirements.

As an experiment, find a friend who has young children (or, if you’re a parent, use your own kids). Pop the kids in a buggy, take a walk around urban Auckland and count how often your progress is hindered by high kerbs, parked cars, narrow walkways and/or sideways-sloping footpaths. It won’t be long until you have sore wrists and a general resentment of urban obstacle courses.

When done well, universal design is like air pressure, it’s just there; but its absence leaves a tangible vacuum. No-one sets out to design a bad street environment, but these things need to be thought out and planned in order to work for everyone. Essentially, we need to know what to aim for.

To help make public environments better for all,  Kāinga Ora has developed and published a new guide Masterplanning for Universal Design [PDF, 3.4 MB], simplifying what universal design is, and how it can be achieved. Fundamentally, it aims to make streets S-O-S:

  • Safe: Streets make people feel safe from harm
  • Obvious: Street layouts are intuitive and unambiguous
  • Step-Free: Step-free routes are available, easy to find and navigate.

At the centre of the guide is an S-O-S checklist(external link); 14 criteria, plus accompanying New Zealand standards, showing how to deliver streets that are safe, obvious and step-free.

This document is the result of over two years of expert engagement and input from organisations such as Living Streets Aotearoa, Disability Connect and local authorities. The guide:

  1. Reflects current best practice, expertise and standards
  2. Is relevant and applicable as possible for anyone planning, designing and delivering the built environment.

Rather than replicating existing guidance, Masterplanning for Universal Design [PDF, 3.4 MB] shows what best practice means for Kāinga Ora and how to apply universal design to the masterplanning process. Two key measures show what success looks likes:

  1. proximal accessibility (i.e. “What’s nearby?”)
  2. street-level accessibility (i.e. “How easy it is to get there?”)

These measures are currently based on the requirements of three design personas (more will be developed over time):

  • a blind adult
  • an eight-year-old child
  • a wheelchair user.

Each person has a specific set of design requirements around footpath width, gradient, traffic volumes and clarity - meet their design requirements and you’re on the right track.

Masterplanning for Universal Design [PDF, 3.4 MB] is designed to be used at all scales, from a 10-metre stretch of footpath to a 10-year large-scale development. In all cases, it enables Kāinga Ora to set out its requirements precisely, prioritise investment and work with its partners to deliver inclusive environments as standard.

Fundamentally, universal design is about making the built environment as easy to use as possible. Even if you personally are a rock climber with the surefootedness of a mountain goat, you’ll still appreciate flush footpaths and continuous crossings when you’re wheeling a suitcase down the street. You may be in great shape, but what about your two-year old niece? Or your 98-year-old great uncle? Everyone knows someone who’ll benefit from better streets.

In an environment of financial scrutiny, one might ask how we can afford to do universal design. As Oscar Wilde would say, there is only one thing more expensive than universal design, and that is not using universal design. A 2019 report(external link) from the Australian Centre for Inclusive Design concluded (p. 5) that “...the relative cost of retrofitting a product or service to become inclusive will increase significantly over time and can reach up to 10,000 times the cost of introducing inclusive design earlier.

There’s also an ethical argument to make. The public realm is created and maintained for members of the public and is funded by public money. It is thus reasonable that it should work for all members of the public. Street design should not force people to retreat inside; it should welcome people into the open.

As our cities become denser, our streets need to work harder. Agencies like Kāinga Ora can have considerable impact by being good design clients, setting clear expectations around inclusivity. Masterplanning for Universal Design sets out precisely how to do this and we look forward to delivering streets that genuinely work well for everyone.