Accounting for the Needs of Blind and Visually Impaired People in Public Realm Design

John Parkin & Nicola Smithies

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Parkin, J. & Smithies, N. (1). Accounting for the Needs of Blind and Visually Impaired People in Public Realm Design. Journal of Urban Design, 17(1), 135–149.

Public realm schemes are being introduced in urban areas without the usual delineation between the footway and carriageway provided by kerb edges. Concern has been expressed about the resulting spaces on behalf of the approximately two million people in the UK who are blind or visually impaired. This paper questions these concerns and presents the results from a questionnaire and in-depth interviews, and observational studies of blind and visually impaired people navigating in urban streets and spaces with and without shared surfaces. They show that blind and visually impaired people can identify many different surface types and delineators, and they use these, along with other features of the urban environment, in creative ways to identify their location and guide themselves. Shared Space schemes need to preserve a safe area for pedestrians, they need to provide a rich physical environment of contrasts in terms of surface tactility, colour contrast, and the enhancement of sound and other sensory clues.

Main finding
This article notes the value of discrete features, such as gaps in the frontage to a road, countable objects such as street lighting columns, linear features, and features not specifically designed for navigation purposes for blind and visually impaired people. The study advocates that shared spaces should not be a uniform material and there should be distinct areas and boundaries within the space to create a physical geography that is easily identifiable and understandable to blind and visually impaired people.

Description of method used in the article
Data were collected from blind and visually impaired people in Bolton, North West England, using a questionnaire, interviews and observations of participants. The tri-partite methodology was preceded by an initial fact-finding observation of a blind person being instructed by a trainer on how to navigate the route from her workplace to her new home. The observation enabled more relevant questions to be developed for the questionnaire.

Of practical use

Organising categories

Walking or Rolling
Field Observations Interviews Survey
Physical types
Other Sidewalks Streets
Geographic locations