Cities with disabilities are those that present spaces and environments that impede or make it difficult for citizens to access, participate and interact, regardless of any loss or abnormality related to their psychological, physiological or anatomical structure or function. I invite readers to, with me, change the focus of the approach on disabilities, transferring to cities and built environments the inability to meet in a dignified and effective way the diversity of abilities and capacities inherent to human beings.
All people are unique and are born with skills and abilities that, when developed, lead to the fulfillment of their dreams. They can be professional, family, emotional, social, financial, among many others. When environments, services, equipment, products or instruments do not exist or cannot be fully used due to their dimensions (or due to misconception in their design), people are hindered from carrying out their daily activities in their social, professional, personal or family scope. Disability is “in the thing” itself, incapable of being used.
Throughout all the years that I worked as an architect and urban planner, I have not met anyone who presents the Renaissance proportions of the Vitruvian Man, whose illustration by Leonardo da Vinci (inspired by the work De Architectura, by the Roman architect Vitruvius Pollio) inspired the metric used in the conception, projects and planning of buildings, cities and everything that is around us that can make possible, hinder or stop the accomplishment of the tasks and actions of our daily life. The drawing depicts a naked man with his arms and hands outstretched, inscribed in a circle and a square, with all perfect proportions. The author sought to relate spaces to the body, arguing that buildings and their environments should be based on the symmetry and proportions of the human form. For him, the composition of the “enclosures of the immortal gods” would only be achieved from the exact proportion or similarity of the members of a well-constituted human figure.
In the middle of the last century, the French-Swiss architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris — better known as Le Corbusier —, gave a new approach to the research of Da Vinci and Vitruvius, seeking to find the mathematical ratio between the measurements of man and nature through a system of measurements on a human scale based on the golden ratio and the Fibonacci sequence.
Known as Modulor, the proportion system was widely used in the post-war period to make it possible to produce buildings and housing units on a large scale and with the smallest possible area, but still functional. The standard measurements? An imaginary male individual, 1.75m tall. Later, 1.83m tall.
In either case, the measures used for the construction of objects or spaces for buildings and cities were conceived from a special human figure capable of representing all people: white, young, healthy and European man. All other human beings were not portrayed by the norms and laws in force at the time. It was only in the 1960s that social movements from the Nordic countries and England questioned the Vitruvian metrics of the “well-built human figure”, drawing attention to the need to respect the diversity of capacities and abilities of other social groups, including children, women, the elderly and people with different functional disabilities.
Cities and buildings were mostly constructed using metrics incompatible with human diversity. The changes needed to adapt spaces and objects, despite more than 50 years since the beginning of discussions, are still incipient when it comes to public policies. Putting a ramp here or fixing a sidewalk there is risible given the urgency of the negative impacts caused in people's lives. In a democratic society, it is not possible to consider common or normalize the social, environmental and economic impact of the mistreatment of cities – whose managers, even today, are little used to the importance of planning actions that lead to full accessibility of the built environment – in the reception and inclusion of their citizens.
Even more unacceptable is knowing that physical barriers arising from the lack of planning and management of public spaces intended for citizens, stop or hinder the expression of the potentialities of social groups. Fragmented into dozens of secretaries, bodies, departments and people is the management of all public equipment and urban infrastructure. Poles, wiring, trash cans, newsstands, construction fences, railings, trees, tables and chairs on sidewalks, horizontal (pedestrian lanes) and vertical (traffic lights, street names) signage, have their own manuals for implementation on the streets of a city, each of these elements that I have mentioned, managed by different areas. Without a clear project, the street space is the result of a jumble of departments. There are dozens of municipal, state and federal permissions and concessions that operate in isolation on the streets. How can we guarantee quality of care for the diversity of human capacities and abilities if each one does what is most convenient for him/her? Where is the public policy capable of starting the transformation process?
Ronaldo Tonini, architect and urban planner specializing in accessibility, believes that, in addition to standards and legislation, professionals need to be attentive to design details and execution of functional, practical, accessible and aesthetically appropriate products and environments for users, with the aim of overcoming the difficulties and insecurities faced in the daily life of people with disabilities. In other words: just applying the rules in the development of project proposals is correct, but it is necessary to go much further.
There is a way out: all it takes is discernment and political will to start good practices in managing the problem. With the objective of promoting equal opportunities and accessibility to urban life for people with disabilities, the European Union created the Access City Award, which awards cities with good design and planning practices aimed at accessibility and inclusion. The 2021 winner is Jönköping, in Sweden, which has demonstrated a comprehensive approach to accessibility. Just to get an idea of the scope of the initiative, the city promoted significant changes in the built environments and public spaces; in transport and infrastructure related to displacements; in information and communication, including new technologies (ICT), in addition to public equipment and services in culture, education, health, among others. These actions are intended to expand social and economic participation with the aim of promoting access to services and products to a greater number of consumers, previously excluded from the market.
I feel uncomfortable writing a column that, even today, justifies the need to plan and build cities that benefit all its residents and remind companies and public authorities that the city harbors a very rich range of skills and capabilities, whose potential, little explored, can increase the number of jobs, businesses, services and generate income. How can a country achieve prosperity when people are invisible, segregated or excluded?
Originally published on JP News.