Decoding Design

How to design better city streets for the blind

How to design better city streets for the blind

Posting in Cities

How do people without sight navigate the city streets? Wired's Q+A with a blind doctoral urban planning student takes a look at the answer and how it could make moving through cities better for everyone.

How do people without sight navigate the city streets? Wired's Q+A with Claudia Folska, an urban planning and cognitive science doctoral student who has been blind since the age of five, takes a look at how the answer to that question could make moving through cities better for everyone.

Folska analyzed the mental maps and walking routes of blind commuters by asking them to sketch out the routes between the local lightrail station (in Denver) and their daily destinations. Along with verbal explanations of landmarks and obstacles, the sketched paths were quite similar, down to the same poles to bump into and painful prickly bushes. As Wired points out, someone with sight might never notice these obstacles.

Claudia Folska explains her research and where she hopes to take it:

Indeed, most people with sight, including designers, planners, and architects, do not notice the minuscule details. Some of the most revealing elements in these maps are the dead zones—empty spaces that are so pedestrian-unfriendly that blind people avoid them entirely. That’s why it’s so important to incorporate this research when designing spaces. If blind people consistently avoid certain streets or intersections—if there are blank spots on their maps—that’s a sign that urban planners need to focus less on cars and transit and more on pedestrians. It’s not just about complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Paying attention to the sidewalk can create sustainable cities, neighborhoods that encourage all of us to walk. When our cities are easily navigable for the blind, we will have created a place that is safe and navigable for everyone.

City streets present challenges even to people with sight. Without sight, standard wayfinding systems and signage are pretty useless. Examining the obstacles that the visually impaired face and work around will help find solutions for a more universally accessible urban landscape.

Watch a video of Claudia Folska's research below:

Claudia Folska from jamie kripke on Vimeo.

Navigating cities for the blind [Wired October 2011]
Image: Jamie Kripke

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Sun Kim

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Sun Joo Kim is an architect and creative consultant based in Boston. Her projects include design and master planning of museums, public institutions, hospitals, and university buildings across the U.S. She holds a degree from Carnegie Mellon University and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure