Re-framing Built Environment Practice:
Towards an Accessible City
for Peace (former President)
Kaushik, Mary Ann Jackson
Design Development Pty Ltd, Australia
architects in Victoria, Australia, we have observed significant, systemic
industry failure, impeding the development of accessible and inclusive cities.
Contemporary built environment design practice and design values push
‘accessible design’ to the margins, often considered as an after-thought and
only in terms of technical and regulatory compliance. Built environment
practice needs to be challenged into deeper ways of thinking - ones that stimulate
professional discourse and heighten industry awareness of both its control over
built environment accessibility outcomes and, critically, its accountability in
serving the public good.
invariably comprise neighbourhoods. To begin to understand built environment
inaccessibility at the neighbourhood scale, the built environment mindset must
change to properly engage with complex, socio-ecological, public-realm (public
space) built environments. Design practice must improve its neighbourhood site
analysis approach, going beyond private, contractual site boundaries and
immediate physical surrounds, to understanding end-user experiences,
neighbourhood journeys, and the broader scale of (in)accessibility. Industry
attitudes, practice approaches and the way disability is positioned by industry
must change to embrace processes that necessitate diverse actors working
together across multiple disciplines and sectors with people with disability
being core actors in decision-making.
We believe that
opportunities exist in building industry interest and capacity.
Research-informed built environment practice embracing systems-thinking, human
rights-based approaches, and transdisciplinarity can be effective for
aggravating industry change and the way industry positions disability. This
paper adopts an analytical, collaborative autoethnographic approach, examining
case studies of neighbourhood-scale accessibility assessment, outputs from
activities questioning why built environment practitioners believe inaccessibility
exists, and self-reflection on 10– 35+ years of working in architectural
practice. Importantly, this paper argues that in working towards achieving
universally accessible public spaces for all, built environment practitioners,
and architects in particular, must accept accountability for the impact of
their actions on people with disabilities’ lived experiences.
environment practitioners, inaccessibility, equity of access, collaborative
To cite this article:
Mechkaroff, N., Kaushik, S. and Jackson, M. A. (2022) “Re-framing Built environment Practice: Towards an Accessible City”, The Journal of Public Space, 7(2), 183-192. DOI 10.32891/jps.v7i2.1491
This article has been double blind peer reviewed and accepted for publication in The Journal of Public Space.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non Commercial 4.0
International License https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/
Notwithstanding decades of built
environment accessibility legislation and policy advancement, including the
globally supported United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with
Disabilities (UNCRPD), the ideal of a ‘fully accessible’ city remains elusive
well into the 21st century. As architects, with 10–35+ years of professional
experience in private sector practice in the state of Victoria, Australia, all
authors have come to understand that systemic industry failure is impeding the
development of inclusive cities. At the outset of our careers, armed with
conventional architecture qualifications, none of us conceived the power of
built environment design to exclude (Hamraie, 2013) nor the complexities of the
built environment ‘production system’ (Hürlimann et al, 2021). We have
subsequently understood that built environment production must be shared across
many sectors, disciplines, and actors, experts and non-experts, to achieve
equity of access, particularly at neighbourhood and/or city scale. Hence, our
pragmatist-informed (Dewey, 1929) belief that it is both imperative and
possible that built environment practice can be re-framed, towards achieving
accessible cities for all.
This short paper adopts an analytic,
collaborative autoethnographic approach using ourselves as windows enabling
reflection upon profession-wide practice (Chang, Ngunjiri, and Hernandez,
2013). While bringing to the table outputs from activities questioning why
other built environment practitioners believe inaccessibility exists, as with
any auto/ethnographic exploration, the work is qualitative and sample size
limited. Nonetheless, collaborative autoethnography is appropriate to the task
as it ‘can be utilized in building community for the purpose of collective
action and agency, particularly in the context of the search for more equitable
social and institutional arrangements’ (p145, Chang et al, 2013). Literature
review is followed by analysis of data collections ranging across
neighbourhood-scale built environment accessibility assessments 2011-2017,
reflections on Melbourne Design Week 2021’s Participatory Urban Aesthetic (PUA)
mini-symposium, outputs from theory of change activities, reflective journaling of approximately four weeks of professional
practice, and collaborative
autoethnographic exercises. Lastly, conclusions are drawn regarding both
achieving universally accessible public spaces and the worth of analytic,
collaborative, autoethnography in that endeavour.
Systemic industry failure
Our observations of
systemic industry failure align with the findings of Rachele et al (2020) who
investigated relationships between people with disabilities’ built environment
accessibility experience and urban policy making in Melbourne (Victoria’s state
capital) and Tucker et al (2021), investigating ‘what is required to overcome
entrenched obstacles to implementing accessibility and inclusivity in the built
environment’ in Geelong (Victoria’s second city). It is obvious to us that
built environment practice needs to be challenged into deeper ways of thinking
that acknowledge, specifically, its historical control over built environment
outcomes (Habraken, 1987) particularly that of accessibility (Imrie, 1998;
Jackson, 2018), and critically, its accountability in serving the
public good (Bristol,
2018). When we say ‘industry’ and ‘built environment practice’ in this early
part of the paper we mean all the apparatus and actors responsible for built
environment production, including all those involved ‘in legislating, shaping,
funding, forming, making, and researching the built environment’ (Jackson,
2018). Using such terminology does not imply cohered entities. Undoubtedly,
fragmented tacit knowledge, uneven distribution of capacity, and embedded
hierarchies complicates professional development (Klerkx and Proctor, 2013),
but a complex problem is not necessarily a wicked problem (Alford and Head,
Beyond being collections of buildings
contained within titled boundaries, cities invariably comprise neighbourhoods.
Understanding built environment inaccessibility at the neighbourhood scale
requires a mindset that engages with complex, socio-ecological, public-realm
(public space) built environment systems (Portugali et al, 2012; Totry-Fakhoury
and Alfasi, 2016; Jackson, Wilson, and Marcello, forthcoming). Totry-Fakhoury
& Alfasi, (2016) state that “[t]he order of the built environment,
similarly to other complex systems, emerges from the multifaceted interactions
between the numerous inhabitants, landowners, community leaders and other
stakeholders that share it and act in it” (p. 28). It makes sense then, in
complex, people-environment systems, to also consider people-people
interaction. Henceforth, in the remainder of the paper unless noted otherwise,
industry more specifically means ‘architecture design industry’ and within
that, architects and building designers.
We believe that, as with climate change,
decarbonisation, and reconciliation, those practising design must stretch their
professionally habituated thinking (Shrubsole, 2018; Klinsky and Mavrogianni,
2020; Ness and Xing, 2017; Jones et al, 2016). However, in Australia,
practising architects primarily operate from within small/ sole practices in
the private sector (AACA, 2018), a sector conventionally understood to be a
site of time/cost-efficient production. Therefore, expanding mindsets, now
constrained to private, contractual site boundaries and immediate physical
surrounds, to consider end-user experiences, neighbourhood journeys, and the
broader scale of (in)accessibility is, potentially, problematic. Nonetheless,
industry attitudes, practice approaches, and particularly the way disability is
positioned by industry, needs to change so that people with disability are core
actors at all scales of built environment decision-making. This will require
diverse experts and non-experts working together across multiple disciplines
and sectors, an integral constituent of transdisciplinarity (Jackson, 2018;
Jackson, Wilson, and Marcello, forthcoming).
An enduring legacy of the historical
charity (institutional) and medical models of disability is the schism between
the built environment and disability domains (Martel et al, 2020). This schism,
outsourcing ideologies of small government (Aulich and O’Flynn, 2007), and the
‘specialisation turn’ (Hürlimann et al, 2021) have all contributed to pushing
‘accessible design’ to the margins of contemporary built environment design
practice and design values. It is often considered as an after-thought and only
in terms of technical and regulatory compliance. Tucker et al (2021) note that
a ‘core reason identified for lack of progressive development was a focus on
minimum standards’. On the other hand, Rachele et al (2020) found that people
with disabilities’ built
environment accessibility experience is
often compromised by built environment practitioners’ lack of attention to
Assessing ‘compliance’ is, however, a
multi-facetted issue. Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) dates
from 1992 (three decades past) and its subordinate legislation, known as the
Transport, Education, and Premises Standards in 2002, 2005, and 2010
respectively; the UNCRPD was adopted in 2006 and Victoria’s Equal Opportunity
Act (EOA) in 2010. Devising accessibility assessment methodologies that
quantify existing accessibility and prioritise rectifications is a
feature of Visionary Design Development’s work. Albeit employing differing
methodologies, investigations in (predominantly) inner north and/or west
metropolitan Melbourne demonstrate that ‘new’ legislation does not magically
transform ‘existing’ conditions, see Table 1: Accessibility assessment
1: Accessibility assessment metropolitan Melbourne
Source: compiled from Visionary Design Development project work
Mobility Index (UMI) pilot. Built Environment Component Score 0.48 (out of
Strip Shopping Centres
Accessibility Score 0.40 (out of 1.00) ranging from 0.17 to 0.68.
Homes, home Modifications
to existing internal layouts of housing and severe funding constraints,
<20% of bathrooms would be ‘significantly’ improved, even with suggested
recommendations. Over 90% of homes have health and safety issues and over 70%
require level-entry shower and/or ramp access. (Note: results are similar to
that encountered in over 1000 home visits.)
and off-street ‘accessible’ car parking
locations (430 bays total). 0% (0) Best Practice (Category 1) locations, 31%
(103) Category 2 - 4 locations (varying modifications required), and 69%
(225) Category 5 locations (deficient and, due to physical constraints of
existing surrounds, unable to be upgraded to best practice
discrete parts of building and surrounds. 0% (0) completely satisfactory, 53%
(25) ‘easily’ modified, 26% (12) ‘difficult’ to modify, and 21% (10)
‘extremely difficult’ or ‘impossible’ to modify.
Neighbourhood Tennis Clubs
club viable for modifications enabling wheelchair tennis. Only general
accessibility modifications viable at two clubs. Achieving accessibility at
the remaining club would require complete demolition and rebuild.
interchange station, multiple platforms. Achieving accessibility would
require comprehensive demolition, reconfiguration and additional facilities.
How then might
existing built environment inaccessibility be redressed? The UNCRPD (Australia
is a signatory) recognises that people with disability have the right to an
accessible built environment and, furthermore, obligates duty-bearers to
provide accessible built environments. Given Australia’s privatised system of
built environment delivery, duty bearers are not limited to state actors but
encompass all built environment practitioners. The following paragraphs,
however, highlight the built environment domain’s lack of understanding of this
Four built environment pracademics, well
known for working within a participatory design paradigm, presented at the PUA
mini symposium. Group discussion sessions followed; In participatory design who ‘holds
RIGHTS and who bears a DUTY’ in urban design. How can this affect the urban
aesthetics? being the most salient to this paper. During this session
presenters and attendees unanimously objected to using the term
‘right-holders’. From the multiple conversations within the room, it was clear
that ‘rights’ represented ‘entitlement’. This counterpoint to the accessibility
‘bubble’ in which Jackson and Kaushik
work was thought-provoking. Participants further
suggested that the term ‘justice’ is more suitable than ‘rights’. Our intention
as organizers, however, was to understand built environment practitioners’ viewpoints
about the roles and responsibilities of ‘rights-holders’ and ‘duty-bearers’
within the participatory process of designing and delivering urban change. The
major take-away from the session, correlating with Rachele et al (2020) and
(Klinsky and Mavrogianni, 2020) writings, was that the built environment domain
considers the term justice more empowering and is uncomfortable with right-holders.
In late 2021, the
authors facilitated a workshop and an online survey inviting architects in
Victoria, at any career stage, to participate in an adapted Theory of Change
(Green, D., 2016) activity, the nucleus of which Jackson had
devised for her PhD studies. At the outset, we stated the Ultimate Goal to be
‘a fully accessible built environment’ [facilitating social, environmental, and
economic inclusion ...]. With respect to their daily practice, participants were
asked to identify driving and restraining forces in developing accessible built
environments, issues surrounding or contributing to those forces, and elaborate
why they thought this was so.
Regulatory compliance emerged as the
dominant framework informing participants’ discussions or implementation of
built environment accessibility in their practice, with some limited discussion
of Universal Access. Dependence on (DDA and BCA - Building Code
of Australia) ‘compliance’ was generally identified as a “rigid” and
“prescriptive” type of activity and acknowledged by some as a negative force
restricting creativity, with other participants seeing compliance as essential
to accessible design. Within this
divergence of viewpoints, the process
enabled discussing why some forces and practices have considerable agency in
contemporary architectural practice. As facilitators, our interests lay in
sustaining processes of active listening, collective dialogue, knowledge
sharing, and stakeholders’ journeys in developing a deeper understanding of the
‘whys’ (Dreier, Nabarro, and Nelson, 2019; Vogel, 2012). We believe that
through more knowledge comes empowerment and the potential willingness to act
on the why.
Some survey participants noted that
“empathy” and “understanding” were lacking [across the industry]. These
insights into implied undervalued and uncommon professional-interpersonal
qualities may, subject to deeper interrogation, reveal a systemic industry
issue regarding currently supported personality traits and the way the industry
serves clients and the greater public good. Additionally, capitalist influence
on the private sector and resultant prioritisation of profitability and time
efficiency over the ‘common good’ was seen as a negative force. Explicit
practice values built around human rights models (of disability, see Jackson, 2018)
and recognition of (duty-bearer) obligations were not apparent.
When invited to share thoughts on the
ultimate goal of ‘a FULLY ACCESSIBLE’ built environment, responses
included “broad”, “vague”, “a difficult proposition” or, very tellingly in our
opinion, there was no response (from half the survey respondents). Given the
lack of survey participants’ engagement with the question in its current form, perhaps this proposition should be reconfigured to
engender a wider, intersectional conversation within the profession?
Notwithstanding the rejection of the notion of ‘full accessibility’, but moving
beyond compliance, there was an encouraging level of interest
supporting change in how accessibility is currently understood, designed for,
and delivered in the architecture profession. Workshop and survey participants’
commentary indicated that opportunities do exist in improving professional and
personal leadership capabilities, strengthening processes for accountability
within design, and enabling more focus on embedding inclusion and equity
imperatives in the design process.
journaling further reinforces the compliance theme; practising
architects’ first introduction to built environment accessibility is often
through an access consultant’s checklist received during the process of a building permit application. Such checklists are invariably
restricted to ascertaining whether the project satisfies the technical
requirements pertaining to the relevant building classification as set out in
the Building Code of Australia (BCA). Mechkaroff
found transitioning into working on government-funded education
projects and, specifically, collaborating with pedagogical planners on special development schools, particularly illuminating. These
educators are profoundly aware of students’ needs, desires, attitudes, and
expression preferences. Various collaborative processes employed highlight that
workshop settings engaging user groups, various representatives, and wider
stakeholders enables recognition and documentation of the broader desires and
issues of the students. Collaborating with user groups to convey the design
process and intent has enabled the learning of new communication methods:
interaction with pedagogical planners exposed me to a lot of new important
mapping and diagramming techniques - investigating and showing how sites were
accessed and operated, revealing area relationships that were complementary or
not, and understanding material sample studies, bringing all this into a
collective discussion. This was before even thinking about architectural form.’
While the experience of collaborating
with users meaningfully contributes to design discussion and is insightful,
collaborating with various project consultants for project delivery remains
very technically oriented. Mechkaroff’s journaling echoes
Visionary Design Development’s consultancy dealings with fellow practitioners
and issues raised in the Rachele et al (2020) and Tucker et al (2021) articles.
Within the architectural profession in Australia, accessibility is inherently considered
in terms of DDA compliance and/or BCA requirements, even in initial
design phases. Changes made to the design within a project’s documentation
phase are also re-assessed against DDA and BCA requirements. Thus, DDA/ BCA
requirements are a core part of any commercial architectural project
discussion. But, to our minds, these discussions are somewhat superficial,
remaining at this compliance level rather than deeply delving into the lived
experience of people with disability using the built environment.
Although people with disabilities’
work-life situation has rarely been considered in urban policy and research
responses to COVID-19, pandemic-induced remote working conditions have changed
white-collar work (Martel et al, 2020). Although it is true that much
white-collar work can be done remotely, it is also our experience that remote
working tends to increase project delivery time and effort. In the face of lack
of access to high-powered, inclusive, technological solutions, collaborative
working, including liaising with access consultants, is more difficult. We all
expend much energy and time chasing project stakeholders. Employee burnout is
rising (Chan and Clarke, 2021). It is our observation that capitalist-informed,
privatised, project delivery pressure prior to the pandemic had already burnt
out many mainstream architects and designers. Thus, the day-to-day messiness of
project management within architectural practices (Borson, 2017) along with
working remotely are restraining forces on the broader conversation of
accessibility; DDA and BCA technical compliance checklists remain de rigueur.
While an understanding of the regulatory fundamentals is a necessity, our
experiences indicate that more collaboration with users through, for example,
workshopping would enable the profession to better understand people with
disabilities’ built environment accessibility needs, thus going over and above
Shifting professional identities
We have not encountered opposition to
the professionally non-threatening concept of ‘improving built environment accessibility’
but it seems clear that restraining forces are more strongly maintaining the
status quo than driving forces are achieving the ideal of a fully accessible
built environment, see Figure 1.
How, then, does the profession move
forward to a more self-aware position? Although professional behaviour is not
the intention of the phrase, ‘emotionally charged and sensitive topics’ (Chang
et al, 2013) architects and designers generally do find critique emotionally
sensitive. Can supposedly ingrained professional traits be re-framed?
Figure 1. The initial approach to the theory of change process was
the current industry context for change.
Hopefully, by briefly delving into our
own personal and professional identities, we are able to give some pointers.
Whilst all authors are female, currently
resident in Victoria, and registered architects working in
private practice in a profession operating in English, we are at different life
stages, from varied cultural backgrounds, with diverse professional experience.
Our mapping exercise also established that while some aspects of self are
integral to being, our multiple primary and secondary personal and professional
identities change over time. All authors share ongoing interest in
collaboration across sectors, either professionally or through volunteering; we
are all Architects for Peace 'alumni’. Momentarily putting aside
profession-wide gender equity issues we all understand the privilege of
attaining tertiary education and wish to use our skills and participatory
mindset to bring together experts and non-experts for the wider public good.
Due to personal and professional experience of built environment
inaccessibility and/or chronic illness, all authors have an appreciation of the
entwining of disability, health, and wellbeing. Visionary Design Development’s
social enterprise orientation facilitates close professional relationships to
revolve around built environment accessibility. On the other hand, despite
private-sector-employment pressure, Mechkaroff’s trajectory
of professional and personal development has resulted in her inclusion-centred
approach to project delivery; extracurricular activities are around social
change, particularly professional change. We all share a commitment to change,
particularly of our profession. But, how to most effectively achieve this
across mainstream practice remains somewhat of a mystery still, hence our
We hope that by telling our interwoven
personal and professional stories we encourage fellow built environment
practitioners, fresh graduates and senior executives alike, to pay attention to
this arena; we certainly find it enriching. We reiterate that none of us
remember encountering the ‘built environment + disability intersection’ in our
supposedly formative years, ie, at university. But, as demonstrated in this
paper, professional identities do, and can, change. Concurring with Chang et
al’s (2013) ‘research as activism’ position, we hope that employing
collaborative autoethnography in the small, pilot way we have will be a
catalyst for that change.
There is no doubt that the existing
condition of Melbourne’s built environment (in)accessibility impacts people
with disabilities’ experience of daily life. We believe, however, that
opportunities do exist in building industry interest and capacity; invited
speaker Jackson’s stated desire for a fully accessible
built environment was not rebuffed at Parlour’s Design for All event (Parlour,
2021). Research-informed built environment practice embracing systems-thinking,
human rights-based approaches, and transdisciplinarity can be effective for
aggravating industry change and the way industry positions disability.
Importantly, this paper attempts to communicate to our fellow practitioners in
a new way, through collaborative autoethnography, that in working towards
achieving universally accessible public spaces, we, architects in particular,
must accept accountability for the impact of our day-to-day professional
actions on people with disabilities’ work-life inclusion.
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