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Using Design to Make Cities More Accessible

More than 105 Design for America students tackled the issue at Northwestern’s annual leadership studio

During the 2017 leadership studio, DFA students brainstormed and prototyped solutions to make cities more welcoming and safer for people with diverse needs.

For Octra Edwards, the simple act of grocery shopping can present frustrating challenges.

“The items I need often aren’t at a level where I can I reach them,” said Edwards, who sits in a wheelchair. “And then people sometimes overlook me when I need help because I’m lower. I can sit there for a long time just trying to get help.”

Although wheelchair ramps and accessible restrooms are more prevalent than ever before, America’s cities still have a long way to go to become welcoming and safer to people with diverse needs. By sharing her story with students at the eighth annual Design for America (DFA) Leadership Studio, Edwards hopes her struggles will highlight some of the more overlooked needs and spark new solutions.

Held from August 4 to 7, this year’s leadership studio welcomed 105 students from 33 universities to learn about design, social innovation, and creative leadership. Sponsored by 3M, James Dyson Foundation, Shure, and Sodexo, the event challenged students to use human-centered design to develop solutions to improve accessibility in urban areas. Students met with several community members, including Edwards, and then brainstormed and prototyped solutions to make cities more welcoming and safer for people with diverse needs.

A grassroots, student-led network, DFA began at Northwestern eight years ago and has spread across the nation to 37 universities, including Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, and Yale. More than 1,300 students are now involved with the organization, where they assess social challenges using a human-centered design process and work collaboratively to implement solutions.

Teams presented their accessibility solutions on Saturday at a design expo attended by community members, business professionals, design experts, Northwestern faculty members, and DFA staff and alumni. Inspired by Edwards’ story, one team presented VertiShelf, an organization method that brings items on stores’ top shelves within reach.

“If you are in a chair, having accessibility to items on the top shelf is really impossible,” said Lydia Krauss, a junior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “We developed a simple solution that makes items more accessible to all types of users.”

Instead of organizing items horizontally on shelves, VertiShelf displays items vertically. In a typical store, for example, one shelf might hold milk, another yogurt, and a third cream. Using the VertiShelf method, the students proposed putting cartons of milk, yogurt, and cream on all three shelves.

“It’s just rearranging what they already have, so stores don’t need to invest in new hardware,” Krauss said. “Whether you are 7 feet tall, 5 feet tall, or in a chair, you can reach one of everything.”

Another team presented a new art immersion experience for people who are seeing or hearing impaired. Their proposed gallery, called Enhance, included multi-sensory experiences, including more audio and tactile pieces.

“One user with seeing impairments said that she cannot experience art galleries as well as fully able people,” said Lilie Bahrami, a sophomore at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “She said even if she does an audio-guided tour, it doesn’t add to her experience. She could listen to it from her couch and have the same experience.”

Other DFA projects to improve urban accessibility included:

  • Rumple: a bumpy barrier between the crosswalk and street for people with visual impairments
  • Leaning Light: a light that people in wheelchairs can illuminate to let an approaching bus driver know they will need the boarding ramp
  • XS: a crowd-sourced, online platform that holds accessibility information about public places to help people with disabilities anticipate what to expect
  • KnightWatch: a wearable device that alerts people with hearing impairments to threats, such as oncoming traffic, in their immediate surroundings
  • Mobile Market: a traveling store that brings fresh, local foods to users and that has trained staff to carry groceries for shoppers