Image is of a heavily window-covered side of a several story building

Universal Design Meets Sustainable Living: The Urban Planning Standards Australia should be Aiming For!

Sustainable infrastructure is an area with the potential for significant greenhouse gas emission reduction, especially considering around 70 per cent of the world’s population will end up living in cities. As such, making the infrastructure in large urban centres sustainable is vital for our survival on this Earth.

And it’s no secret that climate change is one of the biggest issues of our generation. This was internationally recognised when 194 states, along with the EU, signed the Paris Agreement. This lays out a plan to address climate change through greenhouse gas emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance strategies.

Australia signed the Agreement in April 2016 and ratified it that November. The centre-stone of Australia’s commitment to the Paris Agreement is our target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The Australian government has implemented several strategies to reach this goal, such as an Emissions Reduction Fund and a Renewable Energy Target. But I believe there is more we could be doing to reduce our climate impacts. Namely, we should be improving minimum building standards for commercial and residential developments.

What I propose, however, goes beyond just introducing sustainability measures to every new building. I believe we should also address another huge task for our generation: making our societies and cities more accessible and inclusive. As such, I propose a complete restructure of our building codes: to ensure developments are sustainable and inclusive.

There is widespread research and ideas on how to make buildings more sustainable. There is also a lot of research and ideas on how to make buildings more accessible and inclusive – namely under the concept of Universal Design. For those of you unsure what Universal Design is, the National Disability Authority gives a pretty good definition: “Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.” Combining Universal Design and Sustainability is for the benefit of both people and planet.

For those of you suggesting money as the reason why very few buildings incorporate these ideas in their design – I counter argue that there are countless low-expense sustainability and accessibility design features. In fact, making our buildings “greener” – that is, well-insulated, more water-efficient, solar-supplemented and naturally-lit – will actually save us money in the longer term. For example, research predicts that a $4 per square foot investment in green materials and features in buildings now will yield savings of $58 per square foot over a twenty-year period. And as for making buildings more accessible: this is a key step towards enabling more people to better participate in and contribute to society, which will benefit the productivity and health of our entire socio-economic system.

So why haven’t the building codes been updated to incorporate at least some of these sustainability and accessibility measures? Naturally, there is a wad of red-tape, which isn’t helped by the often slow-moving nature of politics. There is also a lack of collaboration between those focused on sustainability and those focussed on accessibility. But this is crucially compounded by a lack of awareness; and potentially even a lack of caring.

Here are a couple of examples of what implementing Universal and sustainable designs can mean in practice:

Low-emission buildings

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and other pollutants, will help reduce our contribution to climate change. It’ll also make the air more breathable, which is great for everyone – particularly people who suffer respiratory impairments or illnesses.

Ramp access to buildings with stairs

This makes a building, and the services and opportunities within a building, more accessible to a wider range of people. This will help make our societies more equitable and productive, as it will allow more people to better engage with the community and its services.

Well-planned interior design

Maximise natural lighting, as this will help reduce electricity use, which is great for reducing our environmental impact. Also, ensure all surfaces, such as kitchen benches, are low enough for all users and that building layouts are easily navigable. This is important to ensure all users can comfortably use the facilities. And let’s face it – carefully planning out the layout of a building before it is built is more cost-efficient than having to renovate in the future. Legislation on building accessibility is sure to catch up to developers one day, so why not save money and incorporate the necessary features now?

I hope some of you are convinced that both Universal and sustainable design is needed; and that we shouldn’t inefficiently consider one separately from the other. After all, we want our buildings to be both sustainable and accessible – not sustainable OR accessible. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say Universal Design comes under sustainability, which is often defined as the ability of biological systems to remain diverse and productive indefinitely. And I ask you, can we, as a biological system, remain diverse and infinitely productive if we exclude and block the effective participation of people with disabilities? Let me give you a hint… the answer is no.

If you are someone interested in urban and infrastructure design, then I urge you to practice both Universal Design and sustainability. And I ask you to consider them from your very first inkling of a design, not after a development is built. For everyone else, I ask you to help fight for our urban centres and infrastructure to be improved: for our planet, for our society and particularly for people with disabilities. No-one should be excluded from having the same living standards and experiences as their peers: especially not when there are implementable solutions that can make developments more accessible and inclusive.