Streets and squares designed according to the Shared Space concept can lead to problems for the blind and visually impaired due to the lack of orientation opportunities. UMCG researcher Else Havik wants Shared Space designs to acknowledge the visually impaired in the early design phase. Recommendations resulting from Havik’s research have been incorporated in a guide which will be published this month by Royal Dutch Visio, centre of expertise for the blind and visually impaired. Havik will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 10 October 2012.
In increasing numbers of Dutch cities and towns the Shared Space concept is being adopted in the design and use of streets and squares, including places such as Haarlem, Drachten, Enschede, Tiel and Zwolle. A Shared Space area often lacks the traditional division into traffic lanes, bicycle paths and pavements, and there are no longer any traffic lights or pedestrian crossings. The design’s intention is that pedestrians, cyclists and motorized traffic acknowledge one another in an area where everyone is considered a guest and no-one has the upper hand. The concerns voiced by various interest groups regarding the safety of the blind and visually impaired in Shared Spaces gave rise to Havik’s study.
Havik outlined the bottlenecks that the blind and visually impaired may encounter in Shared Spaces. ‘It’s actually a very nuanced situation’, Havik explains. ‘Common bottlenecks include the lack of a distinct difference between traffic lanes and pedestrian areas, and the absence of recognizable pedestrian crossings. This makes it difficult for the blind and visually impaired to orientate themselves.’
Twenty-five visually impaired volunteers participated in a study Havik conducted in order to collect experiences with Shared Spaces. She had the volunteers complete assignments related to wayfinding in Shared Spaces in Haren and in Muntendam, as well as in two areas with a traditional design. All places were unknown to the participants. Although orientation proved to be the greatest bottleneck in the Shared Spaces, some locations were clearly more troublesome than others. ‘In one of the Shared Spaces the majority of the blind participants just couldn’t imagine that they would ever be able to learn how to independently walk a route’, Havik says.
Based on her research, Havik has made a number of recommendations for Shared Space design. The most important one is that it needs to be acknowledged early on that these public spaces will also be used by the blind and visually impaired. ‘Elements which are important to this group can then be incorporated in the design. This concerns things like clear orientation points and guidelines, created for example by carefully placing street fixtures and providing distinct differences in the surface underfoot’, says Havik. In addition to the guide, Shared Space voor blinde en slechtziende mensen. Een uitdaging voor ontwerpers. Aandachtspunten voor een toegankelijke openbare ruimte (Shared Space for the blind and visually impaired. Challenging designers. Reference points for accessible public space) that Royal Visio will be publishing, the centre also has significant expertise and many advisors to consult.
Else Havik (Haren, 1978) studied psychology in Groningen. She conducted her research at the Experimental Ophthalmology Laboratory of the UMCG Department of Ophthalmology and at Royal Dutch Visio, centre of expertise for the blind and visually impaired, while also affiliated with the Research School of Behavioural and Cognitive Neurosciences (BCN). The study was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw Inzicht), the Professor Mulder Foundation, the Foundation for Assistance to the Blind (Stichting Blindenhulp), the Novum Foundation and the Dutch Healthcare Insurance Board (CVZ). Havik’s thesis is entitled ‘Wayfinding for visually impaired people. Opportunities and challenges’.
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