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Sight Line: Designing better streets for people with low vision

Much of the current debate about how streets are designed is focused on the need to re-establish the balance between their functions as conduits for traffic and places for people. 

This has prompted a fundamental reassessment of many of the assumptions that underpin conventional street design practice. New streets should be places for everyone - and their character should become more inclusive rather than less. However, as new streetscape designs are implemented, some communities feel that the reverse is occurring.

Working in partnership with CABE Space, which instigated the study, this project focused on how blind and partially sighted people navigate the public realm in order to embed an understanding of their needs into emerging street design practice. It engaged with urban designers, engineers and people with low vision in order to share information and insights. By looking at how real people experience street environments, it sought to move the debate away from abstract ideas and towards practical interventions informed by user experience.

Central to the project was an ethnographic study that explored how eight people with different visual impairments navigate their local area. All were based in the UK and there was a spread of age and gender amongst participants. Interviews and observations were combined with shadowing; people were asked to undertake local journeys that were filmed and photographed, and to give a running commentary to reveal difficulties and open up their 'world' to the researcher.

Mapping techniques were developed to tie insights and experiences to specific spatial locations whilst maintaining a journey narrative. A 'navigation map' was developed to represent the different sources of information and feedback that each individual uses to navigate. In addition, experts in streetscape management were consulted and design professionals in different local authorities were interviewed to understand variability in practice.

The research has been used in two ways. Key insights have been packaged and presented to urban designers and highways engineers in ways that they can easily access and use, and practical interventions have been proposed that allow visually impaired people to navigate the streets confidently and safely. These ideas have been written up in a publication that offers advice on the design of streetscape features for people with visual impairments as well as suggesting new kinds of provision and changes to the way standards are applied.

The project highlights the importance of engaging with people at the start of the design process and acknowledges the range of requirements that different users of public spaces have. The work with blind and partially sighted people demonstrates how inconsistent application of tactile paving standards has created uncertainty and confusion. Their experiences have been written into an installation based on Google Earth, presenting each user journey in an informative and engaging manner.

Opportunities to design new products and interventions were articulated as design briefs covering:

  • Pathways and crossings: creating exemplar designs using tactile paving
  • Diversions: helping people to deal with unexpected obstacles such as road works
  • Sound interventions: using auditory feedback for additional orientation and guidance
  • Information furniture: adding information to existing streetscape elements
  • Technology: scoping and suggesting opportunities for digital support.

Sketch models based on these briefs show best practice by illustrating features that make streets accessible to long cane users, guide dog users and visually impaired people who rely on their sight. The results of this design study have been communicated to various stakeholders, including the Department for Transport, Transport for London and Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Download Sight Line publication here

Research Associate 2010: Ross Atkin
RCA Department: Innovation Design Engineering
Research Partner: CABE