Universal Design City Paradigm for a Better Urban Future

The term “Universal Design” is a philosophy about “designing for everyone”, which means designing products, buildings, cities, information, services, etc. to be used by as many as users as possible in a safe and equitable manner, regardless of users’ gender, age, language, status of disability, level of knowledge, etc. During the early stage after it became known, universal design had wide applications in designing devices to assist people with disabilities and the elderly, and other essential products needed by these people and also in construction planning sector that focused on providing people with better access to buildings and toilets, however, the advent of complex urban issues such as rapid urbanization and population aging, changes in social perception about disability, and globalization of cities, led to an urgent need for people around the world to adopt universal design at institutional level. In Korea, the paradigm of “Universal Design City” which was proposed as a strategic solution of a new city was first defined and established in Seoul. It became more obvious that the monolithic and uniform urban planning was not sufficient in addressing issues facing the city, and in this regard, the paradigm of Universal Design was proposed as a new policy for urban changes to build a city that can ensure citizens’ better quality of life, and an inclusive city that respects all people including the marginalized beyond being an equitable society and a city without disability, and a city that provides safety and convenience to all citizens. To create a city that applied the principles of universal design based on the awareness to shift to an inclusive urban planning, Seoul enacted 「Universal Design Basic Ordinance for Urban Creation」 in 2016 and has been actively improving public spaces through the establishment of “Seoul Universal Design Integration Guidelines” in 2017 and “Seoul Universal Design City Master Plan” in 2019. As a new paradigm for a better urban future, UN and countries around the world are paying attention to the “Universal Design” which would provide a practical solution to various urban problems, and the importance of embracing universal design to strengthen the city’s competitiveness is increasing. The ultimate goals of innovative urban solutions that are being implemented to improve the quality of life in cities and to provide a better physical environment across the city are similar to what Universal Design pursues in a lager framework, however, there is a difference as to the actual applications of the solutions and the universal design principles, that is, universal design is a response to an environment that focuses on human and user rather than on physical environment, and this human-centered perspective of the paradigm is a key concept that differentiates universal design from other ideas proposed to revive urban space. This implies that the vision to create a city for all is realized only when the changes in city accompany changes in citizens’ perception, not just a physical environment. This paper intends to have an overview of universal design cities. In this regard, the paper will look at the implications of the agenda proposed in the 11th UN World 

Urban Forum and how the seven principles of Universal Design are applied in connection with a new urban model as there is a need to revisit ideas for innovation and transition to respond to urban crisis and to ensure urban recovery. Lastly, as the unprecedented changes in conditions of cities following population aging, continued pandemic and climate crisis continue and there are new urban planning models and action plans being pursued globally to create a new spatial solution, this paper will propose how the universal design city framework can serve as an integrated model and a strategy to realize a new urban space planning.

Agenda items of the 11th World Urban Forum

According to UN, the world population has reached around 8 billion as of Nov. 15, 2022. This is an increase by one billion in 11 years since the population reached seven billion in 2011. Also, the World Population Prospects published by UN in 2022 expected that the world population will reach around 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion 2050 and 10.9 billion in 2100 (UN 2022). At present, 57% of the world’s population are living in cities which is expected to increase to 68% in 2050. Cities are becoming an important habitat for the humanity, and urban space planning is directly related to citizens’ daily life. The agenda of the 11th World Urban Forum that was held from June 26 to 30, 2022 was “Urban Crisis and Urban Recovery” which aimed to respond to complexity of crisis faced by cities around the world against the backdrop of COVID-19 and the war on Ukraine and ensure sustainable urban futures, which discussed areas of six key issues including first, equitable urban futures, second building resilience for sustainable urban future, third, future urban economy and finance, fourth, Integrated governance in spatial planning for a more Just, Green, and Healthy Urban Future, fifth Transforming cities through innovative solutions and technologies and sixth Greener urban futures

. These key issues and solutions were discussed around the common recognition and agreement that the new urban problems and changes problems the rCOVID-19, New Normal lifestyle due to digital transition, natural disaster crisis due to Climate Change are difficult to address with the existing policies and institutions, and that there is a need to change in paradigm for urban transformation.    

Table 1.  Dialogues and Key Issues Discussed in the Eleventh Session of the World Urban Forum

 Areas of dialouge

Key Issues

Extraordinary Dialogue

Urban crises and urban recovery 

As cities face complex crisis (related to climate, health, inequality, conflict, natural disaster), this dialogue discusses different approaches to enhance response and accelerate recovery. 

Dialogue 1

Equitable urban futures

The dialogue discusses how cities can address the challenges of inequality and poverty as well as strengthen social cohesion in order to realize a prosperous, inclusive and equitable future for all.

Dialogue 2

Building resilience for Sustainable urban future

The dialogue discusses how to build urban resilience through appropriate governance and institutional structures across economic, social, and environmental dimensions, and reflects the lessons and experience of response to the COVID-19 pandemic for urban transformation.

Dialogue 3

Future urban economy and finance

The dialogue discusses how to achieve productive and inclusive urban economies that are resilient to shocks triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, it explores different perspectives of cities around the world on how to get financial support for sustainable urban futures.

Dialogue 4

Integrated governance in

spatial planning for a more Just,

Green, and Healthy Urban Future

The dialogue discusses the role of urban planning and governance in achieving a better urban future and a governance needed to transform urban planning. Also, it also shares the experiences of urban planners and other experts who responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in different cities of the world.  

Dialogue 5

Transforming cities through

Innovative solutions and technologies

The dialogue explores role that innovation and technology can play to achieve more sustainable urban futures and discusses how the deepening digital divide and social inequalities within cities and across the urban-rural continuum can be addressed.

 Dialogue 6 

Greener urban futures

The dialogue discusses how cities can transition to sustainable urban futures characterized by net-zero GHG emissions and much reduced impacts on the environment. It also shares innovative policies and practices of partnerships between organized community-based groups and governmentSource:UN-Habitat 2022

UN Habitat announced “Katowice Declared Action: Transforming our cities for a better future” through the 11th World Urban Forum. The declaration requested that all urban stakeholders cooperate to achieve the “UN Sustainable Development Goals”, “New Urban Agenda”, and “Future of Greener Cities”. In particular, it put more emphasis on Accessibility and Universal Design which largely differentiates this forum from other forums. 

Table 2.  Katowice Declared Actions (June 30, 2022)

• We, the participants of the Eleventh Session of the World Urban Forum, represents national, subnational and local governments, international and regional organizations, parliamentarians, civil society, older persons, children and youth, women, persons with disabilities, business leaders, academia, professionals and other relevant stakeholders.

• We call for more international, multi-stakeholder and inter-generational cooperation and collective actions in support of the speedy implementation of the 「New Urban Agenda」 and to reposition the 「New Urban Agenda」 strategically as a road map for accelerating sustainable development, climate action, and building peace.

• We are concerned by the lack of progress towards the SDGs and the Paris Agreement and call for urgent transformative action. Urban leaders must move from incrementalism and work to achieve fundamental shifts in urban environments, systems of governance and forms of habitation, in line with human rights treaties.

• We need to focus on increasingly imminent urban crises including the climate and biodiversity emergencies, pandemics, violence and conflicts, and other natural and man-made disasters. Being prepared for and overcoming these crises becomes a pre-condition to transform towards a better urban future.

• We welcome the use of an Urban Crises Track during WUF 11 to galvanize the exchange of knowledge and practices between stakeholders in all countries dealing with or affected by conflict and disaster, including from countries newly affected by conflict and disaster, such as Ukraine.

• We reconfirm that culture, as a core component of local identity including heritage, creativity, and diversity, is an integral part of the solution to the challenges of urbanization, including urban crises, and to achieving the 「New Urban Agenda」.

• We recognize that WUF 11 set a new standard of accessibility and reconfirm that accessibility and universal design are an integral part of the solution to the challenges of urbanization and constitutes the agent of transformative action for a more equitable urban future.

• We encourage all development actors gathered in Katowice to mobilize their respective capacities in this “Decade of Action”.

Source:UN-Habitat 2022

The forum holds significance as it echoes with the urgent need to adopt a new urban planning paradigm to address complex urban crisis such as the pandemic that affects international cities around the world, climate change, humanitarian crisis led by regional conflicts, inequality, and social exclusion. Also, the forum announced that applying accessibility and universal design is one of the solutions to address urban crises and urban recovery.

Policy Framework to Create a Universal Design City 

Since the industrial revolution, the world has focused on increasing productivity through standardization and mass production, which excluded considerations for daily life satisfaction in various members of society and respect towards diversity. However, population aging, efforts or awareness to provide better social welfare for the disabled, well-being culture and the advent of global issues have shed light on the importance of “quality of life”, “equity”, “diversity” and “empathy with the socially vulnerable”, which resulted in demanding a paradigm change across the society, and in the similar vein, led to expand the scope of applying universal design from products to cities. Currently, most of the municipalities or central governments in advanced countries of Europe and Asia and the United States are adopting universal design-based urban planning and urban environment design as a policy, and universal design is the fundamental framework to build a future-ready society for everyone’s happiness and safety, which serves as a basic philosophy that centers around people, diversity, inclusion, civil participation and equitable society in social, economic, culture and environmental aspects. The Norwegian government announced “Norway Universal Design Action Plan 2025” to adopt principles of Universal Design and to apply them to all state-level policies. Under this plan, the government aims to utilize universal design to create an environment accessible by any Norwegians and a design that can be used by anyone and does not require a special effort or time. Therefore, the universal design action plan is the most important and prioritized policy, and it requires cooperation and cross-review efforts by different government departments. 

The plan which is being pursued by the government of Norway is known to be actively executed across all facets in the government regarding law improvement, urban planning, construction, transportation, ICT applications, enhanced accessibility of external space, awareness education, legislation efforts, etc. 

The seven principles of universal design are ① Equitable and Attractive to use ② Flexibility and Selectivity in Use ③ Simple and Intuitive Use ④ Provision of Perceptible and Five senses-Based Information ⑤ Preparedness for Error and Safety ⑥ Reduction of Fatigue due to Excessive Use of Physical Efforts and Convenience ⑦ Size and Space for Accessibility which might seem quite simple. However, applying these principles in the process of designing actual products, construction, cities, information, and services require technical knowledge through education. It is because applying universal design to create a product with simple function may be about adopting one principle to one product, however, when planning a building or a city, it may be required to apply several principles to create a single building or a city. As each sector does not have a dedicated expert yet, there is a doubt whether the process of combining complex space planning and design planning that involves creativity and recreates a differentiated design outcome is seamless and sophisticated enough, which is why applying the seven principles of universal design is difficult. “Universal Design City” aims to realize the philosophy of universal design by applying the seven principles to all government or municipal policies, which is to create a city focused on user’s needs, diversity and choice, respect, sustainability, convenience, comfort, safety, and an urban environment without discrimination in terms of planning all physical spaces and social infrastructure of the city. In a post-COVID society, there is a need to apply universal design across the entire city through a comprehensive∙holistic approach, further expanding the existing approach taken partially and by sector, meaning there is an urgent need to set up a control tower to oversee the whole process. Korea is expected to enter a super-aged society where the elderly population over 65 years old will account for more than 20% of the entire population, and it is considered the biggest problem facing the country, and this calls for an urgent institutional measure to adopt universal design to create a physical space that can address issues such as the increase in a single-person household, and lonely death of elderly, and support external activities (for health, healing and socializing, etc.). The number of people with disabilities slightly increased at 5.1% (as of 2021) which consists of people with physical disabilities at 45.1%, people with hearing impairment at 15.6%, people with visual impairment at 9.5% and people with brain lesion at 9.4%. Looking at the recent universal design trend in other developed countries, countries are trying to apply universal design not only to the visible disabilities but also invisible disabilities. The case in point is a new icon font developed by McCaan London designers who recognized that 93% of disabilities are invisible and therefore reinterpreted symbols of disabilities through “Visibility 93.” In addition, as societies post COVID-19 are rapidly shifting to digital societies, a solution of universal design to address the consequent digital divide.

shows the framework of 「Seoul Universal Design City Master Plan」 where the framework centers on four strategies which consist of corresponding action plans, administrative support body and advisory committee. The four strategies are strategy 1: Diffusion of universal design to improve convenience in life, strategy 2: building universal design for a safe city, strategy 3: developing various programs to realize the value of empathy, sharing and coexistence, strategy 4: building a stable and sustainable system based on universal design, which is an integrated framework for universal design city that supports all proposed public spaces in city. 

Figure 1. Framework of Seoul Universal Design City Master Plan 

A case of new city paradigm c

•A public space for all: A New “Superblocks” Project in Barcelona, Spain 

A superblock, which combines nine blocks of Manzana, a basic unit of urban system in Barcelona, is a small unit village that has an overall dimension of 400x400m inhabited by between 5,000~6,000 people. As its urban plan between 2015-2020 which focused on shifting mobility in the public spaces from highly dense vehicles-oriented to pedestrians oriented went successful, the city, going through the COVID-19 pandemic, decided to implement a new superblock project across the entire city.  The new superblock project is about creating a network of “green axes” roads putting a plaza, which is created in the intersection of green axes that cut across the entire city and diversifying a network of circulatory roads for traffic circulation. And the five goals of the project are ① To improve sustainable urban mobility to encourage pedestrian and bicycle traffic and public transportation, ② To revitalize public spaces by creating green spaces and streets with trees in a city ③ To increase green spaces to restore urban biodiversity and improve peoples’ contact with greenery within 200 m distance ④ To encourage self-sufficiency in resources, and ⑤ To encourage citizens’ participation in urban development plan and application and integrate a governance process through citizens participation to reflect the demand and preference of the inhabitants  

The ‘Green axes’ for the Superblock project are designed to connect green areas, transit stops, and commercial activities. Although vehicles and motorbikes can access these plazas, they cannot cross the junction. The plazas or squares formed at junctions of intersecting green axes streets will become places for socializing, enjoying leisure activities, playing, etc. In addition, the city is implementing a design that can help everyone better access all spaces, and in this regard, the city is creating roads for cars and pedestrians that do not have height differences, installing guiding blocks for the blind, spike strip and blocking bar, setting up a shade for the summer, removing parking space in paved roads, monitoring cycling road and installing accessible lifts and escalators in public places. The city aims to achieve pedestrian, public transportation, or bicycle traffic of 81.52% by 2024. This is a new urban model that applied universal design in urban public space planning, which is a good example that shows the direction of the 21st future urban planning. 

Figure 2. Current Model and Superblocks Model of Barcelona         Figure 3. Pedestrian and car roads without heigh differences in Superblocks 

Source: Urban Mobility Plan of Barcelona/Public Domain         Source: vox.com

• Chrono-Urbanism for everyone: The 15-minute City Paris 
Ann Hidalgo, mayor of Paris who was successfully re-elected in 2020 promoted “Paris for everyone” during her re-election campaign. The plan included four major campaign promises including “Paris, A quarter-hour city (La ville du quart d’heure)”, “Greener Paris that makes more rooms for pedestrians”, “Solidarity (Providing housing that caters to groups of different income levels, strengthen consumption power of citizens in Paris, expanding infra services for all generations” and “Paris where everyone is equal”. The first campaign promise “The 15-minute city” was an idea created by Carlos Moreno, a professor at Sorbonne University, which was about creating a city of proximities where inhabitants should be able to reach offices, kindergartens, hospitals, stores, schools, parks, etc. by walking or bike. 
Looking at the key concept of the 15-minute City, it puts “house”, a physical environment, at the center of urban spatial relations to increase the quality of life for all citizens and to strengthen “inclusion”, “health”, “safety”, “social interaction”, “easiness of walking”, “accessibility (proximate distance, mobility included)” thereby reinvigorating citizens’ life in public spaces. Also, it is worth noting it is a new urban model similar to universal design concept as it provides various support to “Public spaces for all”.

Figure 4. 15-minute city Framework, Moreno et. al: 2021
source: “15-mimute City”: Sustainability, Resilience and Place Identity in Future Post-Pandemic Cities, Smart Cities 2021, 4, 6.

Figure 5. Model that shows daily activities in a 15-minute city
source: Paris en Commun. La ville du 1/4 d’heure, qu’est-ce que c’est?:2021

Cities have gone through changes constantly as they coped with the needs of different eras, and now we are entering the new era of the 4th industrial revolution. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the arrival of digital technology in the 4th industrial revolution. Now new cities face complex problems such as low birth rate∙super-aged society, climate change, environment friendliness, new infectious diseases, those related to diversity, fairness, innovation, recovery, space density, etc. and we’ve seen various solutions and new city paradigms created by cities around the world. It is important to note that a new city paradigm should focus on the “Lives of the inhabitants”. If individuals across all social classes would want to achieve “health”, “safety”, “happiness”, “hobbies”, “social participation”, “education”, and “self-respect/realization” in their lives, planning a city, which is a physical space we are living in, should focus on creating an urban space and environment that could help people achieve these goals. If an urban space planning is done at a macro-level, turning public space planning ideas into an area that invigorates’ the lives of users will be done through universal design at a micro-level.
I believe the philosophy of universal design which was initiated with the advent of a super-aged society and increased awareness for people with disabilities can serve as an important catalyst as well as be at the heart in a journey towards urban recovery and better city after the COVID-19 pandemic. With the establishment of a universal design city platform, Seoul that aims to be inclusive, non-discriminant and equitable as well as to improve lives of all citizens and be competitive will be a leading city with global competitiveness and a place that provides a vibrant and attractive environment that citizens would want to live in.

Writer | Yoon HyeKyung, Research Professor, Yonsei University
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