Accessibility promotes social inclusion, participation and diversity
Published on: May 24, 2023
Urbanisation, digitalisation and demographic trends are placing new complex demands on people, and on society as a whole. At Sweco, architects, engineers and experts work side by side to navigate a changing world and improve people’s living conditions and well-being.
We reached out to Emma Newman, Development Strategist in Social Sustainability at Sweco, to discuss the role of engineering consultants in creating environments and structures that are secure, understandable and accessible for everyone, regardless of age, limitation or impairment. Emma, who joined Sweco in 2010, holds a PhD and is a certified accessibility expert and wayfinding specialist managing complex architecture, traffic planning and infrastructure projects.
By understanding what people’s everyday lives are like in different contexts, I can innovatively design inclusive environments where everyone can participate and enjoy the same opportunities, without barriers or limitations.
Hello Emma! Tell us a bit about yourself and your interest in social sustainability and people’s participation in society.
I noticed as a child how the urban space around me was changing. Early on, I started wondering why society didn’t function more easily for people. After working for a few years with children, young people and the elderly, I started studying settlement development and design in Malmö, a building engineering programme focused on urban development and design issues. In parallel with this, I took courses at the School of Architecture in Lund on topics such as citizen involvement.
That’s when I became actively interested in a society that works for all people. I sometimes found the programme a bit too technical for me, until we started studying human rights. We spent a week doing things like trying to get around in a wheelchair, wearing glasses to simulate various visual impairments and learning about cognitive impairments. It was then that I realised the importance of understanding functional impairments and people’s diverse circumstances. Society will be so much better for everyone if we plan it based on those who have the most difficulties.
I understood that I wanted to influence soft values in the technical world and have been focused on the social perspective since 2003, when I completed my undergraduate studies. I then completed a postgraduate programme in traffic planning, wayfinding and accessibility at the Lund University Faculty of Engineering, LTH. Today, I work broadly with social sustainability issues grounded in an in-depth understanding of the fact that people have such a vast range of circumstances.
Why are accessibility and usability important to you?
The cornerstone of a socially sustainable society is having trust in people, between people and in social structures, which itself creates value. If I have a reduced ability to orient myself, I need to trust that society will provide me with the messages and information I need in the situations I encounter during the day. We’ve all experienced wayfinding difficulties in stressful situations. It can also be about a parent trusting that their child can walk safely to school or safely cross a street. People need to have trust in each other, in society and its structures, regardless of the context. Accessibility is about putting people at the centre of what we do and promoting equality and respect for people’s differences, needs and rights in cities and buildings.
As architects or engineers, we need to take it to another level – which people and situations are we designing the built environment for? Is it for elderly people, children, people with full mobility or people with impaired mobility and orientation? Or tourists, or people with different languages and cultural backgrounds? We really need to think outside of our own frame of reference to understand and meet the needs of different people.
By understanding what people’s everyday lives are like in different contexts, I can help to innovatively design inclusive environments where everyone can participate and enjoy the same opportunities, without barriers or limitations. Accessibility is important for us all, because it enables people to be independent and safe and to participate fully in society.
In practical terms, how do we work at Sweco to make our cities and communities more accessible?
For Sweco, it’s important to include accessibility in the early form and design stage and to integrate accessibility in our client projects. A range of different modes of transport and living environments are involved in urban development projects. Many features need to coexist in often limited spaces, which means that complex perspectives need to be managed simultaneously. Integrating the social perspective requires a methodical approach that clarifies the value of different aspects and therefore helps with prioritisation.
Sweco has experience from a wide range of projects involving design, consulting and advisory services, inventories, inspections and providing accessibility statements and remarks. We also provide training, educations and conduct research projects and investigations. Our projects normally involve a combination of areas of expertise encompassing accessibility, safety and security, walkability and increased movement in daily life, social participation, comprehensibility or wayfinding. With Sweco’s breadth and combined expertise across a range of disciplines and regulatory requirements, we can create teams that meet the specific needs of clients in various projects.
Accessibility is essentially about ensuring the minimisation of various barriers for people in environments. Our vision is for accessibility to be a natural component of design, and not viewed as an adaptation or add-on. Whether we’re talking about homes, workplaces, parks, hospitals or travel environments, society should be accessible and usable for all people – whether they have a functional impairment, are young or old, are pushing a pram or carrying heavy bags of groceries.
Participation is about increasing the share of groups represented in a particular context or providing them with the means to use a place. This may involve elderly people, children or those with functional impairments, or people from different countries or different social contexts. In Malmö, for instance, a new bus line from Rosengård to Västra Hamnen has been built to increase opportunities to travel between these areas. This is one way of working with social sustainability in purely planning terms.
Wayfinding means that people understand and can interpret where they are and how they can move to a specific destination. Good wayfinding is based on clear, comprehensible environments where we create a logical organisation using a universal architectural language in different scales. In an urban environment, it’s important to create orientation points (places, objects or sounds) that can also be partially perceived from greater distances. This may be a point people see from a distance to orient themselves, like City Hall here in Stockholm. At the same time, it must work for a person with reduced vision who needs several other types of orientation support, for example sound and tactile orientation points to get to City Hall.
What do you have to say to young architects or engineers who are interested in social sustainability?
If you’re particularly interested in social sustainability, I would encourage you to practice looking at the world through different eyes. Empathise with other people’s situations and living conditions – children, people from other cultures or social classes, people with functional impairments or other obstacles. Build trust as a person, colleague and community citizen. Take an interest in how we design an inclusive society where people are given the opportunity to act correctly, to live sustainably in their everyday lives. As architects or engineers, we can apply an in-depth knowledge of people’s needs to different situations and projects, creating added value for our clients and the society.
Selected projects with Emma Newman
Accessibility in focus – extension of Stockholm Metro to Nacka and Gullmarsplan/South Stockholm
Client: Stockholm County Council
In 2030, Nacka and Stockholm Central Station will be connected by 11 kilometres of new tunnels and tracks – part of the largest investment in the Stockholm Metro in modern times. Sweco and TYPSA were commissioned by Region Stockholm in 2014 to design a new section of the Blue Line: the Metro line to Nacka and South Stockholm, a major and complex project covering seven new stations and requiring leading-edge expertise in a range of disciplines.
Emma Newman joined Sweco’s project team in 2016 as technical manager for accessibility. She ensures compliance with social values based on different traveller groups and the needs of children, the elderly and people with functional impairments to travel safely and securely along the entire extended Metro line. People’s diverse needs have been discussed and applied in consultation with architects, artists and others with regard to station design, placement of features and ambient impact. Other project deliverables include studies, evaluations, reviews and input on tender document requirements.
Several stations and entrances will be equipped with high-speed, high-capacity elevators with room for up to 40 passengers per elevator and an estimated travel time of 30-40 seconds. The Sofia station for instance, will have eight elevators, which will make the ride down to the platform much shorter and require travellers to act or behave a bit differently. Emma Newman has been responsible for the investigations and design prerequisite produced for the high-speed elevators. The instructions and requirements have been based on achieving safety, usability and accessibility for all groups of travellers by applying design and information concepts and requirements for the elevators’ features. The requirements were developed by a team of people responsible for architecture, lifts, acoustics, lighting design, installations and telecom.
photo credit: Region Stockholm/Sweco
Sustainable station environments – a study of sound environment , travel quality and regulatory compliance
Client: Swedish Transport Administration
The quality of a train station’s sound environment affects our ability to orientate ourselves, hear traffic information announcements, enable speech intelligibility, and feel safe and comfortable in an environment characterised by stress, high sound volumes and large flows of information.
On behalf of the Swedish Transport Administration, Emma led a research project on acoustics and wayfinding designed to improve the country’s station environments to make travelling easier and more pleasant. The overall, long-term goal is to improve the management of complex sound environments, with a focus on travellers’ needs, by developing workable methods and tools for the designing, construction and maintenance of station environments.
“The study shows the importance of the sound environment from several perspectives. A central conclusion is that the interaction and coordination between many different technologies is required when planning a station,” says Emma. “We conducted sound measurements at relatively newly built stations that turned out to have relatively good acoustic conditions and good loudspeaker systems. Even so, the aggregate result of the various features failed to meet the needs of travellers. I hope our reports will be useful in the Traffic Administration’s work going forward, including its efforts to develop requirements that help make our stations usable for everyone.” The report is available (in Swedish) on the Swedish Transport Administration’s website.
Safe rest and camping sites for Destination Åsnen
Client: Destination Småland
Destination Åsnen, located about 20 minutes south of Växjö, covers a unique lake archipelago with over 1,000 islands and 700 kilometres of shoreline, the Åsnen National Park and 12 nature reserves. Sweco worked on the pre-study for rest and camping sites, with regional design collaboration. Targeted to identify and create the foundation for developing a long-term, sustainable service infrastructure for visitors to Destination Åsnen, the pre-study examined conditions for a sustainable service expansion that would benefit the local community, landowners, business owners, visitors and nature. Emma Newman was responsible for implementing the security perspective by integrating a universal design perspective that accommodates various visitors and target groups.
New toll station design at Øresund Bridge
Client: Øresundsbro Konsortiet
The Øresund Bridge is a 16-km fixed link between Sweden and Denmark, with more than half a million vehicles passing through the toll stations each month. Sweco was commissioned to examine the ease of access of the bridge’s toll station, and Emma Newman spearheaded an investigation that gave input to and resulted in a new toll station design for the Øresund Bridge. Drivers demonstrated high levels of uncertainty in traffic when passing through the toll station, which is located on a high-speed motorway. Drivers’ behaviour posed significant safety risks to themselves, other road users and tollstation employees. The study identified three contributing factors:
1. The scene was too confusing – drivers were uncertain about what they were meant to do.
2. Too many messages were presented at once and signage messaging was not presented in the correct order.
3. Drivers were travelling at too high a speed.
Emma Newman worked on redesigning toll station directional signage and technology based on an orientation perspective. The proposed measures have produced good results and well-functioning toll station traffic accessibility.
Photo credit: Øresundsbro Konsortiet