The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of neighbourhoods and how they fare in terms of walkability and wheelability.
Neighbourhood walkability and wheelability are defined as the “measure of how well a neighbourhood fosters active forms of transportation.” Very walkable and wheelable neighbourhoods have built environments, or human-made surroundings, that support physical and social activity.
Built environment design features that characterize walkable and wheelable neighbourhoods can include sidewalks, curb cuts and pedestrian traffic signals. When appropriately constructed, these features can support inclusion and in many cases, neighbourhoods that are designed with this in mind are good for everyone.
Unfortunately, most neighbourhood built environments are not designed for everyone. They can in fact create exclusionary environments for people with disabilities and older adults.
The pandemic brings into focus neighbourhood walkability and wheelability by highlighting persistent inaccessibility issues. It also creates the opportunity to advocate for change and bring about rapid and innovative solutions.
Barriers and facilitators to mobility
As neighbourhood walkability and wheelability are impacted by the built environment, poorly maintained and constructed neighbourhoods can create barriers that prevent community access and eliminate opportunities to participate in local activities.
These barriers — like the condition of streets, sidewalks and crosswalks — can impact anyone but frequently affect those living with disabilities. Research finds that when streets are in even slight disrepair, people with severe mobility impairments are four times more likely to report difficulty walking compared to those living in “good” neighbourhoods (neighbourhoods without cracks in sidewalks and potholes). Even slightly increasing the quality of streets could help people both access and remain involved in their communities.
Simple measures, such as involving people with disabilities in research and planning, are found to create targeted solutions to barriers and enhance the accessibility of neighbourhoods.
In the past, there were limited opportunities for people with disabilities to have their opinions heard. With the recent rise of participatory research methods, however, they are increasingly working as “co-researchers.” This helps create opportunities for collaboration with municipal officials and community service providers.
The shift towards participatory research moves us away from only researchers collecting data. Innovative data collection methods, such as user-led environmental audit tools, champion this shift. They help capture the users’ perspective and provide a more holistic understanding of environmental features affecting walkability and wheelability.
Overlooked accessibility and COVID-19
Neighbourhood built environments create barriers to inclusion that have been intensified by the pandemic.
For example, added challenges that have arisen in response to the pandemic can include communication difficulties for those who are deaf and hard of hearing caused by plexiglass shields and masks, inaccessibility of hand hygiene products for mobility device users because they’re placed too high and increased navigational barriers like those from pop-up patios.
As the pandemic draws on, it has become glaringly clear that people living with disabilities have been inordinately impacted. By and large, these strategies were intended to help us but they bring into focus our habitual pattern of overlooking accessibility and not consulting those with lived experiences.
A historical opportunity to advocate for change
Canada is at a historical crossroads to becoming barrier-free. The recent ushering in of accessibility acts, at both the federal and provincial levels, is creating the necessary infrastructure to enforce the creation of accessible built environments and the equitable inclusion of people with disabilities.
Post-pandemic recovery presents an opportunity for creating accessible environments as barriers have been exposed and the need to involve those with experience in creating solutions has been reinforced.
The alignment of research, public and political will and the pandemic-era realization that radical and rapid social change is possible creates the perfect conditions to create a Canada that provides access for all.
Alison F. Chung is a research assistant at Simon Fraser University and co-authored this article. She is working with the authors on a project titled: Towards Barrier-Free Communities: A Partnership for Improving Mobility, Access and Participation (MAP) Among People with Disabilities.