January 15, 2018

Merriam-Webster offers several definitions for the word “equity,” including “the quality of being fair or impartial.” I taught my children the concept of equity from a very early age, with one rather unorthodox teaching approach involving the division of pie pieces. One child would cut the pie, and the other would get to choose the first piece. I made sure they understood that the pie should be divided based on each of their individual needs, such as age, size and the number of teeth they had for chewing! This taught them a type of fairness and sharing system that can also be viewed in the context of our communities in terms of equity, or equitable use. As it relates to communities, equity involves having fair access to the things we all have in common. In the first blog post of this series, I explore how architects, designers and planners have a huge responsibility, as well as the ability, to instill a strong sense of equity in the communities in which we work and live.

Breaking Down the Barriers

In order for something to be equitable, it not only has to be available to everyone, it also has to be accessible to everyone—regardless of an individual’s diverse abilities. To that point, I’ve seen many graphical depictions aimed at demonstrating the concept of equity, some of them visually conveying the difference between equity and equality, which are often mistaken for the same thing. One illustration that comes to mind is three people trying to watch a sporting event over the top of a fence. The people are of different heights, and the shorter of the three is having a more difficult time viewing the game than the others. While equality would give all the onlookers the same-size box to stand on to improve their vantage point, equity would give everyone a box to stand on that is sized to meet their individual needs so that each person can enjoy the same view. Not often seen in these graphics is the most effective solution to the problem—removing the barrier altogether. In terms of equity in design, striving to remove the barriers that put any user at a disadvantage should always be the goal.

As design professionals, we have the opportunity to address some of these barrier issues to improve the overall quality of life in our communities. In fact, certain building code regulations have been developed based on fairness, either due to disability or other best practices accommodations. The concept of equity is at the heart of “barrier-free” design, and is a testimony not only to making reasonable accommodations available, but to making them accessible to all users. Barrier-free water fountains are a prime example. While everyone should have access to drinking water, a person using a wheelchair at a water fountain that doesn’t comply with Americans with Disabilities (ADA) standards will face barriers that prevent them from reaching the water—even if it is available. Therefore, design accommodations must be made to an alternate drinking fountain so that the individual can easily reach the water. Likewise, older adults experiencing changes in vision, hearing, mobility or cognitive ability can experience similar barriers, and it is our responsibility as designers to accommodate these challenges in order to meet the needs of this important segment of the community.

Getting a Fair Piece of the Pie

Given this responsibility, could we do more as design professionals to facilitate equity in our communities? One practical way of approaching an answer to this question is by looking back at the “7 Principles of Universal Design” developed by Selwyn Goldsmith in 1963, and historically credited for being the springboard of the barrier-free movement. Universal Design serves to guide the design of environments in making them usable by all people to the greatest extent possible. Equitable use is the first principle in this concept, followed by flexibility in use, simplicity, perception, tolerance considerations, low physical effort for operation of items and fixtures, and size and space for approach and use. All of these principles work in concert to remove the barriers that often go unnoticed by many in a community’s population.

Communities are made up of diverse people, and on a daily basis, multiple “barriers” can impact a person’s quality of life within their environment, making equity in our communities a very important topic. And even though some of these physical as well as socioeconomic barriers cannot be completely removed, there is certainly the hope that many of these obstacles can be overcome through awareness, education, empathy and some “out-of-the-box” thinking when it comes to design, so that everyone has access to getting that fair piece of the pie, which we all deserve.