A San Francisco architect has taken on a unique challenge by contemplating what a city designed for the blind would look like.

Chris Downey is an architect who suddenly went blind in 2008 following a removal of a brain tumour. In a recent TED talk, Downey outlined the fears and misconceptions that come with navigating through a city without sight.

Every day, visually impaired people are challenged by streetscape features such as street furniture, roads under construction, and broken or uneven surfaces. Navigating these elements through busy city crowds can make things even more hazardous.

Chris Downey, architect

Architect Chris Downey

Downey refered to his learnings as “outsights” rather than insights and noted that city residents demonstrate great kindness towards blind people.

“Disability and blindness cuts across ethic, social, racial and economic lines,” he said. “Disability is an equal opportunity provider and everyone is welcome.”

Downey has found the community connection surprising, beyond a form of “pity,” and suggested blind people can have a positive influence on cities encouraging people to “share humanity and togetherness.”

He also emphasised the challenges of learning to rely on non-visual senses when navigating through a city and its architecture.

Melbourne Braille Signs

Melbourne Braille Signs

“There are things that you would otherwise maybe ignore, there is a whole new world of sensory information that opens up to you,” he said.

Downey noted that cities and districts have their own smell for example, adding that there are subtle sounds he has connected with landmarks, intersections and spaces throughout the city of San Francisco.

“Similarly, just through the grip of the cane, you can feel contrasting textures in the floor below and over time it builds a pattern of where you are or where you’re headed,” he explained. “…the sun warming one side of your face, the wind at your neck gives you clues about your alignment and your progression through a block and your movement through your time and space.”

Downey’s observations highlight the fact that cities should be barrier-free and pedestrian friendly, offer seamless navigation and safety, and feature design elements that include everyone.

Tactile Ground Surface Indicator

Tactile ground surface indicator

Striving for a similar objective, The City of Melbourne has just announced an initiative to introduce new signs for the visually impaired as part of a greater Disability Action Plan for the city.

Working with Vision Australia and Health Science Planning consultants, The City of Melbourne will install 80 tactile street nameplates with Braille characters on traffic signal poles at 10 major intersections across the CBD.

“The new signs are particularly good for interstate travellers who don’t know the city but even locals can get distracted while out and about,” Brandon Ah Tong-Pereira of Vision Australia told Melbourne News. “These signs are a good way to reorientate yourself.”

In highly populated cities, other initiatives for the visually impaired include audio directions at transport stops, while in New York many of the crosswalks feature voice boxes.

Along with relying on memory, guide dogs or a cane support, the integration of smart phones delivering audio instructions can assist those without sight including current mobility aids including NOMAD, an audio tactile tool that reads maps and Sonic Guides that can detect physical obstacles in a person’s path.

Navigating through busy streets

Navigating through busy streets

Other cities have installed touch reading for the blind and most urban settings feature tactile ground surface indicators where floors are raised to indicate a change in ground level or direction. Ample illumination and handrails along pathways are other considerations for the urban landscape.

Claudia Folska, a student at the University of Colorado Denver who has been blind since she was five years old, understands these challenges. She is currently studying a doctorate in urban planning and cognitive science searching for ways to make cities easier to navigate.

Speaking to Wired Magazine, she detailed research in which she asked people without sight to draw maps and routes to their destinations while verbally highlighting any landmarks.

“Indeed, most people with sight, including designers, planners, and architects, do not notice the minuscule details,” Folska explained of the results. “Some of the most revealing elements in these maps are the dead zones—empty spaces that are so pedestrian-unfriendly that blind people avoid them entirely.”

Claudia Folska

Claudia Folska

Downey concluded his TED talk with a call to design cities in a way that would help not only the visually impaired but all city-dwellers.

“I want to propose to you today that the blind be taken as the prototypical city dwellers when imagining new and wonderful cities, and not the people that are thought about after the mold has already been cast,” he said. “If you design a city with the blind in mind, sidewalks will be predictable and will be generous. The space between buildings will be well-balanced between people and cars.”