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HomeUniversal Design Reduces Social Isolation

Universal Design Reduces Social Isolation


Social isolation and loneliness are widespread in our country, affecting three out of four Americans. In 2010, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) did a study on loneliness and discovered that 55% of the respondents who were lonely were in poor health and tended to have less contact with friends. Architects and design professionals can use Universal Design to reduce social isolation by allowing easier access for all people in public spaces. Universal Design is a way to give easy access to all spaces by all individuals.  It is applicable to building entrances, areas of recreation and to the public way. Universal Design also means finding safer ways for all people to access transportation to and from restaurants, shopping, churches and parks. For seniors, it is safe and accessible access to activities with family and friends. Universal Design is a way for us to better connect all people to physical places that can increase our sense of community and connection to friends and family.

For example, publicly accessible parks and playgrounds are a way for families and children of all abilities to enjoy time together. Access to the playground should be kept level with the play surface while at the same time keeping safety in mind for young kids who might tumble from the equipment. Wide sidewalks will allow room for scooters, wheelchairs and seniors to walk while other activities go by in the other direction, without having anyone bumped off the sidewalk. Accessible access to benches along a walking path provides a place for everyone to rest. Easy, level access from parking to each activity at the park ensures that everyone can enjoy time together outside.  If everyone can safely enjoy the park together, we increase the chances that people will meet up with friends and family. 

Technology can allow us to find groups of people we relate to and connect with people in new places. Accessible websites can allow blind users to use screen readers to find information such as locations and hours of operation. As architects, we can provide covered arrival points for wheelchair users to get in and out of buses or vans. We can provide interior waiting areas with line sight to a vehicle waiting area. We can provide accessible charging stations for electric vehicles and electric wheelchairs.  In these ways, we can encourage people of all abilities to use technology to safely get out into the world.

Senior living communities now bring together many elements of Universal Design in their continuing care retirement communities. As we live longer lives, we often face physical barriers, lower vision, mobility issues, and reduced hearing levels. It is estimated that 54 million US adults have some form of arthritis which can limit walking distances and reach ranges. Senior living campuses are often designed with easy to read signage, bright lighting, and indoor access to all buildings on the campus, so you don't even have to go outside to reach the dining area or the cards room. These communities allow seniors to remain independent in their own apartment homes, but still easily connect and maintain social relationships with friends. A community center connected to all buildings for church services means you don't miss out on the sermon if there is inclement weather. Retirement communities bring seniors together and reduce physical barriers that cause isolation and loneliness.

In these ways, we as architects can help connect generations, reduce loneliness, and help us build deeper connections to those we love. Being in nature or watching a sports game or children playing on a playground can brighten anyone's day. Using technology to find an accessible meeting place can bring people with common hobbies together. As we all age, knowing that we have easy access to safe places and friends just down the hall means we can all be happier. As architects, we are responsible for the health, safety and welfare of all our buildings occupants and Universal Design can help us achieve these goals.  

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About the Author
Natalie Crawford is an architect in Dallas, Texas, and employed at JHP Architects.  She has experience in all phases of design and construction for senior living and multifamily housing projects.  She enjoys reviewing drawings in her office for Fair Housing, TAS and ICC A117.1. When not working, she enjoys spending time with her husband (also an architect), her son and dog.  She joined the APA in 2019 and looks forward to learning more about accessibility and universal design.