Guest blog by Amita Bhakta
As we face the challenges of climate change, the importance of having housing which is low-impact and ecological is gradually increasing. Yet at the same time, it also needs to be recognised that in Britain, there is a continually ageing population; over 23% of the population will be over the age of 65 by 2035, and the ‘baby boomer’ generation who were born in the 1960s will be in their early 70s (1). Despite this however, besides the fact that British housing contributes to 27% of total national carbon emissions (2) the majority of our housing stock is inaccessible to disabled people. 95% of housing in England alone has been reported to be inaccessible to wheelchair users (3), indicating that our housing is not only ill-equipped to face the many challenges we face through climate change, but also that it is not suited to meet the needs of people with different abilities, as we age and as our needs change. In light of this, I have researched the accessibility of sustainable communities and eco-living for disabled people in England. This research was conducted as part of a Masters in Research (MRes) in Geography at the University of Leicester between October 2012 and September 2013.
However, sustainable communities have failed to learn from the mistakes made in British housing in the past, providing inaccessible environments in which to live, and there are different factors which contribute to this.
Disability requires re-definition in order to provide access in sustainable communities
If sustainable communities are to provide better accessibility and inclusion, there is a need to re-visit and re-define what is meant by ‘disability’. Over the years, the meaning of disability has been widely debated. A lack of agreement has meant that the traditional, medical model of disability, which argues that disability is an ‘individual’ problem caused due to bodily abnormalities (4), has been challenged by the social model of disability, which argues that it is society that causes disability rather than medical problems. The social model focuses on how disability is caused by the way in which society is structured, and in particular, how social activities can exclude those who are less able (5).
When we look at sustainable communities in greater depth, what is clear is that these debates and confusion surrounding the meaning of disability has fed into the ways in which sustainable communities are designed, built, and socially organised. In particular, there is a need to expand the meaning of disability much further, to not only incorporate commonly held perceptions surrounding differences in mobility, but to also appreciate the more subtle aspects of disability which are experienced through poor dexterity.
As a researcher with Cerebral Palsy, although I can walk independently, I have “floppy” muscles and so I have less strength in my body in comparison to able-bodied people and tire more easily. I have a very unsteady gait when I am walking and poor balance, and so I am more likely to fall at any given time, and sometimes I need assistance in walking over ground which is particularly uneven. I find it hard to keep up with able-bodied people when I am walking. My “floppy” muscles and poor coordination lead to me drooling quite frequently, and this has significant impacts upon my speech. During the research, I used my experiences of disability to explore accessibility at the Hockerton Housing Project, a five-house earth sheltered terrace community in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. This highlighted that when we look at access in sustainable communities, we need to also understand how people may have varying mobility disabilities.
If we look at accessibility at Hockerton through mobility in terms of speed and range of movement, it is clear that sustainable communities are not only inaccessible, but also this inaccessibility has diverse implications for how we understand and cater for different forms of disability. Figure 1.1 and 1.2 provide maps of my speed and range of movement in different parts of Hockerton.
Figure 1.1 Speed of movement through Hockerton Housing Project
Figure 1.2 Range of movement through Hockerton Housing Project
As these maps show, the speed and the range of movement in terms of the extent of how much help I need to get around Hockerton decline as I moved further away from the houses and into the broader community. Another interesting aspect to note is that as distance from the houses increase, the various areas of the community at Hockerton are used for increasingly ‘ablest’ activities which are suited to able-bodied people, from rearing sheep, to growing vegetables, to coppicing. Although it may theoretically be feasible for a mobility-impaired person to reach the outer areas of the site, the challenging nature of the community environment may pose difficulties in returning to the homes easily due to fatigue. This raises significant questions over the participation of disabled people in activities around the community environment, and the extent of independence they may have in living in a sustainable community. By re-developing the concept of ‘disability’ to include mobility, we can understand that sustainable communities at present compromise the inclusion of disabled people.
Eco-living requires a significant level of dexterity, both within the house and in the community environment. For example, for eco-houses to work effectively, they require a significant level of manual operation, such as opening and closing triple glazed windows for temperature control. Yet, disabled people with poor dexterity and strength have been ignored in eco-housing design, and eco-housing has failed to cater for their needs. Heavier, triple-glazed windows and ill-designed internal door handles at Hockerton were factors which highlight that subtle aspects of disability need greater attention in eco-housing design. If we spread into the community, attending to animals such as chickens and sheep is a part of everyday life at Hockerton. However, difficult latches and heavier gates to operate on animal pens can prevent disabled people from fully participating in ecological living activities. Unless sustainable communities can incorporate these subtle aspects of disability into design of housing and eco-living infrastructure, there is a significant risk that disabled people are likely to be excluded from a multitude of aspects of ecological living. Commonly held benefits of living in a sustainable community such as having a connection to nature and feeling part of the community risk being reserved for the able-bodied, unless we re-define and incorporate a new meaning of disability in community design.
Sustainability overrides accessibility for disabled people
Ensuring that houses and community environments have a low ecological impact is prioritised at the expense of providing accessibility for disabled people in sustainable communities. In many cases, accessibility regulations such as Part M and the Lifetime Homes Standards are not strictly followed, and are overridden by a strong focus upon minimising environmental impact and having ecological features, rather than ensuring that homes and communities are accessible. This is often because the self-commissioned nature of some sustainable communities gives residents and community developers greater control over how the community is designed, and accessibility is less of a priority. Prioritising ecological impact over access antagonises inclusivity for disabled people in eco-housing and in community environments.
For example, higher step-over thresholds feature at the entrances to eco-housing. One of the key aspects of providing accessible housing according to national policy guidelines is the provision of low and flush thresholds at the entrance to the home for ease of access. Yet, eco-housing design fails to be able to cater for those with different abilities at the entrance to the home. Higher thresholds are built into eco-housing for the purposes of heat retention and air tightness, in order to reduce the high environmental impacts made through heating. However, this limits accessibility into the home, particularly for wheelchair users who would find it more difficult to pass over higher thresholds. Access for people with mobility difficulties is also greatly compromised, as features such as this are designed with the premise that users would have a great level of strength to carry themselves over a threshold, which does not necessarily apply to disabled people.
If we look beyond the house and towards the outdoor environment, the practice of permaculture itself is inherently exclusive of disabled people. Permaculture involves the practice of permanent, sustainable agriculture by encouraging residents to be self reliant through agricultural practices, and promotes the ability for nature to grow freely and sustain itself. However, allowing nature to overtake footpaths and areas intended for use by residents compromises accessibility for disabled people in the sustainable community environment. Nature itself can make the environment more difficult to pass through, for both wheelchair users and those with mobility disabilities. This restricts participation in a wider range of eco-living activities and can mean that sustaining the natural environment can exclude disabled people from involvement in community activities. More progress is needed to collectively consider the accessibility of the environment, the inclusivity of social community structures for disabled people and environmental sustainability.
Further, trying to incorporate materials into the community environment which are low impact can also restrict accessibility. At Hockerton Housing Project, a waste-finish road was incorporated to avoid the need for concrete, which has a high environmental impact. Yet, design such as this has caused difficulties in provision of effective access for wheelchair users. Interestingly, these features can also create subtle forms of exclusion; my own experiences at Hockerton meant that as I was walking along the road, I was constantly wary of and trying to avoid potholes in case I fell. Focussing upon being ecological therefore has diverse negative implications for accessibility and inclusivity for disabled people.
Although policy can inform accessibility in sustainable communities, top-down policy itself alone is not the answer to providing inclusive ecological living. As highlighted above, sustainable communities often face challenges in terms of meeting policy regulations for accessibility as well as ensuring that they are sustainable; all too often, this is a precarious balance to find. Whilst it cannot be denied that better planning is needed, accessibility in sustainable communities can only be achieved if we go beyond policy. Different groups such as disabled and able-bodied residents, architects, builders and planners involved in eco-building need to work together from a grassroots approach.
For instance, Lilac in Leeds is a newly-built community, which at the time of my research was still under construction. But, as one of the newest communities in the UK, they have actively sought to not only follow guidelines from regulations such as Part M and notably the Disability Discrimination Act (1995), but also to ensure that they work with residents together to ensure that their different needs are met. By doing so, they are trying to create a community which is both diverse yet equal, and as inclusive as possible. After seeing the work at Lilac, I am hopeful and optimistic that newer communities are heading towards greater access and inclusivity. But, there remains work to be done. Existing sustainable communities still need to work with residents both disabled and able bodied to provide inclusive ecological living for all, be it through changing and adapting homes and community environments, or creating activities which enhance the experiences of eco-living for a wide range of abilities yet provide a sense of community connection. Ultimately, the ideas for these communities came from the grassroots, and whilst the solutions to their accessibility issues can be informed by policy, they must also come from changes in attitude and practice at the grassroots too.
I would like to thank all who have participated in the study in interviews and surveys. Thank you to the residents at the Hockerton Housing Project for helping me with my research, I really enjoyed working with you. A warm thank you to Jenny for your brilliant guidance throughout my MRes, and a very special thanks to Adam and James for your support in the field.
(1) Office for National Statistics (2012) Population Ageing in the United Kingdom, its Constituent Countries and the European Union Accessed online at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_258607.pdf
(2) Department for Communities and Local Government (2007) Building a greener future: policy statement London: The Stationary Office
(3) Imrie R (2006) Accessible Housing: Quality, Disability and Design London: Routledge
(4) Barnes C and Mercer G (2010) Exploring Disability: A Sociological Introduction (2nd edition) Cambridge: Polity Press
(5) UPIAS (1976) Fundamental principles of disability London: Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation
Amita is a postgraduate researcher at the Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC), School of Civil and Building Engineering, Loughborough University. You can contact Amita for any further questions at A.N.Bhakta@lboro.ac.uk
[Leicestershire, 24th February 2014]