For most able-bodied people, navigating a hectic urban environment, especially when they are unfamiliar with it, can be a challenge. But the blind, deaf, and elderly can have twice the difficulties. With Ross Atkin and Associates' Responsive Street Furniture, however, street lights and crosswalks can momentarily step forward to meet the needs of individuals using them.
Users of the service, which was created in partnership with U.K. landscaping manufacturer Marshalls, would create a unique account on a website and select their preferences for accessibility, including brighter streetlights with better tonal contrast, more places to sit, and audio information in different languages. The site stores users' data, as does their smartphone or key fob; the responsive street beacons then detect the phone or fob as they walk by, automatically adjusting these qualities accordingly.
"Working on research shadowing disabled people as they move through public space I was struck by how much of the design of our streets was defined by a tradeoff between the needs of different people," said designer Ross Atkin. "When a device or application can adapt it can meet the needs of an individual much more completely, rather than trying to be the best compromise between everyone."
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Though it would take decades to put such equipment everywhere that it is needed, there is plenty that architects and planners can do to make spaces more comfortable for all: in 2012, for example, Gallaudet University released a set of DeafSpace Guidelines designed to make vision easier for those communicating with sign language.
Atkin has been working for a year and a half, and they installed their first outdoor responsive item (a talking bollard) as part of the 'Never Mind the Bollards' exhibition on Store Street in London. For now, a demonstration of Responsive Street Furniture is on view as part of the 2015 Designs of the Year exhibition at the Design Museum in London from the 25th of March to the 23rd of August.
"The system we are building can advantage anyone who might need a street experience different from 'the average person'... Many of the assistance the infrastructure can provide is not just helpful for people who identify as disabled, the longer crossing timing can also help people with small children for example," added Atkin in an email.