Universal Design for the Outdoor Environment: Beyond the Threshold

Universal Design aspires to ensure that all products and built environments are accessible and enjoyable to everyone. In this article, Tom Brickell explores the importance of making our outdoor environments more accessible; the challenges experienced by many people; and the benefits to developers and wider society.

We advocate early consideration of Universal Design in our projects, improving the way that all users can engage with the places that we help to create. This article provides an introduction to the subject of Universal Design for clients wishing to broaden the user-friendliness of their outdoor environments.

Universal Design

The concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.

The Centre for Universal Design, NC State University

What is Universal Design?

The term Universal Design (UD) was coined in 1997 by the late Ronald Mace, leading a cross-discipline working group of designers at the North Carolina State University. To qualify, a product or environment must abide by seven design principles, namely:

  1. Equitable use;
  2. Flexibility in use;
  3. Simple and intuitive;
  4. Perceptible Information;
  5. Tolerance for Error;
  6. Low Physical Effort;
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use.

Universal Design is an ethos which has helped to revolutionise product design and built environments globally. In the UK, it has driven movements towards ‘Inclusive Design’ and ‘equality’, now recognised both in statute and Building Regulations.

At its core, Universal Design seeks to ensure that design meets the needs of all people who wish to use it. It does not require anyone to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ or declare their individual needs in order to make use of and enjoy the design.

If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits. By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples’ needs. Simply put, universal design is good design.

Centre for Excellence in Universal Design (CEUD)

If Universal Design is simply ‘good design’, why then is it still not commonplace?

The Challenge

A major barrier to the application of Universal Design is the lack of public awareness of the difficulties encountered by people in relation to the environment. ‘Tangible’ barriers, including mobility difficulties and sight impairments tend to be widely understood. Such challenges have been well-referenced in built environment design guidelines for many years. They inform the design of horizontal circulation and vertical level changes; issues which have become embedded within the UK’s Building Regulations.

Less tangible barriers to people’s use and enjoyment of the environment have proven to be less well understood by designers of the built environment. For example, whilst it is understood that there are around 700.000 autistic people in the UK, which equates to approximately 1 in 100 people¹, their needs are often not understood and catered for. Whilst autistic people may experience their environment in a variety of ways, common challenges often relate to the processing of sensory inputs. The video below helps to illustrate some of the sensory challenges faced by autistic people.

How it feels to experience sensory overload


There are many architects pioneering architectural design responses for autistic people. However, even among the pioneers, there is a focus on the creation of niche buildings. Beyond the threshold of the controllable building environment, design efforts tend to be more limited in approach when it comes to the exterior of buildings and their courtyard and garden areas. Efforts to embrace Universal Design principles in broader terms, and especially for the outdoor environment, fall far behind.

Public streets and squares, transport nodes, parks, play areas, historic and natural landscapes all present barriers to a significant proportion of the population. People may be alienated by virtue of age, gender, physical or neurological conditions. And yet, access to the outdoors, connecting with the natural environment or having an opportunity to connect with wider society, offer significant social, health and well-being benefits.

A typical traffic-dominated urban environment

Dr. Peter Blank, Chairman of the GUDC notes that:

“…there are measurable economic and social benefits for everyone when universal design is considered – women and men, elders and children, people with disabilities and those without, people using different languages and from different cultures. Practicing UD broadens markets and increases consumer satisfaction because it addresses differences and preferences of all types.”

If the benefits to society are so clear, what can we do to ensure that built and natural environments truly become universal?

Landscape architects are uniquely placed to apply the principles of Universal Design to positively shape the outdoor environment.

“Landscape practitioners have the vision needed to revitalise urban areas and neglected landscapes, creating spaces that benefit us in many ways. Ultimately their work aims to bring people closer to the environments in which they live.”²

Bathampton Bridge – providing universal access to our green spaces

At Nicholas Pearson Associates, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to design external environments for many clients across a diverse range of work sectors. We seek opportunities to ensure that developments we can influence are instinctively more accessible, inclusive and equal to everyone. To help, we have developed our own Universal Design toolkit which provides a checklist for the design of outdoor spaces.

Our Toolkit considers the following:

  • Designed for All;
  • Inspired by Nature;
  • Calm and Simple;
  • Scale and Proportion;
  • Sensory Zoning;
  • Movement and Transition.
Tintagel Castle Footbridge and Footpaths
Access for all at Tintagel Castle

The toolkit aims to highlight considerations for our clients and to guide design teams from the outset. It is used to identify opportunities to ‘design in’ universally accessible spaces and ‘design out’ specific locational challenges.


It is in all our interests to make the outdoors more accessible and enjoyable for everyone. The benefits to society include economic, health and social well-being. Universal Design is an ideology which seeks to guide designers to shape places and products which are accessible to everyone. It challenges the notions that places can be ‘adjusted’ or that people should make reasonable adjustments to enable their access and enjoyment. This approach traditionally caters for specific user needs; particularly where these are physically discernible, at the expense of a large proportion of the population with invisible conditions, such as sensory processing difficulties. Instead, we should aspire to make our built environments accessible and welcoming to everyone.

Wonderful examples of Universal Design exist in the world of product design and architecture, and whilst acknowledging that there are also great well-designed outdoor environments, the majority are not yet ‘Universal’ in their ambition, and execution. This is a challenge that should be met by all professionals working in the design and construction industry.

A ‘natural’ design with flowing paths following contours and linking to sequences of activity spaces

Landscape architects are uniquely positioned to shape, curate and manage the built environment for the benefit of everyone by applying the principals of Universal Design beyond the threshold of the built form. From the earliest stages of a project, we can appraise the potential of an existing landscape or built environment and develop a clear strategy for maximising accessibility and enjoyment of the space.


¹ The NHS Information Centre, Community and Mental Health Team, Brugha, T. et al (2012). Estimating the prevalence of autism spectrum conditions in adults: extending the 2007 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey. Leeds: NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care.

² www.landscapeinstitute.org/about/landscape-practice/

Tom is a Chartered Landscape Architect with extensive experience in the assessment, design, and implementation of landscape schemes across a diverse selection of projects throughout the UK.

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