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Disability, inclusion, and urban resilience ADB projects featured at COP26

March 2022

Rapidly urbanizing populations and increasing challenges from climate change necessitate significant investment in urban infrastructure across the Asia-Pacific region. However, questions of disability and inclusivity are often missing from discussions about building urban climate resilience. The COP26 side event, “Disability, Resilience and Inclusion in our Cities – inclusive design and community-led urban solutions for disability-inclusive climate resilience”, was co-hosted by the Global Disability Innovation Hub (GDI Hub) and Asian Development Bank, on November 11th, 2021. The event highlighted the urgent need to design cities that reflect people’s diverse and needs, whilst at the same time being made more resilient to a changing climate.

Moderated by Asha Hans, gender, disability and climate change scholar, the expert panel included, Iain McKinnon, Director of Inclusive Design, GDI Hub; Manoj Sharma, Chief of Urban Sector Group, ADB; Ibnu Sina, Mayor of Banjarmasin, Indonesia; Ahmad Rifai, Executive Director, Kota Kita Foundation; and Gordon Rattray, European Disability Forum.

Introducing the event, Asha Hans explained that climate change and widening inequality exacerbated in recent times by the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted the need for flexible and responsive urban design that responds to a diverse range of needs and protects the whole of society from climate change and other environmental hazards. “We must ensure that in the global search for resilience for all, people with disabilities are not left out,” she said. “To ensure this people with disabilities must be included in the urban development conversation”.

Resilience for all

ADB’s Manoj Sharma provided further context to the discussions pointing out that globally, 1 in 7 people are disabled and 80% live in highly climate vulnerable places. “Trends in the Asia Pacific region are also significant” he explained, “70% of global population with disabilities, some 690 million people live in Asia Pacific, and there is a rapidly aging population. By 2050, 1 in 4 people will be over 60. This means that there is ever greater need to design cities in an inclusive way, whilst at the same time ensuring that the population is protected from the worsening impacts of climate change”.

Cities can already be hostile places for disabled citizens, who face a wide range of challenges when navigating the urban landscape. However, discussions of inclusion are often missing from the climate resilience debate, which will lead inevitably to adaptation measures being implemented that do not meet the needs of disabled people. Flooding for example, presents a big threat to many cities across Asia. Many of the measures to combat flooding rely on raising infrastructure further off the ground or constructing barriers to prevent water from entering homes or shops. Without careful considerations around access requirements such measures can further inhibit disabled people.

Ibnu Sina, Mayor of Banjarmasin City, Indonesia told the story of a partially deaf motorcycle taxi driver working in the city. “It rains more now in our city than it did before. Each time the heavy rains start, the taxi driver has to stop and seek shelter, he can’t continue to work. Why? Because his hearing aid is not waterproof.” These are the small things that make the world of difference to people’s lives and livelihoods.

Mr. Sina went on to discuss the wide range of climate resilience initiatives in the city, including an inclusive rehabilitation programme for a major river that runs through the city. The participatory process for river upgrading and redesign saw students from the local university, architects and planners work closely with the surrounding community, including with people with disabilities, to shape the design improvements to the environment around the river. The process ensured that improved mobility was be built into the plans with wider pedestrian areas and infrastructure to help guide the visually impaired.

Inclusive urban design

Mr Sharma emphasised that ADB has adopted this among its priorities, with the bank publishing its Strategy 2030 calling for an “inclusive, resilient and sustainable Asia and the Pacific” and developing a new disability inclusive roadmap that will be implemented of the next five years. He also gave practical examples of where this approach was being implemented, citing examples from ADB projects including Karachi’s bus rapid transit red line project, delivering affordable public transport with universal design; and an inclusive, resilient housing project for the urban poor in Tamil Nadu, India.

Urban planners, architects and designers clearly also have a big role to play in considering the needs of all citizens in urban development. Ahmad Rifai, of the Indonesian NGO Kota Kita, explained that there were many design solutions already available to make things more inclusive, including ensuring that emergency management materials and information is made available in formats that are accessible to the visually and hearing impaired, and ensuring that new infrastructure developments were accessible to all residents. He emphasised the urgency of making these changes saying, “the disruption caused by climate change is not an issue for the future; flooding in certain cities here in Indonesia happen on a daily basis, this is not a problem that occurs just once in a while.”

Part of the process

The central message of the event was that a city that is resilient for persons with disabilities, is one that is resilient for all. To achieve this, they must be an active part of the planning and development process. This was a point that was stressed by Gordon Rattray of the European Disability Forum. “People with disabilities bring the expertise and experience that they have. These changes lead to inclusive societies across all areas, health, education, transport and so on. When you have an inclusive strong, resilient society in everyday life, then it is stronger and more capable to deal with climate shocks.”

For Rattray, one of the biggest challenges is the perception that people with disabilities are not equal partners to everyone else at the table. “People with disabilities need to be involved from the start to the finish, not a tick box exercise or small consultation,” he said. To foster the enabling environment for inclusive resilience, he outlined four pillars:

  1. Legal and institutional requirements that stipulate accessibility and inclusion in development planning, design and implementation.

  2. Clear and relevant guidelines that help ensure that laws are enforced.

  3. Incentives and mechanisms to include disabled people in development processes.

  4. Ongoing training for key professionals including planners and designers.

The event was closed by Iain McKinnon, Co-Founder and Director of the GDI Hub, emphasising that climate change demands significant design changes to our cities and that we need to ensure that when climate resilient infrastructure is planned, it needs to be inclusive of all people including persons with disabilities to make it sustainable now and well into the future. He ended with a message of hope saying “we know that the future must be inclusive of disabled people. The good news is that we know how to do it. We just need more people to apply it.”

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