A ten-year development of accessibility in the outdoor environment : Municipal challenges and older people’s perception

Sammanfattning: In an inaccessible outdoor environment, older people and people with disabilities can experience environmental barriers. The environmental barriers can restrict them and their abilities to walk. Environmental barriers can be avoided by designing the outdoor environment to meet the needs of older people and people with disabilities. This thesis focuses on accessibility in Sweden from two perspectives; societal challenges and user perception. It explores how the societal challenge of removing environmental barriers has been met and how removing environmental barriers can affect user perception ofthe outdoor environment. In Sweden, accessibility has been subjected to laws and regulations since the late fifties. In 1999 accessibility issues received increased attention through an action plan for disability policy. The implementation process has been somewhat monitored, showing that there are considerable differences in level of implemented accessibility policy in the municipalities. Studies exploring the impact of intervention in the outdoor environment are scarce. Such studies have, in most cases, focused on older people and the impact of interventions on their perception of the outdoor environment and frequency of walking. However, it is difficult to establish causal links in intervention studies with older people. During the implementation phase and until the after-study, older people age and ageing can have considerable impact on their perception of the environment. It is difficult to know whether changes in perception can be attributed to ageing or changes in the outdoor environment. Therefore, we need of studies that explore intervention studies over a long period. In this thesis, the societal challenge of removing environmental barriers (the Municipality Study), explores implementation of accessibility policy in municipal transport planning. The implementation process is explored through the eyes of municipal transport planners, with a mixed-method approach. The Municipality Study is based on a previously executed study. Therefore, the process of implementation of accessibility policy was explored in a longitudinal perspective. The level of implemented accessibility policy was quantified with indices. Then, municipalities were split into two groups, those that have increased their level of implemented accessibility policy ("ITOT”) and those that have increased their level of implemented accessibility policy (“D-TOT”). The user perception of the outdoor environment (the User Study), was explored through the eyes of older people, using a questionnaire. The User Study is based on a previously executed study, where an intervention was carried out in one neighbourhood (Study Area (SA)) in a middle-sized town in Sweden. The User Study explores the impact of an intervention by comparing perception of the outdoor environment with another area, reference area (RA) where no accessibility measures had been introduced. Furthermore, the User Study explores the impact of an intervention on older people’s perceptions of the outdoor environment in a longitudinal perspective. That is, while controlling for ageing. Results from the Municipality Study showed that there are considerable differences between municipalities regarding the implementation process of accessibility policy. “D-TOT” started early on implementing accessibility policy, only to reduce the efforts. “I-TOT” municipalities seem to have had later implementation starts. More municipalities have established accessibility plans and more have hired accessibility advisors. On the other hand, fewer municipalities cooperate with interest organisations, have a program for handicap polices and have implemented measures. The interviews indicated that reduced budget and staff time were among the factors restricting implementation of accessibility policy. On the other hand, employee enthusiasm for and interest in accessibility issues are among the main reasons that some municipalities progress and others regress in the implementation process. Interviews indicate that representatives from interest organisations are too focused on their own restrictions and do not represent the whole group’s perspective. This may be a reason why some municipalities have reduced cooperation with interest organisations. The interviews also indicated that some municipalities do not “suit actions to words”. That is, they establish accessibility plans and hire accessibility advisors, but do not utilise them. Some accessibility advisors are placed in the building department and do not have any influence in the transport department. Results from the User Study showed that interventions in the outdoor environment could have positive effects on older people’s perception. Respondents living in SA were more active in terms of frequency of participating in activities outside the home and frequency of walking. Furthermore, compared to respondents in RA, respondents in SA with poor perception of health were more likely to participate in activities than did their counterparts in RA. Respondents in SA and RA evaluated their outdoor environments in a similar manner. Still, the results also showed that respondents in SA reported more environmental barriers than did respondents in RA. Controlling for ageing, the results showed that intervention in the outdoor environment does not increase frequency of walking. However, intervention in the outdoor environment seems to have positive effects on older people’s perceptions of the outdoor environment. The respondents reported fewer environmental barriers in the outdoor environment nine years after an intervention in the outdoor environment than they did before the intervention. Furthermore, older people using mobility devices were more likely to be frequent walkers after the intervention. A more systematic approach is needed to fully implement accessibility in transport planning. Accessibility should not have to depend on the single employee who is enthusiastic and interested in accessibility. Accessibility should not be sensitive to employee turnover. Furthermore, results from the User Study showed that user perception of the outdoor environment could improve when barriers are removed. Therefore, municipalities should be implementing measures to improve accessibility. However, such measures should not be implemented simply to fulfil requirements of accessibility policy. Implementing measures in the outdoor environment should focus on the users and their needs. Municipalities should be cooperating with interest organisations. Meanwhile, representatives from the interest organisations should become more professional and represent the needs of all people with disabilities and not just their own needs. On the societal level, the results from this thesis give an indication that accessibility measures benefit people who are in need of further support from the environment. An environment designed to facilitate walking for people who are fragile is an environment that is accessible to all. A person carrying luggage, a person with a pram, a person who is temporarily experiencing disability, but more importantly people who are experiencing long-term disability and limitations, all benefit from an accessible outdoor environment. Even though accessibility issues are increasingly acknowledged in transport planning, there is still a need to raise awareness among transport planners and all actors involved in the accessibility work. It is important that all actors are aware of why accessibility measures are executed and how they should be executed, to ensure that the finalised measure gives the best result.

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