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Designing Year-Round Accessibility—a four-seasons approach to creating accessible outdoor spaces

Designing for the Canadian winter, and the extremes that come with snow and sleet, can create design challenges, especially for those who need more assistance with accessibility. We know that interior spaces must be accessible for all; the same goes for exterior urban environments. They also need the same attention to detail that goes far beyond ramps and designated parking spots. They need to encompass a comprehensive approach that considers the needs of every individual, regardless of their disabilities or the weather conditions.

“Snow and ice are problems for everyone living in winter climates. But they are exponentially worse for people with disabilities, especially for disabled people who don’t drive, and have to rely on sidewalks and other pedestrian pathways to go to work, shop, or leave their homes for any reason.” – Andrew Pulrang, Forbes.

Crafting exterior spaces that remain navigable, safe, and comfortable throughout the year requires meticulous planning and innovative solutions. We’ve put together some critical elements to consider when designing for year-round accessibility so that individuals of all abilities can easily experience the urban environment.

Designing for snow and ice

Winter brings its own set of challenges, especially in regions prone to heavy snowfall. Designing snow maintenance strategies that prioritize accessibility is crucial. It involves clearing paths without obstructing accessible routes or impeding access to transit or parking areas and verifying that paths adjacent to snow collection areas are wide enough to accommodate comfortable movement for individuals, including passing each other and/or walking in pairs.

A proactive approach to managing snow effectively is the integration of heating elements beneath pavements in parking lots and pathways, with sufficient drainage along accessible paths to prevent water accumulation that could freeze and create icy patches, posing hazards to pedestrians. This approach mitigates challenges related to snow accumulation, preventing the formation of slippery ice or slush that could hinder accessibility. It is also recognized as part of a sustainable effort towards snow maintenance that does not require intensive use of corrosive salt to de-ice.


Designing for refuge

Designing with careful consideration for refuge in various seasons ensures a positive urban experience for all individuals. Installing rest areas at regular intervals, approximately every 30 metres, equipped with weather-protected canopies and wind barriers, enhances the overall accessibility experience. These areas serve as refuge points, providing shelter from harsh weather conditions and allowing individuals to take a break comfortably.

Designing for visibility

Winter evenings often bring limited daylight hours. Incorporating overhead, and/or ground-level lighting along paths, drop-off areas, and parking areas ensures visibility during darker hours. Adequate lighting is crucial for maintaining safety and assisting pedestrians to navigate exterior spaces.It is also essential to evaluate whether exterior finishes are reflective, potentially causing snow blindness for drivers.

Designing for bike lanes

Bike lanes must be safeguarded from snow accumulation and maintained for safe passage. Employing de-icing methods to ensure the safety of cyclists is paramount during the winter months. Maintaining the bike lanes protects pedestrians as cyclists will not be motivated to use sidewalks or pedestrian routes which puts all users at risk of accident and injury. Prioritizing these lanes contributes to a more inclusive and accessible environment for diverse modes of transportation in the city.


“Activities of life continue despite rain, snow, or windstorms. Our built environment design needs to be proactive to ensure no barriers are created to essential parts of living like employment, healthcare, education, and food year-round.” – Anika Abdullah, Accessibility Advisor.

Creating accessible exterior spaces involves innovative design, thoughtful planning, and attention to detail. It’s a commitment to fostering inclusivity and ensuring everyone can navigate and enjoy these spaces, regardless of weather conditions or physical abilities. By integrating these considerations into design strategies, we can create safe outdoor environments that cater to the diverse needs of all individuals throughout the year, without compromising on experience.

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