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Making Dubai’s built environment more accessible

Steven Carpenter and Elie Ghoussoub of WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff explain how the UAE, and Dubai in particular, are leading the charge to improve accessibility within the Middle East’s built environment

Steven Carpenter (left) and Elie Ghoussoub (right) from WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Steven Carpenter (left) and Elie Ghoussoub (right) from WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Policy-makers from across the Middle East are working to improve levels of accessibility within the region’s built environment, and the UAE is at the forefront of these efforts. The Dubai Universal Design Code, which is expected to be implemented in H1 2017, represents a prime example of how the issue of accessibility has grown in importance during recent years.

WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff has contributed to the Government of Dubai’s efforts to improve accessibility, not only in the development of the upcoming code, but also in conjunction with public sector agencies. Steven Carpenter, the consultancy’s associate director of health, safety, and risk management in the Middle East, says this legislation represents a major step forward.

“The Dubai Universal Design Code is the result of a gap analysis undertaken by The Executive Council of Dubai last year,” he begins. “This analysis was designed to shed light on levels of accessibility across the city. It didn’t focus solely on buildings; it also scrutinised public spaces and transport infrastructure.”

Elie Ghoussoub, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s principal consultant for health, safety, and risk management in the Middle East, says that in addition to supporting earlier accessibility-related legislation, the upcoming code will provide Dubai’s construction community with the tools necessary for implementation.

“The creation of the Dubai Universal Design Code is the latest step in the journey to transform Dubai into an accessible emirate,” he explains. “This journey started back when the UAE signed the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The convention was ratified in 2008, following Abu Dhabi’s issuance of Federal Law No 29/2006.

“Dubai later issued its own legislation, Law No 2 of 2014 Concerning the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which affirmed that people with disabilities had the right to inclusive environments, education, and social care. However, it said nothing specific about how these goals should be achieved within the built environment. That’s where the gap analysis came in; it supported the My Community… A City for Everyone initiative, which set out five pillars: quality health and rehabilitation services, inclusive education, equal employment opportunities, universal accessibility, and a sustainable social protection system.

“The gap analysis and the resultant Dubai Universal Design Code will provide a framework within which we can realise these goals,” predicts Ghoussoub.

Carpenter and Ghoussoub are clearly eager to see the code implemented. Both are able to identify examples of effective accessibility within Dubai’s built environment, but they also emphasise that there is room for improvement. The Dubai Universal Design Code, they argue, will play a crucial role in this regard.

“The flat nature of Dubai’s landform certainly provides an advantage when it comes to accessibility,” says Carpenter. “Moreover, its buildings are relatively new, so they include features like automatic doors, and significant amounts of circulation space.

“These characteristics are great; they give Dubai a solid platform from which to work. Nevertheless, features of the built environment designed to aid accessibility are often poorly managed. For example, a drainage system may necessitate a change in level, but the ramps and steps that are incorporated are often not to the standard that would be required by a wheelchair user.

“There is also work to be done in terms of other disabilities. At the moment, accessibility is pretty much zero for people with visual and auditory impairments, for example.”

Even so, Carpenter and Ghoussoub say there are notable pockets of accessibility-related best practice within Dubai’s built environment. Citing Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR) and Kite Beach as examples, they explain that subtle but effective design choices – such as routes that enable wheelchair users to travel all the way down the beach – make a significant difference to individuals with limited mobility.

“These features are great but, at present, they’re not exactly joined up,” says Carpenter.Connecting these dots will involve a focus on communication and education. With this in mind

, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff offers a range of accessibility advisory services to its clients in the Middle East, including design appraisals, physical access audits, and training.

Indeed, improved awareness will be vital if Dubai is to realise its ambition of cultivating a universally accessible built environment. As Ghoussoub points out, accessibility must be considered throughout a project’s lifecycle, as poorly thought-out maintenance activities can erode features designed to facilitate end users.

“Suppose a developer has gone to the trouble of including a tactile surface for purposes of accessibility and, a year down the line, a maintenance professional comes along and covers it up. It’s no longer there, and this is a management issue,” he says.

Carpenter adds: “It’s important for the construction community to understand and consider the requirements of people with limited mobility, visual and auditory impairments, neuro disabilities, and learning difficulties. But actually, it goes beyond that. We should also be thinking about individuals with temporary disabilities, parents with strollers, elderly people, and so on.”

To this end, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff has been working with the Government of Dubai and its agencies to improve accessibility within the public sector, both through consultation and the Dubai Government Excellence Programme (DGEP).

“Last year saw the inaugural DGEP Accessibility Award,” explains Carpenter. “The DGEP Awards are taken very seriously at government level. The winner is awarded by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai. WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff was asked to create a scoring criteria for the DGEP Accessibility Award in 2016, and undertake audits of 28 government entities for accessibility. The first DGEP Accessibility Award was won by Dubai Police.

“We’re now conducting audits for the second cycle. It’s so rewarding; you just would not believe what these government entities have done [to improve accessibility during the past year]. Many have gone above and beyond the general requirements. We have seen a host of great practices,” he reveals.

WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s involvement in the DGEP Awards stems from work that it conducted on behalf of The Executive Council of Dubai, wherein it audited the body’s offices on the 20th, 28th, and 38th floors of Emirates Towers. Carpenter and Ghoussoub say that the consultancy has received a steady flow of accessibility-related consultancy requests ever since.

At present, the company is working with Dubai Public Prosecution to help make its buildings universally accessible. Outside of the public sector, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff is working with Emirates National Bank of Dubai (Emirates NBD) to create inclusive bank branches.

Few would deny that the improvement of accessibility within Dubai’s built environment is a positive endeavour in and of itself. However, Carpenter and Ghoussoub contend that achieving this goal would offer tangible commercial opportunities for local building owners and developers.

“As part of the DGEP Awards, we visited Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3, and they provided us with statistics,” says Carpenter. “Every year, the airport receives approximately 1.2 million passengers with disabilities. So clearly, the ongoing improvement of Dubai’s built environment in respect to accessibility could have a huge impact in terms of tourism.”

Ghoussoub continues: “A recent UN study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank found that approximately 15% of the global population – that’s one billion people – have some form of disability. I can tell you that the UAE isn’t outside of these averages so, in terms of client base, by improving accessibility, you can widen your pool of customers and potential employees.

“Furthermore, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s recent audits confirm that if your building is accessible – especially when accessibility is integrated at the design stage – the flow of services within that facility [is superior to those that are not accessible]. Since people reach their destinations faster, companies can shave off precious minutes from each customer’s visit, which means they can conduct more business in the same amount of time.”

Carpenter and Ghoussoub are confident that the Dubai Universal Design Code, coupled with government entities’ efforts to improve their facilities, will serve to spur accessibility-related efforts within the private sector.

“Certain private entities, like Emirates NBD, are leading the charge,” notes Ghoussoub. “We have also received interest from some major private developers that are looking to improve accessibility through design.”

Carpenter adds: “WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff has noticed that, in terms of the work that we bid on, many requests for proposal (RFPs) from main developers now include accessibility requirements, and that wasn’t the case before.”

“The Government of Dubai is making a statement, and I think that will be sufficient to encourage the private sector to take the required steps,” he concludes. “Policy-makers are leading by example, rather than simply prescribing what the private sector must do. They’re at the forefront of creating an accessible built environment in Dubai, and I think that sends a hugely powerful message.”

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