Uncovering JAPA

Accessibility and Public Engagement For People Living With Dementia

The idea of the right to the city asserts urban residents' rights to fully participate in the policy and planning decisions that will affect their daily lives. This theory largely informs the community engagement model that has dominated the profession since the mid-20th century and has led to large strides in combating the exclusion of traditionally marginalized groups from safe, healthy, and equitable communities.

What happens, however, when the planning process itself is the site of exclusion and misunderstanding, rather than the outcomes? This is the case for the millions of people living with dementia (PLWD) who, due to a variety of reasons including reduced cognitive abilities and social stigma, are often unable to access the processes that determine their built environment. It appears that this issue has been woefully understudied.

Planning Process Needs Dementia Inclusivity

In "The Right to (Re)Shape the City: Examining the Accessibility of a Public Engagement Tool for People Living with Dementia" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 87, No. 3), Samantha Biglieri engaged with seven PLWD as they attempted to navigate five different community open houses in Waterloo, Canada. She sought to determine the factors that either barred or facilitated engagement with the planning process for PLWD using a framework method that placed these barriers or facilitators into one of four categories: Physical/Sensory Setting, Presentation of Information, Communication with Staff, and Other.

Her findings are straightforward, and the profession can easily make the planning process more accessible to PLWD by tweaking already existing community engagement methods. She recommends that staff members should be sure to speak slowly and respectfully without using excessive planning jargon, that meeting locations should be free of distracting noise and easy to navigate, and that information should be concise and laid out are good practices when engaging with any community, not just PLWD.

Planning Process and Social Citizenship

However, I found that the most striking part of her findings lay in what they exposed about the relationship between the planning process and the rights of social citizenship. Many people, myself included, come into the planning field for its juxtaposition of community organizing, policy implementation, and equitable design. The need to elevate the dignity of the individual citizen, regardless of race, gender, or disability, is inherent to the profession, and Biglieri's study is structured by this belief. "The most important emergent finding," Biglieri states, "was the sense of inclusion, citizenship, and connection felt by participants in attending these open houses." With this sentence, Biglieri summarizes the ideals that motivate me and so many other "planners in training." All people have a right to be a part of a community where they feel healthy, heard, safe, and supported.

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About the Author
Michael Uhll is a Master in Urban Planning Candidate at Harvard University.

January 6, 2022

By Michael Uhll