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Tactile City: Sensory Navigation For The Visually Impaired

Our senses serve as a compass to understanding our surroundings, more so when we have lost one. With the loss of sight, our other senses become heightened and we rely on them and memory to navigate through the environment, however what happens when your environment is continuously changing? A pilot project in New York City - Tactile City explores how tactile cues can be better integrated in street design to alert the visually impaired of any obstructions and inform them on the characteristics of the environment. This non-invasive method aims to improve the experience of navigating through a busy and complex city and give the visually impaired a sense of autonomy of their environment.

Author: Siphilele Magagula

Image: Courtesy of Tactile City


Although evidence based universal design has made architecture more accessible for people living with disabilities - everything is designed for the sighted, the focus is often on the aesthetic form rather than the function of the space. This results in design elements such as low hanging lighting, signage as well as decorative features that not only hinder navigation for the visually impaired, but also create unsafe environments.

Design can create significant barriers for the visually impaired

Effective, safe independent mobility for the visually impaired is often compromised by environmental barriers. A study investigating the experience of multisensory environments in public space among people with visual impairment revealed the following significant barriers:

Extreme sound background: Loud sounds prevent the visually impaired from gathering useful audio information. They are said to overpower auditory cues, making it difficult to detect the direct origins of sounds as that is the sensory information the visually impaired rely on to navigate space.

Office spaces have evolved to have more open plan layouts that create a sense of equality, however this spatial organisation excludes the visually impaired. A participant in the study revealed that open spaces with high vaulted ceilings can magnify sounds, creating confusion from sonic overstimulation.

Image courtesy of Tactile City

Inconsistent lighting: People with minimal sight reported having difficulties navigating areas with inconsistent lighting, as they cast shadows which can be confusing. According to one participant trees or other buildings that cast a shadow at step downs cause great trouble for those who have minimal sight or light perception only.

Irregular ground surfaces and object: As a majority of people with visual impairment use walking sticks as a guiding tool to feel their way through space - to determine distances and obstacles they rely on surface texture to provide information on the area they are navigating. Uneven surfaces inhibit safe independent mobility. Tactile information is one of the most important sensory inputs for the visually impaired and unmaintained pavements and pathways with cracks, bumps and chipped concrete create a tripping hazard.

The way in which city streets are designed creates a dependence on others…How can we design existing city pathways to help the visually impaired to navigate more independently?

Tactile City: How To Design A Navigation System That Empowers The Visually Impaired?

Led by architectural designer Teddy Kofman, Tactile City is a research and design organisation based in New York City aimed at addressing the issue of accessibility of urban spaces to the visually impaired. Amid the many recent complex technological advances for the visually impaired, this project serves to integrate a simple, minimally invasive tactile system within the city's existing urban infrastructure. Tactile City aims to implement a citywide prototype exploring the best means to eliminate the many environmental barriers to independent mobility that currently exist and serves as a solution that evolves and reinvents itself with the growth of a city. The City Wide Strategy seeks to create a standard tactile language that will be universally used to communicate the best ways to navigate a busy city - introducing a tactile path and address concept.

1 | Textured Surface

Using grooves in the concrete, this surface would be applied on top of the tactile path to indicate an imminent interruption. The surfaces would be connected and secured to the path . The triangular surface pattern shown in the illustration would safely direct the pedestrians through any detour, guiding them regarding where to turn.

Image courtesy of Tactile City

2 | Top Guiding Edge

Pedestrians who use service dogs will be able to read braille writing and textured surfaces would be applied to top edge in order to provide them with tactile information to pedestrians.

Image courtesy of Tactile City

3 | Bottom Guiding Edge

The bottom edge is similar to the top edge, however it allows for detection with a cane and creates a uniform identification for different barriers.

Image courtesy of Tactile City

4 | Speaker Device

In addition to the tactile experience, an audio element is also included. This sensitive device (which can be easily attached to existing barriers) will be used to inform pedestrians of imminent interruptions and will guide them through the detour.

The device will caution pedestrians not to turn opposite to the sound. The volume level and duration of repetition will be responsive to the number of people and the surrounding sound level.

Image courtesy of Tactile City

5 | Elevated Platforms

Modular elevated platforms will be installed as a safe detour in the event that there is long term interruption to pedestrian traffic. The platforms will direct pedestrians and continue the standard tactile notation of the street. These will be modular, thus easy to reconfigure, reusable and easy to assemble.

Image courtesy of Tactile City

Tactile City demonstrates an understanding of the world factors that influence use of public spaces by people with visual impairment. The integration of appropriate sensory information in the experience of navigation for the visually impaired will provide them the opportunity to not only traverse city streets, but do so safely and independently. Audible cues, echoes, smells, the tactile quality of the ground surface, as well as temperature are all sensory characteristics of the built environment that provide context of a space and facilitate navigation by increasing accessibility for the visually impaired.

We look forward to the developments of this project.

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