Universal Design – Making the Heart of the City Open to Everyone

One of the main goals of Heart of the City is to make downtown Rochester a destination everyone can enjoy. To make this happen, the design needs to understand how people really use the space and how the transformed space can accommodate visitors with a variety of wants and needs.

You may have come across the term “Universal Design” in communications about this project. And you might be wondering, “what is that?”

The official definition of Universal Design is, “The design of products and environments to be useful by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” – Center for Universal Design

For Heart of the City, it means that everything created and building for each of the public spaces (the east side of Peace Plaza, 1st Avenue, and the Alley) is designed to be accessible to everyone who uses them, as well as accommodate a wide range of individual preferences, experiences, languages, and capabilities.

Universal Design takes into account several factors*:

  • Body Fit: Accommodating a wide range of body sizes and abilities.
  • Comfort: Keeping demands within desirable limits of body function.
  • Awareness: Ensuring that critical information for use is easily perceived
  • Understanding: Making methods of operation and use intuitive, clear, and unambiguous.
  • Wellness: Contributing to health promotion, avoidance of disease, and prevention of injury.
  • Social Integration: Treating all groups with dignity and respect;
  • Personalization: Incorporating opportunities for choice and the expression of individual preferences.
  • Cultural appropriateness: Respecting and reinforcing cultural values and the social, economic, and environmental context of any design project.

*Source: The Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access 




So, what does this look like in a place like Peace Plaza? It means adding a variety of comfortable, durable seating that’s also flexible so that it can be moved around for many different uses – from every day (lunch breaks, meeting friends, waiting for the bus, etc.) to concerts to farmers’ markets.

You can see examples of Universal Design in major cities around the world. As part of our discovery process, many examples such as the High Line in New York reviewed as part of the design process. The designs consider the following recommendations from the NYC Privately Owned Public Space Design Guidelines in planning how to create the most welcoming and useful spaces in Heart of the City:

  • 50 percent of seating is required to have backs, and 50 percent of the seats with backs are required to face the sidewalk.
  • All public plazas are required to provide at least two different seating types. Plazas between 5,000sf and 10,000sf are required to provide three types. Plazas greater than 10,000sf are required to provide movable seating as one of the three required seating types.
  • There are six types of seating that may be used: movable seating, fixed individual seats, fixed benches, seat walls, planter ledges, and seating steps.
  • Seats are required to be at least 18 inches deep and between 16 and 20 inches in height.


You can read more about Universal Design seating in the post, “Bringing Universal Design to Life in Heart of the City