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Inventing the Dropped Curb

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How alumnus and author of 1963's 'Designing for the Disabled', Selwyn Goldsmith, used his own life experience to bring accessible design to cities.

Inventing the Dropped Curb

Cover of the third edition of 'Designing for the Disabled' by Selwyn Goldsmith, published in 1976.

The invention of the dropped curb by Selwyn Goldsmith in the 1960s, transformed our cities not just for wheelchair users, but also for parents with prams and buggies, children on bicycles and scooters; elderly people and almost anyone wheeling along a suitcase or heavy load.

What’s now a standard feature of the urban environment emerged from a series of interviews with wheelchair users in Norwich when Bartlett School of Architecture alumnus, Selwyn Goldsmith was working on an update to his pioneering 1963 book Designing for the Disabled – the first guide of its kind for architects and urban planners.

The third edition of Designing for the Disabled, published in 1976, was described by the Architects’ Journal as “a remarkable document and a singular achievement”, and it went on to be used to shape the 1992 guidance in the UK Building Regulations about accessibility.

Inventing the Dropped Curb

Press Cutting (sourced from the Goldsmith Archive).

Pursuing universal design

Equally significant, as this now-ubiquitous piece of design, was the shift in emphasis in thinking about inclusive public space that Goldsmith demonstrated in his 2000 book, Universal Design.

This term ‘universal design’ had been coined a few years before by the American architect Ronald Mace. But it was Goldsmith’s exploration of the issue that was highly influential in establishing the idea that, instead of disabled people being an afterthought in the process of design, practitioners should be thinking from the start about the needs, safety and convenience of everybody, when forming the built environment.

The seeds of this idea were rooted in Goldsmith’s own experiences. He contracted polio shortly after finishing his studies at The Bartlett, in 1956, and became paralysed on one side of his body.

Inventing the Dropped Curb

Letter of thanks from Prince Charles sent to Goldsmith on his retirement from The Prince of Wales’ Advisory Group on Disability (later The Disability Partnership).

Credit: This and the image above, courtesy of 'Selwyn Goldsmith (1932–2011) and the Architectural Model of Disability: A Retrospective of the Man and the Model' by Lesley J McIntyre

“During his life, he experienced severe ambulant and wheelchair-using disability, which lent impartiality towards either set of needs in his design considerations, thus underlining his universality in interpretation of needs,” his late wife Becky Goldsmith told the Civic Trust Awards, which established a prize in his honour in 2011 for accessible design in the built environment.

In practice, this meant that Goldsmith’s interest ranged from accessibility of public spaces for disabled people, to accommodating pushchairs; to the unequal provision of toilets for women and men – he reportedly charged his wife with helping him investigate the latter the year they got married.

Goldsmith never practiced as an architect – partly because his illness had caused him to lose the use of his drawing hand—but he did have a varied career that included stints at the Architects’ Journal and the Department of the Environment.

He died in 2011, aged 78, but his legacy has affected countless lives. “Selwyn Goldsmith and his work has and continues to have a huge influence on the way we design buildings, cities and the world around us to include rather than exclude members of society,” says Iain McKinnon, Director of Operations at the Global Disability Innovation (GDI) Hub, a partner of UCL and located at The Bartlett’s new space in east London, Here East.

“It feels fitting that the GDI Hub, located at Here East, continues to progress work in the same field as this distinguished alumnus.”

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