accessCITY: Creating safe pathways and social connections for all!

Mon, 25 Jun 2018

Laura Lam, Alex Yallouz, Naina Varshney and Shazeen Tejani
Guest writers Alex, Laura, Naina, and Shazeen were among 30 civic leaders under 30 selected as part of CityHive and Youthful Cities 2018 30Network on Civic Engagement. Their resulting project, accessCITY, was awarded the Audience Choice Award at the launch event hosted by SFU Public Square, Here to Stay: Youth Solutions for an Engaged City.

We had all heard of CityHive and the incredible opportunities awarded to ambitious youth that inspired them to create meaningful changes in their cities. But we honestly didn’t think that this could be us.

On a sunny March evening, we gathered as a group for the first time, cautiously optimistic. We kicked things off by sitting in a circle talking about the things we hold dearest to us. It was an introduction like no other and it helped form bonds between 30 energetic, determined, and conscientious people. Two months later, we were standing in front of a crowd of over 160 people, pitching the projects that we had poured our hearts into. We spent 5 weekends crafting, narrating, and devising a solution to civic disengagement – a problem predominant among youth ages 18-35.

Through this process, we were introduced to other like-minded change-makers striving to achieve tangible social impact. We made connections and lasting friendships that we would have never made otherwise, and we were introduced to a room of people working tirelessly to make our city more equitable and liveable on a daily basis.

For us, the idea for accessCITY did not come easily. Our team started off trying to address apathetic youth and the reasons for their disengagement. Through late evenings and several Skype meetings, we eventually realized that we were given an unique opportunity to create long-lasting impact, and did not want to waste it.

So, we decided to adopt a new lens and began to perceive civic disengagement among youth and young adult as a symptom of inaccessibility. We quickly realized how fickle a thing like mobility is - you don’t have to be born with a mobility challenge to understand how difficult it can be to navigate cities when you cannot rely on your own two legs to get around. All it takes is a sports injury or a serious car accident to shift you down the mobility scale. Cities are built to accommodate the freely mobile, and as a result, they can be isolating to those who are not.

One such person is team member Naina’s mother, who has difficulties navigating cities with her mobility challenges. We quickly sought to develop a solution that has the potential to re-engage those youth and young adults that are dependent on family, caretakers, and services like HandyDART. We wanted youth to be able to use sophisticated technology to better navigate cities in order to determine the safest routes to key community amenities and gathering spaces, based on specific mobility needs. Our vision is to give youth the opportunity to take their cities back and to feel welcome in civic spaces.

Our means of achieving this vision? A dynamic, real-time mapping tool that uses crowd-sourced data to identify key barriers for specific mobility challenges. It sets itself apart from existing maps that are snapshots in time typically developed for specific areas like university campuses; instead, it makes entire neighbourhoods accessible. It serves two key purposes:

  • First, it will allow anyone with a mobility challenge to select routes to key community amenities without fear of unknown barriers based on their specific mobility needs.

  • Second, it will allow municipalities to identify candidates for infrastructure spot-improvements, as identified by the citizens they were intended to serve.

This dynamic mapping tool will allow users to choose layers based on their mobility needs (i.e. wheelchair-accessible, vision-impaired, etc) and identify both barriers and enhanced accessibility features as well as updates when infrastructure is improved. Our end goal is to allow youth to get from A to B, worryfree and to access key community resources where they can participate in developing social connections that are at the heart of truly connected cities. At full build-out, we hope to provide a feature that enables users to find travel companions to their destination and to begin forging connections with other youth.

accessCITY is currently building the foundation for a launch website that includes a mapping function for users to input data on infrastructure barriers. We have been actively developing our marketing and social outreach approach, conducting a thorough environmental scan of similar services, securing web domains and social media handles, and building connections with potential partners. We have already met with elected officials and local planning staff at a municipality on the North Shore and are working to secure base level data that can feed into the app as a foundation for the data that users can access. We are also meeting with organizations that use sophisticated mapping functions to gain insight into how we can adopt this technology to best suit our needs. We hope to launch a survey that begins to explore exactly what users need by late-summer and start data collection in the fall.

The tools provided to us by CityHive allowed us to take something we were passionate about and to create a tangible solution that affects youth’s dependence, confidence and ability to experience cities freely. By putting power back into their hands, we hope to provide disengaged youth with an opportunity to feel like their city belongs to them. Because at our core, we believe that cities that accommodate all needs allow greater opportunities to build meaningful connections that can only form in civic spaces.

To learn more about accessCITY, visit the project website. And be sure to check out the other seven projects presented by the 30Network here.