Queen Mary Alumni

Alumni profile - Julie Fleck

The work that I did to make London 2012 ‘the most accessible Olympic and Paralympic Games ever’ has definitely been the highlight of my career. The policies and planning guidance I had written for the London Plan were applied to the planning proposals for the Olympic venues and parkland so that all the designers were obliged to consider the needs of disabled people from the very beginning of the design process.

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What did you study at Queen Mary and what are you doing now? I studied an undergraduate Geography degree from 1975 -1978. I retired in March 2016 after working full time for 37 years as a town planner / inclusive design adviser in local government. I now work freelance presenting at conferences and delivering the occasional training session for the Design Council, Urban Design London, RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) and others.

I have spent the last 18 months or so writing a book on inclusive design, which was published by RIBA last September. This year I am delivering the Inclusive Design module for RIBA’s 2020 CPD Series - 13 seminars in total around various parts of the country including London, Nottingham and Exeter. I am really looking forward to it. I also support the British Standards Institution in the development of technical inclusive design standards as a member of Committee B/559, the committee responsible for access and inclusive design standards for the built environment. *

Why did you choose to study Geography at Queen Mary? What sparked your interest in this particular course? I enjoyed studying Geography at A Level, so I was interested in pursuing it further. The course at Queen Mary included a variety of human geography subjects which I enjoyed more that physical geography. I particularly enjoyed Social Analysis and Political Geography. As the course was unit based, I was also able to do courses on Africa, Latin America, and Third World Development at Kings College London and LSE, which were particularly inspiring.

You had a book published in September by RIBA titled ‘Are you an inclusive designer?’ In your own words, what is this book about and what inspired you to write your book? My book is about inclusive design and access for disabled people. I have looked at how the design of our buildings has changed over the last 30 years from an approach that was ‘special for the disabled’ to a more inclusive approach, but with a warning that we cannot be complacent as our buildings and transport systems are still not easily accessible for a large part of our community despite years of legislation, regulations and improved technical standards.* I also wanted to share the work we did to make London 2012 ‘the most accessible Olympic and Paralympic Games ever’ so was pleased when RIBA asked me to write a book on inclusive design.*

It was also an opportunity to encourage architects and designers to improve their inclusive design skills and knowledge, and to set out how our legislation and regulations need to change if we are to achieve an inclusive environment.

Can you elaborate on the work you did to help make London 2012 ‘the most accessible Olympic and Paralympic Games ever’? I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time - I was working as the Greater London Authority’s Inclusive Design Advisor in the London Plan Team when London was successful in its bid to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The policies and planning guidance I had written for the London Plan on access for disabled people were applied to the planning proposals for the Olympic venues and parkland so that all the designers were obliged to consider the needs of disabled people from the very beginning of the design process. The Mayor and the Government were both on board to make the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games as inclusive as possible – for the first time the Olympics and the Paralympics were seen as one event, organised by one committee not two separate organisations as had been the case previously. As a member of the Olympic Delivery Authority’s Built Environment Access Panel, a panel of disabled people and professional access advisers, I participated in discussions with designers at an early stage, helping them to really understand and apply the highest standards of accessibility to their proposals.

Post Olympics, I supported the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC) in developing their inclusive design policies and procedures. The LLDC is responsible for developing the land in and around the park and the transition of the Games venues into public buildings. It is a joy to see the Aquatics Centre, the Velodrome and the London Stadium continuing to demonstrate really good accessibility for disabled people today.

Being involved in the London 2012 Games was definitely the highlight of my career so far. My work in the field of inclusive design has always revolved around placing people at the heart of the design process and in creating an environment that is convenient and enjoyable for everyone to use. The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games successfully embodied this vision, but unfortunately this approach to inclusive design is still not the norm in many development proposals; a lot more needs to be done if the development industry is to progress further and really make our buildings and places easily accessible to disabled and older people. This is the main theme that runs throughout my book.

Can you describe the feeling of having a book published? Very exciting and rewarding. Having only ever written local government planning advice documents (such as the GLA’s Supplementary Planning Guidance to the London Plan called Accessible London: Achieving an Inclusive Environment) it’s great to see my work in a real book!

What was your writing process like? How long did it take you to write your book? The actual writing took just over a year (part time) but from signing the contract, to the editing, sorting out images and plans and the final proofreading, it took about two years in total. It’s a great relief to finally see my book in print and to be able to share it with the world.

Given the nature of your book and your career thus far which has revolved around design, did you have an input in designing the front cover of your book? Interestingly I emailed my publishers to caution them not to use a photograph of a building as no building can ever be truly perfect in terms of its accessibility. I suggested that a drawing or illustration of buildings and disabled people should be used instead. I was really pleased with RIBA’s choice of design of the cover and with the layout of the book - a ragged right-hand margin and a sans serif font size of 13point makes it easy and accessible to read. The book is, I hope, appealing to a wide variety of readers as it is written in a non-technical and non-academic style. Overall, it is easy to read but it still gets the message across to built environment professionals. 

I understand that you were awarded an OBE in 2004 for services to disabled people, what an achievement and what a worthy way to invest your time! Can you elaborate on your work with disabled people? It was a huge surprise and very exciting to go to Buckingham Palace. I do however feel that I was really just doing my job, albeit with a lot of enthusiasm!

Can you describe your path since graduating from Queen Mary? Have you had many roles since graduating in 1975? My first job was as a Land Use Surveyor in the planning department at Westminster City Council. After a year I moved to Wandsworth Council Planning Department and progressed from Survey Assistant to Senior Planner having studied (on a day release course at the Polytechnic of Central London) for a diploma in Town Planning. My interest in access for disabled people began after writing a policy for the Wandsworth Borough Plan. This led to me spending the rest of my career specialising in accessibility. In 1993 I spent a very enjoyable year on (another!) part time post graduate diploma course in Environmental Access (now called Inclusive Design) at the Architectural Association, where I learnt all about the politics of disability and the principles of inclusive design.

I moved to the City of London as their access officer in 1988 and then to the Greater London Authority as their inclusive design adviser in 2001. After the London 2012 Games I was seconded from the GLA to the civil service to lead a government Paralympic Legacy Project - the BEPE Project.* When the project moved to the Construction Industry Council I moved with it on a freelance part time basis until its completion in 2017. I am now semiretired doing some freelance work when I choose!

The highlight of my career was being able to embed the London Plan inclusive design policies into the planning permissions for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and as a member of the Olympic Delivery Authority’s Built Environment Access Panel – a challenging but very rewarding role. It is great to see how this work is continuing with the London Legacy Development Corporation developing the new neighbourhoods in and around Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park using inclusive design principles and processes – it has now evolved to be a very accessible part of London.

What does your current role as a Strategic Access and Inclusive Design Adviser involve? I am now semiretired so it’s mainly delivering inclusive design training to architects and planners and presentations at conferences, along with the occasional engagement as a BEE (Built Environment Expert) for the Design Council. I really enjoy working from home and being my own boss, but I do keep in touch with my old colleagues through the Access Association and at BSI committee meetings.

Why did you choose to study at Queen Mary? What do you think is unique about Queen Mary compared to other universities? I failed an A Level and actually got into Queen Mary through clearing. My initial disappointment at only getting two A Levels was soon changed to a thrill when I was offered a place at Queen Mary – a far better university than I had expected to attend. I feel that my time at Queen Mary and the career I have gone on to have since, is proof that you can fail at something but still make a success of it. Although I wanted to move away from London to experience a different city, living and studying in the East End of London was very different to suburban Surrey, where I grew up.

How did your time and study at Queen Mary help your career and development? Studying geography helped me get my first job at Westminster City Council as a land use survey assistant – I had mapped Whitechapel High Street for a University project!

Is there any advice you would give to current students or recent graduates considering their career options? Town Planning is a good career – it’s very rewarding to see how your work impacts on the buildings and places where you live and work. Local government has suffered hugely by the austerity cuts of the last 10 years, but local government town planning is still a great career. 

With regard to specialising in access and inclusive design - I have loved being part of a movement to improve the lives of disabled people. I’ve met some very committed and inspiring people along the way, and many are now good friends. It’s also been very rewarding to be part of a movement that has campaigned successfully for a change in legislation and to see the impact those changes have made in the last 30 years. But there is still lots more to do, so we need young enthusiastic graduates to take up the cause and help create an accessible and inclusive built environment!

Why is it exciting to do what you do? It is very rewarding to work in an area (and be part of a movement along with lots of other great disabled and non-disabled people) helping to change how we design our buildings – new buildings are much more accessible to disabled people now than when I began my career but many existing buildings are still very inaccessible, and there is still scope to improve legislation, regulations and standards and improve inclusive design skills and knowledge.

What was so special about your time at Queen Mary? I made some lifelong friends, including meeting my partner Liz who also studied Geography at Queen Mary. We all look back on our time at Queen Mary with great fondness. In particular, sharing a flat on the Isle of Dogs - there was a real sense of student community there (especially when we all met up in the Blacksmiths Arms – our favourite local pub). We spent the second and third years living in Tiller Road – in flats the university rented from the council as they were blighted by a GLC road proposal. I have some great memories of the area before it all changed in the 1980s. There were still a small number of cargo ships using Millwall Dock (we could see the ship’s funnels from the flat window), but the docks were dying and many of the warehouses were closed and boarded up. Looking back, I wish I had taken more photographs of the Isle of Dogs to capture the change that was taking place. Canary Wharf today couldn’t be more different to the Isle of Dogs we were shown on our geography field trip on our very first weekend at Queen Mary.

I also have great memories of enjoying the Sight and Sounds music concerts of the 70s which were hosted at Queen Mary and filmed by the BBC. I heard some great bands and artists such as Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Dr Feelgood, and Supertramp.

Do you have a favourite spot on campus? In 1975 we had no access to the canal (it was still occupied by the Jewish Cemetery), so my time was spent between the Geography building, the library or The Union Bar!

*For more details about British Standard BS 8300:2018 see https://shop.bsigroup.com/ProductDetail?pid=000000000030335835.

*For more information on my book, see https://www.architecture.com/riba-books/books/architectural-structure-and-design/product/are-you-an-inclusive-designer.html and the article here https://site.tourismforall.org.uk/news and here https://www.accessassociation.co.uk/category/access-today/

*This quote from the Olympic and Paralympic Games was from a press release the GLA issued in 2012 but Tani Grey-Thompson reiterated it in this video -https://www.queenelizabetholympicpark.co.uk/our-story/transforming-east-london/accessibility

*For more information about the BEPE Project see http://cic.org.uk/projects/project.php?s=built-environment-professional-education-bepe-project