How can urban planning processes include perspectives from people with disabilities? This paper discusses the implementation of universal design (UD) and accessibility in a local urban context. Universal design consists of both core values, such as inclusion and equal status, and specific design initiatives, such as design of pavement surfaces and benches. The aim of implementing universal designing strategies is to achieve equal access for all citizens.

The paper interprets the urbanist Henri Lefebvre's notion of the right to the city as a right to participate in urban life and thus a dimension of equal citizenship on a very concrete level. The right to participate in urban life is closely linked to access to the built environment. Based on an empirical study of an urban redesign project, I argue that equal access must imply both access to public places and to political processes.

When I was studying the experiences of accessibility and barriers persons with disabilities faced in urban areas (Lid & Solvang, 2015), a wheelchair user and one of the interviewees emphasized the importance of being present in urban public places. Realizing that people with disabilities were grossly invisible in urban public areas, Jane 1 argued that politicians and spatial planners needed more knowledge about accessibility for wheelchair users. However, she also pointed to a catch-22: namely, that if wheelchair users, like herself, stayed indoors because of barriers in public places, politicians might fail to recognize their need for access. Consequently, urban planners also risk neglecting accessibility as an important dimension of people-friendly public places. Thus, she calls for a dynamic where people with disabilities engage with their local communities by being present in inimical places, thereby insisting on the need for equal access to all public places. Such a dynamic interaction at the spatial and political levels might increase politician's and planner's awareness of access as a condition for participation.

Access to urban public areas involves both political processes and architectural design. The urbanist and sociologist Henri Lefevbre coined the seminal phrase "the right to the city" (Lefebvre, 1996). Lefebvre argues that a right to the city cannot be conceived of as a simple visiting right. It can only be formulated as a transformed and renewed right to urban life, to human life in the urban materiality (Lefebvre, 1996, p. 158). Urban life refers here to social interaction between people in places. This is a normative argument, which holds that the city is a work in which the citizens participate (Mitchell, 2003). Within urban studies, the idea of some kind of a right to the city has been highly influential in both scholarship and activism (Mitchell, 2003; Soja, 2010). However, Susan Schweick (2009) claims that the phrase "right to the city" is seldom elaborated on in a disability perspective, even though individuals and groups experience disability-based exclusion from public urban areas. Disability-based exclusion is the result of both architectural barriers and negative attitudes (Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, 2001; WHO, 2011).

The notion of the right to the city, understood as a right to urban life, involves both the political, social and material dimensions of the urban, together with the concept of the person as someone who is able to enjoy the urban life. The implicit anthropology that guides the epitomized citizen as the intended user of the built environments affects how urban planners attend to access. In this paper, I approach the notion of a right to the city in light of a distinct disability perspective. Such a perspective implies a recognition of people with disabilities as citizens of equal status. Disability is complex, and comprises individual, political, social, medical, and normative factors (Imrie, 2004; Shakespeare, Thompson, & Wright, 2010; Söder, 2009; Kristiansen, Vehmas & Shakespeare 2009). Some people live with impairments and experience disability over the course of their lifetime while other people do not. The concept of disability applied in this paper is relational, in line with the preamble and Article 1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (UN, 2008; Bickenbach, 2012; Lid, 2014). Accessibility, accordingly, is also a product of such a relational person-environment interaction. Accessibility to urban public places is a basic condition for being able to be present as a citizen, and is thus important for being recognized as a citizen with equal status.

In the present article, I begin by developing a conception of spatial justice. Thereafter I present and discuss a study of implementation of universal design (UD) and accessibility as analyzed through a refurbishing project in urban areas in Oslo. This study has a specific focus on the involvement of stakeholders in the project. UD is based upon democratic values of equal status and recognition and equal access (UN, 2008; Bickenbach, 2012; Lid, 2014). In the Norwegian Discrimination and Accessibility Act (DAA), UD is implemented as a mechanism for inclusion (Ministry of Children, Equality, and Social Inclusion, 2013). The discussion focuses on stakeholder involvement as a political mechanism and discusses whether or not it can safeguard people with disabilities a right to the city as a broader right to urban life.

A spatial dimension of social justice

During the last few decades, the equal status of people with disabilities has been recognized in scholarship and politics, as well as in law (Imrie, 1996; Imrie & Hall, 2001; Lid, 2010, Castrodale & Crooks, 2010; Bickenbach, 2012). Of most importance internationally, is the adoption of the CRPD. 2 While the CRPD does not establish new human rights, it does set out with much greater clarity the obligation of states to promote, protect, and ensure the rights of persons with disabilities. Of key importance are accessibility, participation, and inclusion. The CRPD approaches accessibility and inclusion as both embodied and spatial. Accessibility is a means to an end; inclusion, along with equal citizenship, is that end. The CRPD lays the groundwork for further development of the spatial dimension of social justice with an emphasis on a disability perspective on urban spatial planning. Accessibility is elaborated upon in Article 9, which requires States Parties to take appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to the physical environment on an equal basis with others (UN, 2008). To follow up on this obligation, it is necessary to focus on equal access in spatial planning and building processes. Planning in urban areas is thus a social justice issue.

The American political philosopher Martha Nussbaum (2004) points out that humans, as embodied beings, are both frail and dignified: "all have mortal, decaying bodies and are all needy and disabled in varying ways and to varying degrees" (p. 341). Nussbaum argues that an account of political justice must recognize the equal citizenship of people with disabilities. In an urban context, her theory of justice renders concrete the notion that people with disabilities, as citizens, need equal access in order to participate in communities and in society. As one example, Nussbaum focuses on wheelchair access in public places, and calls for redesign where access is hampered, arguing that, "redesign of public space is essential to the dignity and self-respect of people with impairments" (Nussbaum, 2006, p. 167). Thus, Nussbaum demonstrates the importance of spatial affirmation of people as citizens as a protection of human dignity reflected at a spatial level.

Accessibility relates the individual to the environment in ethical, social and spatial terms, making it relevant to social justice. Access to public urban places affects all three of these dimensions: The ethical dimension touches upon how the citizen is envisioned in terms of inclusion, and the recognition of people with disabilities as equal citizens. The social dimension involves people's everyday life in communities; the spatial dimension comprises the built environment as materiality.

The spatial theorist Edward Soja (2010) argues that Henri Lefebvre's "right to the city" is influenced by both civil rights and human rights (p. 99). According to Soja, Lefebvre even focuses on the urban dweller's right to "participate open and fairly in all the processes producing urban space, to access and make use of the particular advantages of city life […] to avoid all forms of imposed spatial segregation and confinement, to be provided with public services that meet basic needs in health, education and welfare" (p. 99-100). Soja argues that this is among Lefebvre's strongest contributions to unfolding the concept of spatial justice.

Urban planning involves value-based and knowledge based practices within a democracy. Experiences from different individual, situated perspectives contribute to produce social knowledge (Young, 2000). Such socially situated knowledge is valuable in urban planning and can be included through the use of participatory planning processes. In the Norwegian context, participatory planning has been practiced for more than three decades (Fiskaa, 2005). Participatory planning implies that the democratic planning process seeks to be inclusive towards a wide range of citizens. Recently, political and legal changes have aimed at strengthening the interests of people with disabilities as stakeholders; for example, a revised Planning and Building Act with a stronger focus on universal design and citizen participation has been adopted (Ministry of Environment, 2010) along with the Discrimination and Accessibility Act.

Participatory planning in Oslo

Motivated by the new obligation to provide equal access set forth in both the CRPD and the DAA, I planned and carried out an empirical study focusing on how UD and accessibility was included in an urban redesign project in Oslo. 3 The aim of this project is to carry out sub-projects to redesign areas in the city center of Oslo in order to make the spaces more attractive and accessible. The project is a collaborative effort involving local government, businesses, and transportation. The Municipality of Oslo is in charge of the project. Universal design is to be included in each one of the sub-projects carried out in different locations in the city of Oslo (Oslo municipality, 2006).

For this study, I conducted nine interviews with selected stakeholders representing the local government, disability rights organizations, and private estate owners, all of whom had a responsibility for or an interest in universal design issues. This method can be described as qualitative interviews of experts (Bogner & Menz, 2009; Meuser & Nagel, 2009.). All interviewees were asked the same questions concerning their understanding of UD, the knowledge underpinning its implementation of UD in sub-projects, and their understanding of accessibility and UD in the overall project. I was also interested in what dilemmas they had encountered when seeking to implement UD in various projects. The interviewees are called experts in this study because this description attests to their role as stakeholders bringing their knowledge into the project. However, as I will discuss later, the basis for the knowledge they brought into the project differed. Some had scholarly or professional education; yet others had economic interests as representatives for property owners; and, finally, some represented disability rights groups.

My interest has been in identifying how the project partners understood UD and accessibility and to uncover what dilemmas they faced when implementing UD and accessibility either in creating the policy documents and project plans or in each single sub-project. I also studied spatial plans and policy documents and conducted observation study in one location, observing the interaction between pedestrians and other road users in this specific urban place. One of the policy documents I examined was Oslo's Strategic Plan for Universal Design, which was adopted on April 22, 2009 (Oslo municipality 2009). This plan, which is in line with the DAA, enacted in 2009, builds upon a vision of Oslo as an open, inclusive capital characterized by universally designed public places, buildings, and infrastructure. The interviews, documents and observation study were all analyzed with a focus on how equal access for people with disability was understood and implemented, whether as a common good or as a special interest relevant to minority groups only. The interviewees' answers were written by hand by author, and analyzed with respect to each person's role and influence in the project.

Balancing democratic values and practical policy

I will stratify my analysis of the respondents' input with relevance to UD and accessibility by framing it in macro, meso, and micro levels (Lid, 2013; Collins, 1988). Implementation of UD in concrete projects can be attended to by referring to core values, implementing building codes or focusing on usability for different individual persons. On a macro level, UD builds upon the CRPD and comprehensive policies for inclusion and equal status. Next, the meso level represents the organizational level, where UD is described in technical standards and specifications. Lastly, on the micro level UD is about usability and accessibility as experienced by different individual citizens. In the study, all of the respondents understood UD as a value-based concept, as being mostly about basic values representing equal status and equal rights. Several respondents related to UD as a strategy that could strengthen the human dimension of the city, meaning that the urban is made up of places populated by different people who can all be recognized and have an experience of belonging.

All the respondents identified the macro level as an aspect of UD and expressed that it was important. The interviewee who represented the planning and building authorities emphasized that the citizen should be able to move freely in the street and be seen by other citizens 4. The gaze is important for being recognized as equal. Being able to appear as a citizen in the urban street is a precondition of recognition (Garland-Thomson, 2009). Thus, being seen as a citizen is a dimension of the social and cultural interaction in urban areas. The stakeholders interviewed were well aware of the value based dimension of UD and focused on equal rights and citizen participation. Thus, at this macro level, no dilemmas were identified because none of the interviewees disagreed on the policy of inclusion and equal status.

At the meso level, UD and accessibility are implemented through building codes and legal means (Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012). There were several dilemmas experienced when implementing UD at this practical political level. Urban areas are under pressure from economic interests and the use of space is contested (Bergsli, 2015). Public transportation, such as buses and trams, and private transportation, such as cars and bicycles, both demand place in the streets. Often pedestrians are not given priority because other interests are too strong. Most of the experts interviewed found universal design to be a useful tool. Representatives with responsibility for carrying out the project argued that UD might work as an argument in order to give higher priority to pedestrians in dense areas. The term UD was thus interpreted as a premise for enhancing accessibility to urban areas for all citizens. One example can be found in the perspectives from the representative of the head of the project. 5 This interviewee expressed how the political will to give priority to pedestrians in urban areas was not powerful enough when the interest of other road users was brought to the table. As in many urban areas, the economic interests at play in Oslo are strong. In a neo-liberal city, economic interests seem to override democratic interests and the non-capitalistic use of urban areas (Bergsli 2015). As a newly rich city with rapid growth, Oslo is vulnerable to these trends.

Other dilemmas arose from the different needs represented by a diversity of road users. One example is that buses and trams come in different heights. The gap between the stop at the sidewalk and the vehicle must be bridged if public transportation is to be universally designed. Following the most recent technical description of the design of a bus- and trams stop, there is the passenger need for a seamless transition between trams or busses and the platform; there is also a need for more stops in dense urban areas than before because the bus and the tram will need separate stops due to their difference in design and highness. Consequently, public transportation will be less accessible to people with cognitive disabilities or with sight loss, due to the difficulty of finding the correct stop. People using rolling walkers or wheelchairs, on the other hand, will experience improved accessibility to public transportation if there is no gap between the platform and the vehicle. Thus, this change can create a problem at the micro level, where the urban areas are meant to be usable by different individual citizens, even as it resolves another. Dilemmas like this one relate to the concrete elements of design in contexts.

In my research, interviewees described the streets as public in the most genuine way. The streets are often the city's oldest and most permanent structures. Street design reflects a community's understandings and values; the continued use of rough cobblestones, for example, reflects a community that does not count wheelchair users among its prioritized pedestrians. The city, as a public space, belongs to all citizens. The stakeholders interviewed were all aware of the importance of not building new barriers. For example, the representative of the head of the project, the representative for the disability rights organization, and the landscape architect, all agreed upon the importance of designing urban places that reflect the democratic values of our times, including equal access to public places 6. However, the representative for the municipality's council for people with disabilities, identified a gap between aesthetics and functionality. Many urban planners appreciate cobblestones in the older parts of the city, a pavement that is difficult to navigate for most people with mobility restrictions. This dilemma calls for a closer reflection upon the city as cultural heritage. The old city centers are attractive to visitors, but the design of these urban places is the product of a period with little awareness on disability based exclusion.

To rebuild public places represents economic costs. Thus, economic factors were also mentioned by several interviewees. There is both a question of how much money to be spend on refurbishing and beautification of the city center and the importance of refurbishing in accordance with contemporary accessibility codes. One of the interviewees, a politician, thus emphasized that it is expensive to rebuild because of having made the wrong choices. 7

User involvement in the political process

One aspect of the implementation of universal design relates to knowledge. In studying the urban redesign project, I found that the different stakeholders represented various kinds of scientific, professional, and situated knowledge. They also approached universal design at different levels. At the macro level, all interviewees understood UD to be related to values such as equal status and citizenship. At the micro level there were divergences in how much detail the interviewees used in discussing the term, but most agreed upon relating UD to accessibility and usability. At the meso level, UD was seen as a political mechanism for inclusion and technical specifications describing concrete solutions such as pavement surfaces, benches and lighting. The disability advocates representatives were involved in the discussions at each of these levels.

In participatory planning processes, it is of democratic importance to include disability advocate organizations in planning and building processes and to find ways to discuss accessibility and UD at a concrete level. In this project, disability advocates, including the Municipal Council for People with Disabilities and local organizations of people with disabilities, were invited to take part in the project's reference group. The reference group had little formal power. However, the members of the reference group could discuss topics of interest with persons who had more formal power and responsibility . The knowledge brought to the table by the reference group is unlike both political and professional knowledge: it is situated knowledge representing different situated disability perspectives. Because this group had little formal influence regarding decisions, the voices of its members were weaker than the voices of the politicians, the administrators and the professionals. The differences in power and influence in planning and designing processes are significant. When people with disabilities are included in such processes they represent knowledge that differs from the expert political and theoretical knowledge that planners and governments possess. Should these representatives be heard in the process, being part of a reference group with very little structural power? More than that, will these representatives be heard? The differences in power and structure indicate that it is difficult for NGO representatives to have an actual influence on planning processes. Economic interests often guide urban political processes more than democratic values of participation and deliberation (Flyvbjerg, 1991).

Participating in democratic processes is, as argued earlier, one aspect of a right to the city. Such participation is a recognition of stakeholders and representatives for advocate groups as citizens. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2009) discusses what recognition can imply in urban public areas. Drawing on Nancy Fraser, Garland-Thomson links recognition to being present and to seeing one another. Being present in urban public areas means to be present in diversity. Garland-Thomson describes the trajectory of recognition in the following manner:

"I recognize you by seeing your similarity and your difference to me, and then I make your strangeness familiar. In other words, I see you as you are" (p. 158). When local communities adopt a disability perspective on urban planning and redesign, their projects communicate respect for equal citizenship. The opportunity to live together with other people in communities is of fundamental value for individuals. However, if the disability perspective is weakened due to a lack of formal influence in the democratic processes, the result might be further marginalization instead of recognition. Even if a small number of individuals are wheelchair users, accessibility for wheelchair users is vital for the society as a whole as well as for those individuals. Nussbaum (2006) argues that even if wheelchair users were granted a free chauffeur and carriers, it would not change the need for accessible public transportation and public spaces.

My analysis of the urban redesign project indicates that recognition is expressed both through the design itself and through the participatory political processes. The design indicates how the intended user is epitomized, and to what extent disability as human condition has informed the design. The participatory process recognizes participants by acknowledging their perspectives as relevant. Weaker representation, like that offered by the reference group, perhaps also weakens the weight of argument when there are disagreements.

Based on these perspectives, I will argue that a right to the city is best analyzed in two ways; first, urban planning, practiced as participatory planning, involves citizens as representatives. This means that a right to the city is implemented as a democratic right to participate in the political planning processes that form the city as a work, a human product. Second, a right to the city entails for the individual citizens to be included in the concept of person that informs the politicians. A person with disability is thus is entitled access to all public places on par with other citizens. Following Lefebvre, space is not given once and for all, but is produced continuously by the citizens as users of public space.

The walkable city

Many of the dilemmas and divergences between the stakeholders were related to the design and use of the urban streets in the various sub-projects. Streets link different parts of the city together and are used differently by a range of people at all hours of the day (Jacobs, 1993). I myself live in Oslo, on the fourth floor of an apartment near the city center. From my small balcony, I see a street, a park, and a schoolyard. I can see and hear how the way these places are used changes from early morning throughout the day and into the night. There are also two benches in the park and sidewalks. The streets have painted zebra crossings, signaling that this is an area for pedestrians. Drivers know that they can expect pedestrians in the streets. The benches and zebra crossings can be seen as dimensions of a culture that gives space to vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians, who are provided with both spaces for rest and safe spaces in which to cross the road. Since 1974, many pedestrian crossings also have sloped curves, in order to enable wheelchair users and people with strollers to cross the streets Making room for vulnerable individuals can thus be seen as a friendly aspect of the city.

More pedestrian activities can be characterized as necessary, such as going to work or shopping. Social activities such as people talking together when sitting near each other, children playing with each other when they are in the same square often come as a consequence of necessary activities. These social and leisure-like activities take place when people are in the same places. A built environment with good qualities supports these social activities, which are of great importance for people and happen when people are in public areas. Public areas with good design and maintenance promote social optional activities (Gehl, 2010).

Recently, urban researchers have focused on cities' walkability, defined as "the extent to which the built environment supports and encourages walking by providing for pedestrian comfort and safety" (Ewing & Handy, 2009; Johnston, 2008; Southworth, 2005). This is also a relevant criteria for implementing UD in urban areas. A walkable environment easily connects people with different places, and is to some extent safe and comfortable for pedestrians. 8 Safety levels need to be assessed in specific contexts, since one is never totally safe in public places or urban environments. Safety seems to be a factor people consider when deciding on whether or not to walk (Lid & Solvang, 2015; Alfonzo, Boarnet, Day, Mcmillan, & Anderson, 2008; Johnston, 2008;, Burton & Mitchell, 2006). The pedestrian's embodied presence in the streets and in urban places adds life and motion to architecture and material structures. Pedestrians are vulnerable and more exposed to risk than sheltered road users. In a confrontation between a pedestrian and a car, the driver risks less. Few pedestrians will insist on their rights in direct confrontations. Thus, the pedestrian is at once the most frail and the most important person in urban areas (Zeitler, 1998). People with visual problems and mobility restrictions have to devote much of their attention to avoiding danger when out in public (Lid & Solvang, 2015). For these people, as well as for elderly people, children, and people with cognitive disabilities, it is of the utmost importance that basic structures in urban places are predictable and not too complicated to learn to use. The term walkability sums up what urban qualifications should be: urban streets and places need to be as safe as possible and predictable for people of various ages and abilities.

Citizens live in what Hannah Arendt calls a "web of relationships and plurality of enacted stories" (Arendt, 1998, p. 181). This is a spatial web of embodied persons, The relationships that people have with each other are thus embodied and spatial relationships. The city, with its public urban places, streets, sidewalks, parks, and infrastructure, is of great importance for facilitating this web of relationships and accommodating for difference. Thus, it is also important that governments facilitate plurality in planning and building urban places by taking into consideration the fact that people's abilities change during their life span, and that disability is a natural facet of the human experience.

An implementation of UD in practical politics and redesign projects calls for knowledge on how UD can be applied in concrete situations. Design is contextual and can seldom satisfy all peoples' various requirements for facilitating environment (Preiser, 2009). Hence, there are difficult priorities and dilemmas inherent in all practices involving universal design. In analyzing the documents, I found that the central policy documents for the urban redesign project did not include the discrimination and accessibility act or the CRPD, signed by the Norwegian government in 2007, ratified in 2013. This might be one reason why UD mostly was interpreted as a basic value concept. Several scholars have pointed out the need to evaluate UD, accessibility, and usability (Iwarsson & Ståhl, 2003; Imrie & Hall, 2001). When representatives of people with disabilities are included in planning and designing processes, these representatives should be involved in assessing the design solutions chosen. If new anti-discrimination legislation such as the DAA and CRPD are to be powerful political tools, it will be necessary to follow up on developing methods for assessing their implementation (Imrie & Hall, 2001; Steinfeld & Maisel, 2012).


Urban places are dynamic spaces where people meet acquaintances and strangers as fellow citizens. If public planned environments signalize inclusion, it might strengthen the individual's courage to be part of the urban life. The city is a public, democratic place, and an arena for cultural and commercial activities. Equal access to urban life is only beginning to be recognized as a dimension of quality in urban planning processes. People with disabilities have heretofore often been considered a marginal group in planning and democratic processes. From a human rights perspective, it is necessary to underscore equal accessibility as a common good, and the government's responsibility to implement it. Both the DAA and CRPD give legal justification for this. The policy documents for the urban redesign project would carry more weight if they were more specifically related to discrimination and accessibility legislation.

A person's right to the city is an important issue that calls for knowledge from different individual perspectives. One question to elaborate further is what a right to the city implies in a democratic society characterized by recognition of all individuals as citizens with equal status. My analysis of the urban redesign project indicates that the project documents did not implement the understanding of accessibility and inclusion found in the CRPD. The involvement of representatives from disability advocate groups was rather weak and provided little formal influence on the processes.

Urban public places can be strong protectors of people's equality and dignity. This study however, revealed a need for renewed knowledge when implementing accessibility, which would make it possible to work towards interpretations of a right to the city as a human rights issue. Relevant knowledge needed is both inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary. A disability perspective is thus dependent upon effective participatory planning processes involving a dialogue between both stakeholders situated and professional knowledge. There is also a need for more research on how a value based interpretation of UD and inclusion can be implemented in urban planning processes, addressing concrete dilemmas.


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  • World Health Organization. (2011). World report on disability. Geneva: WHO.
  • Young, I. M. (2000). Inclusion and democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Zeitler, U. (1998). Mobilitet og moral: Aspekter af en transportetik. Copenhagen, Denmark: Rådet.


  1. The name Jane is a pseudonym for the interviewee.
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  2. The CRPD was signed by Norway in 2007 and ratified in 2013.
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  3. The Urban Redesign project is a cooperation between the municipality of Oslo and representatives from business. Various sub-projects around the city include participation from various citizen groups and stakeholders organizations, including organizations for people with disabilities.
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  4. Interview 9.
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  5. Interview 7.
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  6. Interview 2, 5 and 7.
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  7. Interview 1.
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  8. People who travel by public transportation are also pedestrians when moving to and from the public transportation. Legally, the term 'pedestrians' includes "wheelchair users.".
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