By Steve Wright and Heidi Johnson-Wright
Whether it’s a corridor plan for two blocks in small-town USA or a blockbuster master plan worthy of a national award, planners have to design for all users of the public realm. Yet planning for people with disabilities seems to flummox even the best of urban designers.
Add in the challenges of planning in harmony with historic buildings, difficult topography, waterfront access, or the severe geometry of modernist architecture, and some planners think the answer is to seek a waiver to release them from what they view as the constraints of serving wheelchair users and folks with other disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, is federal civil rights legislation. As such, there is no “grandfathering” of inaccessible public buildings, plazas, or streetscapes. The ADA is not a building or zoning code, so it cannot be waived.
Despite good intentions, planners and architects tend to design for the mythical five-foot-10, 175-pound, nondisabled male. Accessibility features — seen as a necessary evil — are tacked on at the end to meet ADA requirements.
Rather than obsessing on door widths and ramp slopes in a vacuum, designing projects for everyone from the start simply makes more sense. Universal design is not about designing separate but equal spaces but about design equality. Projects that comply with the letter rather than the spirit of the law mean missed opportunities to design for everyone.
Experts in the field — planners, architects, disability consultants, and educators around the nation — agree that the best approach to serving people with mobility, visual, hearing, and other disabilities is to apply universal design principles to redevelopment districts, complete streets, plazas, parks, buildings, and more.
The late architect and planner Ronald L. Mace, founder of the Center for Universal Design at North carolina State University, coined the term universal design. He defined it as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”
Clearly, universal design doesn’t describe a built environment filled with wheelchair ramps, rusting outdoor lifts, ungainly retrofitted entrances, or costly building additions or alterations. Done right, UD is incorporated from day one and takes advantage of topography, grading, wide sidewalks, intuitive design, and inclusive mobility.
Remaking the WTC
Rick Bell, FAIA, is executive director of design and construction excellence for the city of New York’s Department of Design and Construction. Before that, he was the executive director of AIA New York, where he championed design for all and design to encourage fitness and healthy living.
Bell, a strong advocate for universal design, was instrumental in finding ways to incorporate UD into the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, earning him a Barrier-Free America Award from the Paralyzed Veterans of America. As a volunteer appointee, he worked with the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and served on the committee that wrote the program for the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
“Along with colleagues at New York New Visions, I had the opportunity to push for universal design on the reenvisioning of the WTC site and the surrounding blocks in Lower Manhattan,” Bell says. “It was not only the memorial quadrant that was being transformed, but everything that was radiating from it. The new transit stations, office structures, and cultural facilities were a big part of the discussion of connectivity and accessibility, as were the sidewalks and streetscape from Fulton Street to the Battery.”
Quick to add that the credit for the overall design for the 9/11 memorial goes to Michael Arad and Peter Walker, Bell notes that the famous 16-acre site came with major challenges. Among them: “It has a significant slope, partly because it’s adjacent to the river,” he says. “That slope can be a design problem. You think back to the old WTC, it was a raised podium. It read as an acropolis. There was a natural propensity for a lot of architects to do that kind of design,” he says, of grandiose designs that frequently segregate disabled people from main entrances, forcing them to access the building via lifts that are often broken or hidden elevators.
“Arad [and] landscape architect Peter Walker overcame the slope of the site. They graded and designed it in a way that requires no ramps or steps. No matter where you enter the site, you don’t have to use stairs. So it’s equally accessible to everybody.”
Bell believes that great universal design is done so seamlessly that people who are not in a wheelchair, using a walker, or pushing a stroller don’t even realize that UD was the goal. It’s about making mobility so effortless and invisible that users don’t perceive the design’s intent.
A great example is the subterranean memorial museum where artifacts from 9/11 are displayed; it was an underground parking garage in the original World Trade Center. “The circulation is based on a series of independent galleries connected by a ‘ribbon’ or organizing ramp without the need of separate elevators or lifts to descend to bedrock,” Bell says. “Someone in a wheelchair — and everyone else — can experience the artifacts in a continuum.”
Bell particularly advocates UD with brand-new projects. Working with a clean slate makes creating nondiscernible transitions easier, and an inclusive main access route facilitates mobility for everyone.
Cambridge gets out ahead
Michael Muehe, ADA coordinator for the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and executive director of the Cambridge Commission for Persons with Disabilities, faces the challenge of explaining and promoting universal design to planners, architects, elected officials, and stakeholders every day.
“People get hung up on the numbers game,” says Muehe. “They obsess on 4.9 percent versus five percent. So, I try to put aside the numbers and present universal design as a concept.”
The focus, says Muehe, should be “how would we design from scratch for the maximum number of people, because UD makes design about more than just people with disabilities. It’s about design as a holistic, unified whole.” But often, working from scratch isn’t an option. Cambridge has several initiatives that help.
Take Cambridge’s Storefront Improvement Program. It provides technical and financial assistance to commercial property owners or tenants seeking to renovate or restore building exteriors, with the goal of improving the appearance of independent businesses and enhancing the city’s commercial districts. The funding comes from a 50–50 matching grant program.
Other cities have such programs but this one comes with a twist: It requires business owners to remove barriers to accessibility that are readily achievable. So, the clothing boutique or barbershop seeking new awnings and updated windows also ramps a step at an entrance or installs an automatic door opener.
“We’ve modified the program because, in some cases, the entire $25,000 grant was eaten up by the access updates,” says Muehe. The program now sweetens the access match to 90–10 while keeping the aesthetic update grant match at 50–50.”
The city strongly encourages the installation of automatic door openers because — true to UD’s principle of equitable use — the mechanisms are helpful to everyone, like folks carrying an armload of packages or pushing a baby stroller. “Once people realize the benefit, they’re open to it,” he says.
Cambridge has also found a way to honor its American colonial roots while remaining disabilityfriendly. The city has developed a sidewalk design with a smooth concrete pathway flanked by lines of wire-cut brick. The approach is a nod to the cobblestone Colonial heritage but its smooth surface accommodates people of all mobility needs.
It’s part of Cambridge’s Five Year Sidewalk and Street Reconstruction Program, which is aimed at creating complete streets. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and public transportation users of all ages and abilities can safely move along and cross a complete street. It’s this type of design that will allow graying baby boomers to age in place, or as Muehe puts it, “age in community.”
And don’t forget about the power of technology. Patricia Barrett Malik, PhD, interim director of the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services at the University of Illinois, says that existing technology can be incorporated into universal design to improve the built environment.
“(Closed-captioning) was developed for a narrow use. But now it is in use everywhere: in restaurants and bars, [and] to stream Spanish or another language — there are so many global uses beyond the first design,” Malik says.
We need to think about how technology can help individuals with disabilities be more independent in their home environment. “Wi-Fi was created for mass market communications, but it can control so much more in a home,” she says. “Smart homes can employ Wi-Fi to allow a person, by means of a tiny tablet, to put the blinds up and down, to adjust lighting, and to control appliances.”
Making public spaces truly public
MKSK — a landscape architecture, urban design, and planning firm based in Columbus, Ohio — has integrated universal design in its own hometown with its Scioto Greenways project. The greenways replaced a stagnant, channelized river — cut off from humans by two stories of cement walls — with a restored natural river and 33 acres of new waterfront park in downtown Columbus.
A vertical elevation difference of 23 feet separates the city street from the river below. The entire 33-acre greenway is now accessible via a series of 10-foot-wide pathways that do not exceed a five percent grade. Prior to this, the Scioto River could only be reached via steep staircases that were impossible to access by wheelchair users or people who use walkers or crutches.
Scioto Greenways — designed by MKSK, sponsored by the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation with civil engineering by Stantec — opened at the end of 2015. Previously, Columbus blocked off streets near the river to host warmweather festivals, but later this year, the barrier-free greenway will provide nearly 20 acres of lawn to host the hundreds of thousands who attend waterfront events.
“The best design solutions integrate accessibility into the design so it is imperceptible to the user,” says Tim Schmalenberger, MKSK’s principal and cofounder. “The primary access experience should be simple and intuitively the same for all users.”
James Corner Field Operations, the New Yorkbased landscape architecture and urban planning studio that is best known as the project lead for the High Line in Manhattan, has heavily incorporated universal design into the Underline in Miami. The Underline’s vision is to transform 10 miles of land below Miami’s MetroRail into an iconic linear park, world-class urban trail, and living art destination.
The Underline master plan was released in fall 2015 and it is projected to be completed by 2022. The famous High Line, which gets more than five million visitors per year, features five elevators and one ramp to provide wheelchair access to its 1.5-mile elevated path and greenway. Universal design advocates have lauded the High Line for its gentle slopes and inclusive design that provides access to its features while it winds from the Meatpacking District to Hudson Yards and Hell’s Kitchen.
Miami’s Underline will feature dedicated pedestrian and bicycle paths throughout the corridor. “The key criteria for the design of these two primary components are to provide a safe environment for users navigating the trail at different speeds and physical abilities,” says Isabel Castilla, lead designer for the Underline and a senior associate at James Corner Field Operations.
The Underline will replace an underutilized, not universally accessible paved trail known as the Mpath. The existing M-Path is hampered by dozens of street crossings that are very dangerous for wheelchair users, children, and slow-walking pedestrians. Field Operations’ plan will increase safety and improve visibility at intersection crossings, meeting the needs of people with visual, hearing, cognitive, and other impairments, as well as mobility difficulties, says Castilla.
“Bold graphics on the path and columns will not only reinforce the Underline as a recognizable place but will be easily accessible due to the simplicity of their iconography, large scale, and bold colors,” she says.
Susan Goltsman is a founding partner and principal of MIG, a Berkeley-based firm that takes a holistic approach to urban and architectural design. MIG’s projects embrace inclusivity and encourage community and stakeholder interaction, Goltsman says. Goltsman created the Accessibility Checklist, an evaluation system for buildings and outdoor settings, in 1992.
“Diversity and inclusivity are essential to good design,” she says. “Healthy human habitats should enable more than one way to get from point A to point B.” One of MIG’s recent projects that reflects its design philosophy is San Antonio’s Hemisfair.
Hemisfair began as HemisFair ’68, christened by Lady Bird Johnson as the site of the 1968 World’s Fair. In the name of urban renewal, a downtown neighborhood was demolished to make way for the fair. Since then, the site has been home to a convention center, federal courthouse, cultural institutions, pavilions, and gardens.
Through 2020, the site is being redeveloped as a vibrant, walkable urban district of parks, homes, businesses, and 18.5 acres of parkland. Residential units of various types, densities, and heights are part of the mix, as is mixed-income housing.
Its planned infrastructure improvements will significantly increase the amount of connected and usable public space downtown. Reintroducing complete streets to the district allows for better access and connectivity to park areas from surrounding neighborhoods, and accessibility for all including walkers, bikers, and wheelers.
Goltsman measures inclusive design through the human interaction it generates. She points to Hemisfair as a shining example. “Are people spending time there? Are they taking their family there? Are they playing there? Barbecuing there? Relaxing there?” They certainly are, she says. “Bottom line: does the space work for people or not?”
In the last U.S. Census, nearly one in five Americans reported a disability that impacts their daily lives. That means universal design is not an outlier concept created to avoid ADA lawsuits.
It is an essential and basic planning tool that serves more than 60 million end users of zoning codes, complete streets guides, corridor studies, and other master plans. And, when it’s well designed, integrating universal design into the public realm is not only a seamless experience for disabled users, it benefits everybody.
Steve Wright is an award-winning journalist and the communications manager for PlusUrbia Design, a Miami-based urban design firm. Heidi Johnson-Wright is an attorney specializing in ADA issues. She has used a wheelchair for mobility for more than 40 years. Visit their blogs at urbantravelandaccessibility.blogspot.com and earthboundtomboy.blogspot.com.
Center for Universal Design: ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud.
Cambridge Commission for Persons with Disabilities: cambridgema.gov/DHSP/programsforadults/ccpd.
The Accessibility Checklist: An Evaluation System for Building and Outdoor Settings: tinyurl.com/zsu8w8p.