While urban planners design sustainable cities with improved access for cyclists and walkers, their plans often leave out a major city minority -- the disabled.
I'm talking here, not only about people in wheelchairs, but about those who can't walk at a normal pace, for whatever reason, those who can't see or hear normally, and the elderly.
For these people, cities are full of barriers. Take, for instance, the staircases in the subway. The alternative is to take the elevator, which is usually out of sight somewhere, and when accessible, reeks of filth and just looks dangerous.
Elevator to mezzanine from the northbound Sixth Avenue platform of 34th Street-Herald Square subway station, New York City. (Source: The Legendary Ranger, via Wikimedia Commons)
Then there's the act of simply crossing the street in a place like New York City. How to get there before the light changes -- and avoid that racing bicycle messenger, the cabbie with a killer instinct, that girl on rollerblades?
There is no shortage of urban rhetoric about accessibility. In Chicago, New York City, Paris, Tokyo, and dozens of other cities worldwide, disability is given many pages of descriptive website text, but the reality can be far from enabling.
"Tokyo can be a nightmare for travelers with disabilities," states the online travel guide Frommers. "City sidewalks can be so jam-packed that getting around on crutches or in a wheelchair is exceedingly difficult... Although most train and subway stations have elevators, they are often difficult to locate. A few stations are accessible only by stairs or escalators."
Another travel writeup describes Paris: "Wheelchair-intolerant cobblestone streets; out-of-order or nonexistent metro elevators; cafe bathrooms in basements accessible only by narrow spiral staircases -- you name it. For visitors with disabilities or limited mobility, Paris can seem like an obstacle course."
Will situations like these improve as cities get redesigned with sustainability in mind? After all, environmental activism is often linked with progressive thinking in other areas.
Still, there seems to be remarkably little connection between sustainability and accessibility. Instead, the push toward what is known as universal access, or designing the built environment with a view to inclusion of all physical types and capabilities, is gaining momentum from the increasingly aging population. In a recent blog, "Where will we see the first Universal Design cities?," Ben Hamamoto, a research manager at nonprofit group Institute for the Future, wrote:
As the whole world's population ages, it creates new imperatives for Universal Design—design intended to be "aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life." It's still not certain who the authorities for universal design might be, but the could emerge from some surprising places.
Hamamoto notes that Thailand is funding its Chiang Mai province to build facilities for senior citizens looking at extended stays in the region. This kind of support, says Hamamoto, could be the impetus required to boost universal design in cities worldwide. "Places like Chiang Mai could lead the world in innovating urban spaces for seniors, and could, in essence, become authorities on universal design."
There are other efforts underway in support of better urban design for disabled people. The United States Access Board, for instance, a US federal agency dedicated to boosting accessibility, has committees studying how to make urban transportation, including light rail, more accessible; how to modify shared-use paths in city recreation areas; and how to improve emergency housing for disabled people.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also works to promote accessibility in the built environment, and its standards are supported by groups like the US Access Board. While not all ADA standards are mandated by law in the US, they at least offer guidelines for planning.
Some architects and urban planners are specializing in universal access. In St. Louis, the firm of McCormack Baron Salazar has built, among other things, 6 North Apartments, a universal access apartment complex designed as a reuse of urban land.
"This is the first fully universally designed, mixed income, multi-family property in the U.S.," boasts the website of the Universal Design Summit 5, a conference on universal access housing and neighborhoods scheduled to take place next month in St. Louis.
The existence of such a conference is a beacon of hope that, given time, cities around the world will adopt universal access as a fundamental element of urban planning.
Re: This just in Here are a couple of other comments from Karen Braitmayer, from the same email:
"If communities do want to be more walk-able or bike-friendly, then they need to consider allowing alternate devices for those who can't walk the distances. Perhaps substituting golf carts or scooters for bikes?
"In terms of urgent priorities in city planning - I believe that efficiently connecting different modes of in-city transportation is the first priority. Then people with disabilities can have choice in their location for housing, employment, schooling and community services. The next priority is likely to be creating housing that is age-neutral so that anyone can stay in their home, regardless of illness, aging, disability, etc."
This just in Just got an email back from an expert in architecture for the disabled -- Karen L. Braitmayer, FAIA, who happened to be away last week. She gave me permission to post a few of her comments on the topic of universal urban design:
"The increased focus on human powered transport and walkability, both for citizen health and for carbon reduction, does overlook those who rely on transit and individual mobility vehicles to gain close access to their destination. The most significantly impacted population may be our seniors - who may choose not to attend a social or community gathering if they are worried that it may be too taxing to get there. They are least likely to be advocating for their needs because they don't identify as people with disabilities. The biking lobby is advocating for a community of near athletes - not the leisure biker (12 yo riding to school) or person who uses a mobility device like a walker, scooter or wheelchair to get to work or the store."
Re: textured surfaces and wheelchairs etc I love Falling Water. I always wonder, though, how the residents kept it so clean and uncluttered. I suppose living in a work of art, the work takes precedence over one's messiness.
textured surfaces and wheelchairs etc The thing about good design is its ability to find a middle way without it being a compromise. In Gordon Cullens famous book 'Townscape' he shows that we can have textured/cobbled surfaces and still have easy access. Its about weaving smooth surfaces through, between, around the more decorative or aesthetically rustic surfaces tha exist. Wheelchair friendly does not mean boring, but in the wrog hands designs that accomodate wheelchair users are often just dull. Lets see some creativity. In University when I studied architecture, the idea of disabled friendly design was always treated by the students as yet another constraint to design BUT ITS NOT. Frank Lloyd Wright, Americas greatest Architect said that teh best design comes from tight constraints, it forces creativity. Look at his masterpiece FallingWater, it is so iconic because it had to be ground breaking to work, a normal design solution would not suffice to enable those huge overhanging floor slabs. Urban Designers GET CREATIVE, DITCH DULL!!!
As I look around and see what the baby boomers have accomplished I am anticipating they will definitely change the world for the physically challenged. As they get older and need to be accommodated I am expecting they will make the world work in a more Universally designed way.
Re: Was almost embarrassed Yes indeed, Nicole. What distresses me most is that some very interesting urban trends, such as cycling and broadened public transport, sometimes seem to exclude disabled people. It's important to keep an eye out here, I think, and call designers out on any neglect in this area.
Re: Was almost embarrassed Mary: That's outrageous. My jaw just dropped!
Unfortunately, though, it seems that many who've designed our cities actually share his opinion. He may just be one of the few who've actually admitted it this way. Others appear happy to ignore the topic instead, as though it doesn't exist.
Re: Was almost embarrassed One of the saddest testaments to neglect of disabled services in my experience happened when I worked with some voice activation consultants years ago on a report. I asked whether the technology had been considered for the disabled. The consultant ignored my question. When I asked again, he exclaimed, "I don't care about the [expletive] disabled!"
Here was someone who was potentially a "market mover" plainly ignoring a market he didn't see as lucrative enough to bother with.
Re: Was almost embarrassed Mary, I was thinking the same while I was reading this. It's mind-boggling that this is a subject that gets so little respect or attention. It's almost like an afterthought, or it seems so when you assess the infrastructure in cities that is intended to aid the disabled. Newer buses seem to have been reengineered to make on- and off-access much easier for people who can't climb steps, but that's just one tiny piece of the urban puzzle. I give people in wheelchairs, and the blind, and the elderly, a ton of credit for getting around New York and other cities. I don't know how they do it.
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