A really good idea: The accessible city

ADA made buildings easy to walk into. How about a law to make places easy to walk to?

Really good ideas, once instituted, seem so obvious that in retrospect it’s difficult to understand why they weren’t evident from the start.

For example, who today can imagine driving a car without wearing a seat belt? Or letting a toddler roam free through a car rather than strapping them safely into a car seat?

In architecture, one of those obvious-in-retrospect ideas is the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires that all public buildings be accessible to all citizens, including those who are elderly, blind, confined to wheelchairs, or otherwise disabled.

Architects, I’m embarassed to say, resisted the ADA, partly because most professions resist change and partly because the ADA required us to develop a whole new language of forms -- no more grand staircases, high counters, or narrow doorways. Yet even architects now admit the ADA is a really good idea, and that we all have gained from the inclusiveness it mandated.

Another really good idea that hasn’t gained much notice yet is being promoted by Peter J. Musty, an urban designer whose practice, Charrette Center, is located here in Southwest Minneapolis. His idea, like all good ideas, sounds deceptively simple: "Why can’t our cities be as accessible as our buildings?" he asks.

"The irony is that the ADA made individual buildings accessible -- you can walk in and out of any public building now -- but it didn’t require that you have any place to walk to," argues Musty. "We need to make our cities accessible in a way that is dignified, comfortable, and enjoyable for all."

Traditional communities, like southwest Minneapolis, are fairly comfortable for all. They are made up of blocks, generally rectangular and roughly the same size. They are also mixed-use, with houses and apartments and stores all put together within easily walkable distances. It is easy to move around a traditional community such as Southwest Minneapolis by car, bus, bicycle, or on foot.

But most newer communities these days are more like the sprawl seen around Southdale. Streets are wide. Cars drive fast. Blocks are huge and irregularly shaped. Buildings are surrounded by parking lots and can only be reached by auto.

"The problem with the conventional way we build cities now is you’re required to use an automobile," argues Musty. "That would be great if everyone could drive, but the non-driving public-people who can’t drive due to physical disabilities, who are too young or too old to drive, who don’t want to drive or can’t afford to drive-make up 50 percent of the population."

What would an "accessible city" look like? In Pete’s mind, it would look like the traditional neighborhoods of Southwest Minneapolis. Like Uptown, where he lives and works.

"Why do so many people who are blind or suffer from MS live in Uptown?" he asks. "Because in traditional neighborhoods people can be more independent because they can choose different means for getting about."

Imagine being blind and trying to cross France Avenue to get to Southdale. Or using a walker and trying to navigate the huge parking lots surrounding big box retailers like Home Depot or Office Max. Imagine how humiliating and downright terrifying that environment would be. "You can technically walk through that city," argues Musty. "But would you want to? Where is the dignity?"

Is the "accessible city" an idea that will seem obvious in retrospect 30 years from now? The implications to the professionals who shape new development -- the bankers, planners, highway engineers and developers -- are huge. They will have to struggle, as architects did with the advent of the ADA, with new standards and ideas. They will have to abandon familiar forms and invent new solutions. And because most professions resist change, it won’t be easy.

But the potential benefits to the community are huge. Everyone would be able to walk (or roll) between where they live and where they find community. And as Musty emphasizes, "Life depends on community."

Robert Gerloff, AIA, is the principal of Robert Gerloff Residential Architects, in Linden Hills. He can be reached at [email protected]