As the field of universal design matures and expands, many are turning their attention to the broader issue of neighborhood, community and urban design. Those who live in rural areas or even typical suburban settings (even in well designed homes) can be isolated within their neighborhoods and communities for several reasons: 1) because few other homes in the area are accessible, 2) because car use may not be possible yet travel to any or all destinations require the use of a car, or 3) because the neighborhood itself lacks safe places to walk or roll. Many current trends in planning and land development practice create hospitable environments that address items #2 and #3. Few deal with more usable housing.
New Urbanism and Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND)
These are most often transit-oriented, pedestrian friendly, and senior friendly. This is partly due to the mobility options possible with higher-density and mixed-use development patterns. As Malizia (2005) said, “They help make multiple destinations more accessible to pedestrians, create public spaces convenient for social interaction, and locate residences close to the street to increase safety, and so on. Compared with traditional zoning, these outcomes can promote more sustainable and healthy development patterns.” New communities are being designed where the origin and destination of people’s trips are closer to one another. Sidewalks and streets with clear crossings and slower vehicle traffic are safer and easier for older people, families with children and baby carriages, and people with disabilities who may need longer time to cross. These characteristics are also entirely consistent with pedestrian-friendly and senior-friendly concepts (Ewing, 1999, Kocher 2005).
This new mixed use development brings residential, retail, and office uses into close proximity. The apartments over the stores are accessed via elevators. Many other dwellings in the project, however, are impossible to enter if walking is a problem.
In spite of new urbanism’s land-use infrastructure and transportation advantages, it falls short with respect to much of the housing produced. The housing that has been built in many such communities reflects an almost anti-aging and anti-disability outcome. The streetscapes and building frontages often result in brownstones and rowhouses, both of which typically feature deep, narrow building forms set close to the street with first floors three to five feet above the sidewalk, reached by a set of stairs. In residential settings with wood frame homes—detached or attached—a similar scenario is created: small lots with homes with porches set close to the front lot line and/or sidewalk. A new urbanist approach can promote dwelling units located directly over retail businesses, which means they can escape accessibility provisions. These scenarios present challenges for access and universal design—providing stepless entries to the fronts of these buildings can be very difficult. Medium-density situations with two- to four-story semi-urban rowhouses—particularly with a garage under the house, brownstones, or small lot or zero lot line housing—present particular challenges to entry access. On the other hand, high-density areas that include multistory residential buildings with elevators offer few obstacles to universal design. Lot sizes on one-half acre and smaller should not limit options for universally designed homes. However challenging the solutions might be, in surveys of numerous TND projects, the authors of this chapter have noted many missed opportunities, indicating that achievable universal design changes are possible. Solutions range from connecting frontages with access at one or both ends of the run of rowhouses or townhouses to employing the design from the rear.Using alternate rear grading to provide separate stepless entries to each unit (or access to end units only) is another option. Alley access from the rear would have a similar positive outcome. With a little foresight, creativity, and design experimentation, new urbanist designers could achieve universal design outcomes.
Among other goals, several other current planning trends promote community design that encourages daily movement and ambulation, a variety of transportation options, and mixed-use development patterns. Included in this list are livable communities, healthy communities and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Active Living by Design initiative.
Finally, smart growth directly addresses the transportation problems facing large populations of aging Americans in suburban and rural areas. These car-dependent communities increasingly restrict people who make fewer and fewer car trips as they age, effectively becoming trapped in their homes and neighborhoods (AARP 2005). Many older drivers may continue driving longer than they should—potentially endangering themselves and others. Some older drivers are then faced with two bad choices: stay at home or drive when they should not. The dispersed spatial development patterns that are so problematic for transit options that do not involve a car and that result in travel restrictions on older residents produce similar problems for children, people who temporarily or permanently are unable to drive, or those without access to cars for others reasons. As with our other examples, smart growth promotes higher densities, mixed uses, public transit, walking, and other non-motorized transportation possibilities—all of which work well for people with disabilities and seniors.
Adapted from, Integrating Planning and Public Health: Tools and Strategies to Create Healthy Places
Marya Morris, Gen Ed. American Planning Association, Planning Advisory Service, Report Number 539/540. Chapter 4, Universal Design: Community Design, Public Health, and People with Disabilities. With Chris Kochtitzky, 2006.