Life threw me another curveball recently. A casual walk one afternoon turned badly when I tripped, landing into a few weeks of back and knee pain. The whole experience made me appreciate the physical activity I took for granted before. It also gave me insight into how people with disabilities experience public spaces.
Coincidentally, two work associates are also dealing with physical injuries much worse than my own. Although I did not depend on a mobility aid to get around, my colleagues have been using crutches, a knee-walker, or cane. As we struggled with our individual physical limitations, our sudden connection with the disabilities community was transformative, leaving us much more aware of the design of public spaces.
Urban streets in major cities like Los Angeles are often challenging even for the able-bodied. We became acutely cognizant of uneven sidewalk surfaces along the streets we traveled. In one occurrence, I was forced to walk along the side of a busy road to avoid a raised sidewalk that I could not manage. I have a new appreciation for curb ramps at street crossings, now wishing them everywhere. The slightest pitch in the path of travel could result in exhaustion by the end, while a shady seat to rest is a rare helpful sighting across urban streets.
My injured colleagues and I also lamented over the only set of elevators at the Metro rail station nearest our office. When you are using crutches or a scooter, escalators are not an option. They are crowded, fast moving, and just plain scary. The elevators at our local station are unfortunately located furthest away from our office building. Imagine the emotional and physical toll when faced with another two blocks downhill through crowded downtown sidewalks while relying on crutches — and then upslope at the end of the day.
I recall a class I took many years ago as a student of landscape architecture. The course focused on designing for ADA (American Disabilities Act) compliance. For one session, our instructor asked us to meet him at a spot on the college campus. He arrived with a wheelchair and required each of us to take turns using it as the group walked around. He drove home his points about accessibility as we struggled with the smallest slopes and maneuvered through many circulation barriers. Our last task was to find our way from the upper entry of one building to its lower entry without taking an elevator. The final leg of our path of travel took us to an underlit and isolated corridor. I remember feeling if I was alone, I would be in fear for my safety.
Although ADA regulations have improved since my university days, the lessons of the ADA-oriented session came back to me vividly after my recent fall. I am older now and do not recover from injuries as I once did. Designing to meet minimum federal or local standards is not good enough when you consider your own aging. For our practice, it is ultimately about people, and enhancing the experience of outdoor environments for everyone.
That one word represents our broader responsibility as designers.