Universal Design Makes Public Spaces Accessible to All

universal designUniversal design is a standard that applies to landscape architecture in which public spaces are created that can be used by all people without the need for adaptation or specialized design whenever possible. Many design firms across the country are embracing this trend and creating public spaces that are accessible to people who use wheelchairs.

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates designed the 396-foot-long Squibb Park Bridge at Brooklyn Bridge Park. This pedestrian bridge is eight feet wide and has gentle slopes, handrails, and impressive views of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge. It was designed to provide visitors who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices with the same access as runners, cyclists, and other visitors. Van Valkenburgh Associates prefers to use landscape-based solutions, rather than mechanical ones, which can experience technical problems. They believe landscape-based solutions provide better continuity and greater enjoyment of parks and other public spaces.

MAde Studio in Detroit has used universal design to turn an abandoned railway cut into a greenway that provides easy access to historic parts of the city. Dequindre Cut is a railway that was created in the 1920s to transport freight. It runs below grade as it travels north, which posed challenges for the landscape designers. They used a series of ramps and landings to integrate spaces designed for sitting, eating, and socializing near markets and around the Dequindre Cut. The Detroit Edison Academy is connected to the Dequindre Cut with ramps, retention walls, and terrace garden beds.

Olin Studio in Philadelphia has redesigned several public spaces around national landmarks to incorporate elements of universal design. The firm has worked on Independence National Historic Park, the Washington Monument, and Bryant Park in New York. Their designs include gentle slopes and ramps that are made to look like they are part of the original designs.

The 25-acre Millennium Park in Chicago was originally designed with a number of staircases and other elements that would have made it inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs. It was redesigned to provide wheelchair accessibility with a series of ramps, gentle slopes, and barrier-free play areas, earning it a Barrier-Free America Award from the Paralyzed Veterans of America. The park includes Crown Fountain with an accessible reflecting pool.

MIG, based in Berkeley, California, has always practiced universal design. The firm has designed dozens of accessible parks and has written guidelines for agencies about how to make public spaces accessible. MIG designed the Always a Dream Play Park in Fremont, California, that has gentle slopes, misters, water cannon play areas, swings with improved back support, and a slide. Partners in the firm are involved in the re:Streets project that aims to make streets accessible to people of all ages and abilities.

The practice of universal design has allowed public spaces to come a long way in terms of accessibility, but more work remains to be done. We applaud these designers for their efforts to make public spaces accessible to people with disabilities and encourage others to follow suit.

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