Universal Design is not the enemy of local character

By Steve Wright

I have interviewed famous architects, renowned planners, legendary rock stars, world leaders, star athletes and some infamous characters in 40 years as a professional journalist.

Over the years, my journalism turned more to advocacy – focused on diversity, equity and inclusion – with a deep dive into DEI through the lens of a better-built environment for people with disabilities.

I’ve often been shocked by the myth that retrofitting civic space for people with disabilities will somehow rob an area of its local charm, its historic standing, or its authentic character.

Another myth is that making things accessible to those with mobility impairments will all but double the cost.

I’m here to say that design for all also is NOT a threat to historic preservation or something that will destroy centuries of local character.

Smooth surface within cobbled wide sidewalk Largo da Graca Lisbon Portugal — better wheelchair access // Photo: Steve Wright

Most historic buildings undergo major renovations to bring them up to code and make them structurally sound for adaptive reuse. 

While plumbing, windows, HVAC, life safety and structural issues are being upgraded, it’s easy to ensure ramps and elevators turn an inaccessible old building into a reborn edifice welcoming to all.

Contrary to design and construction industry mythology, no small business went broke renovating its building to have a level entrance, wider aisles and an accessible restroom.

Think about it. To stay in line with health and building codes, a small business must update its plumbing, roof, windows, electrical, mechanicals and more.

To stay competitive in the marketplace, it must update furnishings, displays, seating areas, kitchen and other core elements depending on the type of commercial activity.

Over a few decades, these renovations – essential to stay in business – cost more than $100,000. So don’t tell me $10,000 to $15,000 – to create an accessible threshold or accessible restroom, often done in concert with other required updates/upgrades, is going to bankrupt even the smallest of small businesses.

Smooth surface within cobbled wide sidewalk Largo da Graca Lisbon Portugal — better wheelchair access // Photo: Steve Wright

Pedestrian-oriented main streets are the lifeblood of mom-and-pop businesses. If they make their old buildings more accommodating to people with disabilities, they will profit from brand loyalty.

When it comes to the public space outside the private building, Universal Design (that is, design that creates access for all people of all abilities) is not a threat to authentic local character.

I will cite a simple example of a retrofit that preserves historic character while making mobility easier for a huge percent of locals and visitors alike.

My photos are of Largo da Graca, a small pedestrian plaza well more than a century old, in the working-class Graca neighborhood of Lisbon, Portugal.

I’m still hounding municipal officials, planners and others to get full details and timeline, but it is very clear that the vintage cobblestones remain in the historic plaza.

However, in many places, there is a smooth surface ranging from just more than a meter to more than two meters wide.  In some spots, the narrow track is doubled by a parallel wider one. 

Ideally, a wheelchair-accessible path is at least 1.5 meters wide.

The paths in Graca are smooth, perhaps polished flagstone, and inlaid as a portion within the larger, rougher, historic stone surface.

This provides a safe, trip hazard-free route those who use wheelchairs, scooters, crutches and walkers for mobility, as well as a more accessible route for baby carriages, elderly people unsure on their feet and visually impaired people.

Smooth surface within cobbled wide sidewalk Largo da Graca Lisbon Portugal — better wheelchair access

There are some issues.  Sometimes the old streets are very narrow and the sidewalk barely provides space for a wheelchair user to roll over the old, bumpier surface – while hugging tight to storefronts as the historic tram squeezes by.

Sometimes, even in much wider plazas, a monthly street fair, weekly market day or ongoing setups for al fresco dining can create barriers to the smooth surface route.

But those are operational issues that can easily be overcome through some education and enlightenment.

The positive thing is the infrastructure for better access for all is in place. The historic stones remain, so there is a best of both worlds of historic charm and modern access and inclusion.

Future capital improvements can extend the smooth surface – so connectivity between town squares, transit hubs and activity centers can be extended.

Steve Wright has four decades of experience in urban design, planning, architecture, mobility, sustainability and universal design. He co-created a groundbreaking universal design course at the University of Miami School of Architecture. His award-winning reporting frequently appears in Planning magazine and he has presented nationally and internationally.

Read Steve’s content here.

Learn more about the Global Walkability Correspondents Network here