Universal Design in Landscape Architecture: Public Spaces for All

Universal Design: “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”
— definition by the late architect Ronald L. Mace,  founder of the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University.

Universal design means many things to many people. But anyone who has used a wheelchair for mobility can tell you what it is NOT:

• A vertical platform wheelchair lift foolishly installed to provide access to beachfront shops and cafes — when the reality is keys that are required to operate the lifts get lost, sea spray rusts parts, and the enclosures around the lifts become filled with garbage or are used as bathrooms by drunken partiers.

• A park designed only with nondisabled visitors in mind, with winding staircases, inaccessible water features and barely barrier-free restrooms. The only accessibility features are ugly retrofits that accommodate disabled guests, but unacceptably segregate them from the main pedestrian routes that remain impassible to wheelers.

• Designs by architects and planners who clearly wish they could seek a zoning variance that absolves them from any responsibility for designing public spaces for people with limited mobility.

Thankfully, a growing number of architects, landscape architects, engineers, town planners and designers are creating warm, welcoming public spaces while embracing universal design as an essential element from Day One.

Brooklyn — Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates placed so much emphasis on universal design in its creation of Brooklyn Bridge Park that the park’s website has a prominent link that details all of the accessible features on its piers and greenway.

The most dramatic piece of universal design in this 85-acre sustainable waterfront park that stretches 1.3 miles along Brooklyn’s East River shoreline is the 396-foot-long Squibb Park Bridge, a pedestrian bridge connecting Squibb Park at the north end of the historic Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

The 8-foot-wide bridge has gentle slopes, handrails and dramatic vistas of the Manhattan skyline, Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge. It zigzags through tall oaks, between buildings and over a street, descending 30 feet in elevation from its start to endpoint.

Squibb Bridge at Brooklyn Bridge Park uses principles of universal design to create outstanding access and million dollar views.

Squibb Bridge at Brooklyn Bridge Park uses principles of universal design to create outstanding access and million dollar views. Photo by Julienne Schaer.

Ted Zoli, a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award winner who serves as national bridge chief engineer for the HNTB firm, used durable materials in constructing the bridge and made sure that wheelchair users and others with limited mobility would enjoy the same access as runners, cyclists and all visitors. “The design is both innovative and unusual, and it blends perfectly with the landscaping in Brooklyn Bridge Park,” Zoli told HNTB Designer magazine.

Van Valkenburgh Associates prefers landscape-based solutions to mechanically-based accessibility, with gentle slopes instead of lifts or elevators. “Ramped pathways and bridges are less prone to technical difficulties, and they also create a stronger continuity of landscape experience that is part of the enjoyment of being in a park,” says a spokesperson for the Van Valkenburgh team. “Once you decide that it is important to connect two spaces through the landscape, it seems worth the effort to make sure that everyone can use it.”

While some prominent master planners have balked at universal design and fought to build brand new facilities with grand staircases as the prominent entry, with accessible routes hidden off to the side, the Van Valkenburgh firm embraces creative approaches to designing for all.

“In some cases, accessibility requirements provide opportunities to build pathways that are more engaging — for instance, a curved pathway that directs your views to the landscape context rather than a straight procession with an unchanging perspective,” says the Van Valkenburgh team spokesperson. “We are strong advocates for building accessibility into the fundamental structure of a project, rather than looking at it as an obligation or an afterthought. Ultimately, the goal is to make accessibility feel effortless so that everyone can enjoy the landscape on the same terms.”

Detroit — MAde Studio
In Detroit, MAde Studio has made universal design a central part in its approach to transform a long-abandoned railway cut into a greenway that provides barrier-free access to historic neighborhoods, some largely vacant and in need of great civic space to spark rebirth.

Architects Jen Maigret and Maria Arquero have designed an urban greenway out of Dequindre Cut, a railway created in the 1920s to move freight to industrial hubs in the growing city. Near the Detroit River, the cut is at grade, but as it moves north, it is more than 25 feet below grade.

MAde Studio’s universal design techniques connect Detroit’s Eastern Market to the Dequindre Cut via a series of generous ramps and landings.

MAde Studio’s universal design techniques connect Detroit’s Eastern Market to the Dequindre Cut via a series of generous ramps and landings. Photo Courtesy of MAde Studio.

Turning a former railway into a greenway and building frequent, accessible connections to the city fabric was a challenge for MAde’s Liquid Planning Detroit — an effort to reinvigorate the city through public spaces that also address storm water issues and crumbling infrastructure.

“The Dequindre Cut is a project that builds connections, and also celebrates the environment, food, neighborhoods, schools, and farms,” says Arquero. “All these elements are the past, present and future of Detroit, and will be linked through this transect. Ensuring universal access is key … there is a desire to inhabit the ramps and terraces to enable increased access, connectivity and social interaction.”

At historic Eastern Market, Detroit’s fresh produce, dairy and meat market dating to the 1800s, the cut is nearly 12 feet below grade. “In the Eastern Market site, we negotiated the grade change using a series of generous ramps and landings that integrate spaces for sitting, eating and mingling — as an extension of the markets — with spaces for movement in and out of the Dequindre Cut,” says Maigret.

In the Detroit Edison Academy site, ramps, retention walls and terraced garden beds connect the school to the Dequindre Cut and beyond to a working urban farm.

“The design of public space is an excellent opportunity to exercise universal design as standard practice,” Arquero says. “As we work to bring citizens back to streets, plazas, parks and waterfronts of our cities, universal design provides good insights to increase comfort and safety for a diversity of users. It is about inclusive approaches.”

Olin’s redesign of Independence National Historical Park features walkways so gently sloped that there are no perceptible ramps.

Olin’s redesign of Independence National Historical Park features walkways so gently sloped that there are no perceptible ramps. Photo by Sahar Coston-Hardy.

Philadelphia — Olin Studio
The Olin Studio in Philadelphia has redesigned a number of landmark public spaces to increase universal design elements. Firm founder Laurie Olin’s redesign of the Independence National Historic Park at Independence Hall features walkways so gently sloped that there are no ramps per se.

“Olin’s design philosophy is to integrate universal design concepts such as resilience and sustainability into all our projects, whether historic landscapes or brand new and contemporary places, from the very inception of their design. We do not design spaces and then go back and figure out how to make them accessible,” says Dennis C. McGlade, president and partner at Olin.

Olin’s landscape design for the security retrofit of the grounds of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., made all the paths to the base of the monument accessible — all slopes under 5 percent — while at the same time thwarting terrorists with design elements that prevent them from driving up to the base of the monument.

Olin’s work at the Washington Monument made all walkway grades under 5 percent.

Olin’s work at the Washington Monument made all walkway grades under 5 percent. Photo courtesy of Olin.

Many architects and planners have claimed that historic properties in urban locations are impossible to retrofit using universal design principles. The innovative team at Olin disagrees.

“Olin has worked on many historic properties and has retrofitted them with paths and plazas that slope less than 5 percent, or with ramps that look like they were original to the design,” McGlade says. “An example of the latter is the ramps we designed for Bryant Park in New York City, which connect the upper dinning terrace to the mid-level walkways under the trees and at the lowest level lawn area. The ramps were blended into the original ornamental stonework with granite balustrades that are copied from those elsewhere in the park, but modified for the sloping ground plane of the ramps.”

Chicago — Milliennium Park Foundation
Chicago’s 25-acre Millennium Park earned a Barrier-Free America Award from the Paralyzed Veterans of America — presented to architect Edward K. Uhlir, executive director of the Millennium Park Foundation.

The Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park is noted for being accessible for all.

The Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park is noted for being accessible for all. Photo courtesy of PVA.

The park’s original grandiose design featured lots of grand staircases and other elements that were not conducive to universal design. Uhlir is credited with working with additional designers to greatly increase accessibility via ramps, gentle slopes and barrier-free play areas.

“My office saw the original plan with grand staircases and other barriers to mobility and said ‘no way are you going to build a big park in downtown Chicago with stairs that are not accessible to people with disabilities,’” says Denise Arnold, a private practice architect and inclusive design specialist who worked for Chicago’s large and influential Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities while Millennium Park was being developed.

The Crown Fountain, designed by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa and executed by Krueck and Sexton Architects of Chicago, is composed of a black granite reflecting pool placed between a pair of 50-foot glass brick towers that display digital videos on their inward faces.

“The fountain is the coolest thing in the world, and the reflecting pool has no more than a quarter-inch lip at any place,” Arnold says of the grand piece of usable public art. “The fountain has giant glass block towers where water spouts 12 feet high off the ground and comes down on kids. It is a completely accessible mini-water park. You see people of all abilities running around that fountain and playing in it.”

To Arnold, who also worked to place wheelchair-accessible beach mats that lead directly into Lake Michigan in several Chicago city parks, universal design is a must.

“It’s about quality of life and being able to participate in the urban realm that’s part of an integrated life and not being excluded or ostracized,” she says. “It’s about approaching design in a way where you’re inclusive from the start.”

Berkeley — MIG
Berkeley-based MIG was founded in 1982 to focus on planning, designing and sustaining environments that support human development, so it is natural that inclusivity is ingrained in the firm’s DNA.

“Our designs have always been for everybody, so it wasn’t a difficult stretch when Ron Mace came out with universal design,” says firm co-founder Susan Goltsman, who sat on the Federal Access Board and helped to develope ADA guidelines for children’s environments.

MIG has designed dozens of barrier-free parks and written accessible recreation guidelines for several agencies. One of its more recent projects was the one-acre Always a Dream Play Park in Fremont, Calif., funded by Kristi Yamaguchi’s Always Dream Foundation. The park has rubber mounds that a wheelchair user can navigate, as well as a small hill that can be traversed via gentle slopes.

“We like topography because it adds a different dimension to the environment,” Goltsman says of the park that integrates universal design into misters, water cannon play areas, swings with enhanced back support and a big slide. “We always try to get kids as high as we can, so they can roll onto bridges, ramps and other features.”

Goltsman and MIG fellow partner Tim Gilbert, MIG’s director of Universal Design Services, both are active in the re:Streets project, a movement to design complete streets that accommodate people of all ages and abilities. After decades of streets being designed to serve only automobiles — at the peril of pedestrians — re:Streets aims to add bike paths, wide sidewalks and other mobility enhancements that safely serve children, people with disabilities and elderly folks on foot.

Goltsman, like many forward-looking architects and landscape designers, believes in creating public spaces that are friendly, inclusive, and aesthetically pleasing to everyone. And in the re:Streets Project, this begins with providing safer, more accessible streetscapes, another huge issue that can be solved by Universal Design.

• Brooklyn Bridge Park: www.brooklynbridgepark.org/pages/accessibility
• Liquid Planning Detroit: www.made-studio.org/liquid-planning-detroit
• Washington Monument: www.nps.gov/wamo/index.htm
• Bryant Park: www.bryantpark.org
• Millennium Park:  www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/millennium_park.html
• Always a Dream Play Park:  www.playgroundsforeveryone.com/playground/always-dream-play-park-at-central-park-alameda-ca.html
• Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates: www.mvvainc.com
• HNTB: www.hntb.com
• MAde Studio: www.made-studio.org
• The Olin Studio: www.theolinstudio.com
• Denise Arnold: www.linkedin.com/pub/denise-arnold/3/b13/621
• Krueck and Sexton Architects: www.ksarch.com
• MIG: www.migcom.com

Wright, president of Steve Wright Marketing Communications, injects storytelling and inclusive design into the marketing of architecture, town planning, civil engineering, landscape architecture and related professional services. He can be reached at stevewright64@yahoo.com.