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One Way to a Better City: Ask Disabled People to Design It

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What would it be like to live in a city designed by, or at least with, the disabled? For starters, that metropolis’s main public library and its most august museum would not sit atop monumental staircases. The designer, historian, and Parsons professor David Gissen opens his book The Architecture of Disability with a description of the day in 1990 when dozens of protesters jettisoned crutches and wheelchairs and hauled themselves up the U.S. Capitol steps on their stomachs or backs. The Capitol Crawl, he points out, was about more than access: It dramatized just how alienated disabled people feel from monuments that are meant to embody a democratic idea. Gissen imagines an urban environment that would do more than grudgingly accommodate people who can’t see or walk or hear, or who have cognitive impairments. Rather than treat disability as a separate category of sufferers with special needs, he yearns for a city that would recognize, and take its shape from, the vast variety of physical experience.

Gissen survived childhood bone cancer at the cost of his left leg, which was amputated when he was a teenager. At various points he has struggled to get around New York in a wheelchair and on crutches; found relative bliss in Vienna; moved to the Bay Area, where he was fitted out with an inadequate artificial limb; and, in the past few years, returned to New York and received a transformative new prosthetic that’s made him considerably more mobile.

“The West Coast disability culture is so accepting of physical difference that if you walk terribly on a bad prosthetic leg, people say, ‘That’s okay, that’s who you are,’” he told me. “In New York, you go into a doctor’s office, and they say. ‘Why are you walking so badly?’”

He already knew that everyone’s disability is different, but experience taught him that even one person’s condition is not fixed. Advocates of universal design argue that a building, a park, a landscape, or a sidewalk should be conceived to serve everyone equally. Instead of treating accessibility as an add-on or an extra expense, it should be “a fundamental condition of good design.” Gissen, on the other hand, focuses on variety and customizability, rather than efforts to please everyone all at once with one generic paradigm. “Disabled people’s bodies and capacities are always changing depending on the kind of medical care they’re getting.”

In the book, Gissen discusses climate control, moving from history to personal experience and passing through politics. After the age of thickly curtained, wood-paneled, low-ceilinged, small-windowed homes of the 19th century — designed to keep fire-warmed air in and damp, sooty air out — the modern era did an about-face. Science had determined that sunshine and breezes were weapons against tuberculosis; architects responded with big windows and white walls. New York’s 1916 zoning code and its 1929 multiple dwelling law enshrined the pursuit of light and air in stringent regulations governing building heights and setbacks. A century later, it’s time for another assessment. Cities have gotten hotter, glass façades have made maximized indoor glare, and shade is often precious. COVID drove indoor air quality much higher up the list of fundamental needs, but it still doesn’t work the same way for everyone.

“A reduction in room temperature alone cannot always cool me, but the movement of air around my prosthesis” does, Gissen writes. When he gets hot indoors, he stands and starts moving quickly — exactly the opposite reaction most people have. Cars come with the ability to tailor temperature and airflow to the comfort levels of passengers sitting inches apart; office buildings, too, should make it possible for individual users to regulate their own small zones.

When President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law in 1990, he enshrined an era of compliance. Buildings had to be made accessible according to a set of minimum standards, and owners were required to absorb the costs and produce design solutions. That was a huge change, and the result is that post-1990 apartment buildings, office towers, arenas, concert halls, museums, courthouses, and all kinds of public facilities are far more navigable than their predecessors. That’s not enough, and Gissen envisions a much more far-reaching future. But he also looks back at historic examples to show how the realities of disability can affect the texture of urban life. At the end of World War I, for example, more than 150,000 veterans, widows, and refugees — most of them traumatized, many severely injured — flocked to wooded encampments on the edge of Vienna. The municipal government appointed the architect Adolf Loos to help make those communities permanent. “Loos,” Gissen writes, “studied the work of wounded veteran builders and developed an entire construction system based on their capacities.” As part of the effort to honor and upgrade these DIY neighborhoods, he designed a House With One Wall, “realizable with a minimum of physical exertion.” (More than a century later, the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena won the Pritzker Prize on the strength of a similar concept: a cluster of cheap, expandable, customizable homes that each family can complete on their own, whenever time and money permit.) In interwar Vienna, disabled veterans formed a powerful political force, and their influence continues to shape the city’s legendary social housing program, its broadly accessible transit system, its abundant urban gardens, and even its advanced prosthetics industry. Vienna is, Gissen reports from the years he lived there, “a remarkable place to be a disabled person.”

Gissen uses the term urbanization of impairment to describe a radical shift in perspective — one you might get just by including more disabled architects and planners. It begins with the acknowledgment that physical comfort means a lot more to people with disabilities than it does to those without them. Construction noise can disorient the blind. Sunshine beating on a sweltering sidewalk can debilitate wheelchair users, who tend to overheat, so street trees and shaded bus stops become necessities rather than urban frills.

He also hopes to shift the metaphors we use to analyze and shape cities. Since at least the 18th century, urban planners have seen the city as a magnified representation of the human body, with quasi-animate systems of circulation and respiration, well-defined borders between public and private property, and distinct traffic and pedestrian zones, all arranged to manage the movement of people, vehicles, water, and money. The architecture within those cities depends heavily on symmetries and proportions derived from unimpaired human bodies and average physiology — windows as eyes, doors as mouths, cornices as hair or headgear, and so on.

The results make life harder than necessary for many people with disabilities. Broad boulevards are strenuous to cross. Stop to rest along a sidewalk in New York, and you suddenly become a human impediment, a log stuck in a stream of fast-moving pedestrians. (“People have no compunction about saying, ‘Get moving!’” Gissen remarks.) Flow is not a useful concept when movement is a constant challenge.

Gissen values the exceptions to these ideals of urban vigor. He loves an allée of gnarled and leaning pines in Madrid’s Parque Rio, because the designers at the landscape architecture firm West 8 embraced the natural idiosyncrasies of trees, rather than selecting only specimens with the most soldierly posture. In a similar vein, he argues that streets should be less segmented into efficient channels differentiated by vehicle and speed. Instead, public space could stand to be more mixed and amorphous, even a little anarchic. The book’s illustrations include a Piranesi print of the Roman Forum as it looked (or as Piranesi wanted it to look) in the mid-18th century. “There’s no street in the modern sense, just an empty space between buildings,” Gissen says enthusiastically. “There are trees, places to sit, animals, piles of hay and dirt, ruins, monuments. There’s no strict separation between spaces you circulate through and spaces you occupy. You can sit in the middle of the street!”

The pre-modern public-space utopia he’s describing sounds a lot like the pedestrian plazas that began dotting New York in the Bloomberg years — places like Gansevoort Plaza or Times Square, which began as lawn chairs set out in the middle of Broadway. There are other instances in which Gissen seems to be envisioning a future that has already started to exist, at least in isolated instances. A dozen years ago, the Department of Transportation began commissioning and installing thousands of steel benches on sidewalks all over New York, finally turning it into a slightly more sittable city.

Urban design is conditioned by property laws and boundaries, and most owners insist that the public walk around — rather than through — their domains. Gissen presents a purportedly radical alternative, based on a looser definition of property. “One can imagine an urban block where the owner has to provide an easement or a privately owned public space to let someone through and lessen the intensity of those long stretches you have to walk.” Yet such a thing already cuts through midtown Manhattan from 51st to 57th Streets, between Sixth and Seventh Avenue, a stretch of linked spaces that the city in 2012 named 6 ½ Avenue.

We should learn from the success of these examples and consider the benefits they bring, not just to convenience and New Yorkers in a hurry but to anyone for whom walking is a challenge. That population includes those who see themselves as permanently disabled, and also the diverse and changeable collection of the very young, the very old, and the extremely tired; injured marathoners and women in high heels; shoppers carrying heavy bags; chronic sciatica sufferers; patients recovering from surgery; and so on. If you’re not in one of those categories right now, you almost certainly have been or will be. That’s what makes Gissen’s book so important: Disability, in one form or another, is a near-universal experience.

One Way to a Better City: Ask Disabled People to Design It