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A Meeting of the Minds on Accessibility? | Congress for the New Urbanism

A Meeting of the Minds on Accessibility?

CNU may soon be launching a new initiative if a show-of-hands vote taken during one of the Saturday afternoon breakout sessions is any indication. The topic is accessibility and visitability, and the vote came during the "Accessible Communities" session.

Ray Gindroz, the incoming chairman of CNU and a presenter at the panel, acknowledged that the organization's relationship with advocates for wheelchair accessibility has been "confrontational" at times. The compactness, density, and traditional forms that are fundamental to New Urbanism are often seen to be at odds with requirements for ramps, wide doors, and life all on one level.

But in another sense, the need for "lifespan" housing that will accommodate people at all ages of life is part of the sustainability mission that is in turn part of New Urbanism. And Gindroz and his fellow panelists had much to report about new efforts to improve the accessibility and visitability of New Urbanist design.

Gindroz acknowledged the much of the sense of urgency about the issue was on the part of his fellow panelists – Michael O'Neal of AARP, Edward Steinfeld of SUNY-Buffalo, and Stephen A. Mouzon of the New Urban Guild, along with moderator Shannon Chance of Hampton University. "I’m not sure I sense an urgency from the audience," Gindroz said.

But when he asked for a show of hands on the question of taking up accessibility as a CNU initiative, the "ayes" had it.

Bruce Donnelly said that for him, "the bottom line" was that he doesn't want to see any building types, such as three-unit walkups, made "illegal" by new accessibility requirements. Steinfeld responded, "We haven't found a building type that we can't make work" with higher accessibility standards.

As Chance explained, the focus in the NU debate over accessibility has been on one- to three-family dwellings. Multifamily buildings, New Urbanist or otherwise, are already required to be accessible to wheelchairs. But one of the threads of Saturday's panel discussion was that accessibility isn't just about buildings but the way the entire community is developed.

Visitability, by the way, is a lower standard of access than "accessibility." A visitable dwelling needs at least one zero-step entrance, which may be at the rear; a half-bath; and 34-inch door widths.

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