Universal Design in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park

After being closed to cars during the pandemic, Rock Creek Park’s Beach Drive has become a haven for people with mobility impairments.

Read Time: 2 minutes

September 16, 2022, 7:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Curb cut at corer of sidewalk

knelson20 / Sidewalk curb cut

“Urbanism and walkability go hand-in-hand, but what does a walkable city look like for those who need mobility assistance, individuals with cognitive or sensory disabilities, toddlers, and the elderly?” Juliana Schmidt asks in Greater Greater Washington.

Schmidt points out that some activists say the word ‘walkable’ is inherently ableist. “Designing cities to meet the needs of all who live within them should be the bare minimum. Unfortunately, for the nearly 1 billion people in the world with disabilities, this is not the case.”

Schmidt provides examples of ‘universal design,’ interventions that are designed to make places accessible to people with mobility or visual impairments but also bring benefits for other users, such as people pushing strollers or carrying heavy bags. In the case of Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, Schmidt argues that “Accessibility for cars does not equate to accessibility for people with disabilities.” 

Rock Creek Park’s Beach Drive is, when closed to car traffic, a good example of universal design that makes space for vulnerable road users, writes Schmidt. “Road closures free up a lot of space in general, which accommodates larger crowds. This proved helpful when social distancing went into effect during the pandemic, and continues to be beneficial by allowing walkers, runners, and bikers to use the space simultaneously.” With universal design benefiting everyone and harming no one, researcher and disability rights advocate Melissa Thompson wonders, “why is it not the default?”

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