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photo of activist holding balloon which reads 'welcome, if not disabled'
Atlanta-area visitability activist Stephanie Gillain protests at Glenwood Park opening.

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Activists call 'New Urbanism' to account over lack of visitability

By Eleanor Smith

Homes in New Urbanism communities are by and large neither livable nor visitable by people with mobility impairments.

New Urbanists, whose ideas are influencing community design all over the country, tout walkable communities, decreasing energy waste from suburban commuters by revitalizing inner cities, and other socially advanced principles. Proponents repeatedly assert that such home-office-store communities, because of their density and proximity to shopping and public transportation, are excellent for older people who can no longer drive.

The contradiction is that, by and large, the homes constructed in these "ideal" communities are neither livable nor visitable by people with mobility impairments-- and not a wise choice for temporarily able-bodied older people, either. New Urbanists have been the chief designers who, beginning in the 1980's, brought back the "classic" multi-stepped houses with front porches high above grade -- houses that are worse for disabled and older people than the typical house styles of 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's -- this at a time when the aging of the population is a widely reported trend, and younger disabled people are surviving longer than ever before.

After several years of mainly fruitless advocacy by the Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing (known as DRACH) and Concrete Change, a number of visitability advocates from Georgia and New York expressed their displeasure by clogging the hall at the 2002 New Urbanist national conference in New York City, some of us lying on the floor with signs reading: "Nostalgic Front Stoop. Please step over."

This resulted in a meeting with the board, program participation opportunities at two following conferences, and through the work of Access Living in Chicago, a letter of support from the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism board.of directors for the federal Inclusive Home Design Act legislation.

photo of glenwood park house'
New Glenwood Park home with lots of steps.

But in practice New Urbanists still crank out dense communities of new, grossly inaccessible homes.

Visitability advocates in Atlanta worked hard at educating the developers of the much-ballyhooed projected New Urbanist community, Glenwood Park, for several years before ground was broken, because it was clear that community would be held up as a model for years to come.

photo of balloon which reads 'welcome, if not disabled'

Besides the balloons, activists handed out house-shaped fans that said, "Basic Access to Every New Home: One zero-step entrance, 32-inch doors!"

Checking and photographing the houses under construction, Atlanta-area Concrete Change participants were outraged to see that inaccessibility was rampant, with steps at every entrance -- in many cases so steep they could never be retrofitted, let alone visited by a disabled friend -- and narrow bathroom doors.

So, at Glenwood Park's grand opening in June, fifteen wheelchair users and nine walking supporters arrived, representing DRACH, ADAPT, People First, and Georgia Voices That Count.

The advocates circulated among the crowd, distributing fliers and carrying balloons that said "Welcome-If Not Disabled" and passing out house-shaped fans that said, "Basic Access to Every New Home: One zero-step entrance, 32-inch doors!" The strategy was to have a multitude of personal conversations with the attendees.

By time the formal grand opening program took place, much of the crowd understood and supported our issue. There was loud applause when a Glenwood Park developer announced from the stage that, although they had done many things right in their new development, they had fumbled on visitability. He pledged to hold a training of their builders.

I will be presenting the training, and advocates will be watching to see what actually occurs in practice as the next houses go up.

Posted July 11, 2005.

Eleanor Smith is the founder of Concrete Change.

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