In our Citizen Placemaker series, we chat with amazing and inspiring people from outside the architecture, planning, and government worlds (the more traditional haunts of Placemakers) whose work exemplifies how creating great places goes far beyond the physical spaces that make up our cities.
Gabriel McMoreland is the co-founder of Pittsburgh’s Accessibility meetup group and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh’s Urban Studies program. He is also a graduate of the Coro Fellows program in Public Affairs. We were happy to talk to him to discuss accessibility, street design, and what access to a well designed streetscape means to users. Our conversation could not have come at a better time, as we are also pleased to announce that Mr. McMoreland will lead a Mobile Workshop on accessibility at this year’s Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place Conference in Pittsburgh! To learn more about the conference and register click here.
Help us understand the experience of a person with mobility impairments when it comes to accessing transportation, employment, social services, and being a member of the community.
Gabe: I think we all share the goal that everyone in the city should have full independence and a full range of possibility and choices available to them. When we build places and pathways for people, they need to be accessible. When they are not, we are excluding people from participating in the social or economic activity that is going on in that space. People with disabilities do not just need to go to a few specific places, like the hospital – if you can think of something people like to do, then there is probably someone with a disability who likes it too.
Urban design isn’t this grand mystery, though. I think a lot of accessibility failures in a streetscape will become obvious when you start looking for them. Pay attention to the sidewalks and think about the actual paths that pedestrians take throughout their day. I like to ask, was this space built for cars, or for people? Then look for the details of how a person would actually move through the space. Details matter. I have a lot of trouble finding unfamiliar bus stops because I can’t read the words on the sign, although I can still see the outlines of all the street signs.
Do you think Pittsburgh is doing a good job in promoting a more accessible streetscape?
Gabe: Pittsburgh’s new mayor [Mayor Bill Peduto] has said a lot of promising things about the importance of a walkable city and bikable city. There are still numerous challenges because we are a City with budget constraints, but I am hopeful.
How do you make accessibility relevant to an able-bodied person? Do you have different messages for different audiences?
Gabe: There are two audiences: people who make decisions and the general public. I think the shared message to both groups of people is about making places that are inclusive to all people and places that allow people to have the most choice and most independent experience that the city may offer.
We want to make sure that people in wheelchairs and blind people can cross the street. The tragedy often is not that people have a disability, it’s that we’re not making the rest of the world accessible to that person. I am blind, that is an unfortunate situation, but when I do not feel safe because I need to cross a street, that is not unfortunate, that is poor design.
You were quoted as saying: “Sometimes the best person to solve an access problem is not a person trained in access.” Can you elaborate on that?
Gabe: This quote comes from a longer speech I gave at the first accessibility meetup event. The theme of my speech was that many people who make decisions that impact our everyday world do not think their work is in accessibility. And if we want to make this world truly accessible, we need to bring all these people into the conversation. Accessibility needs to be part of the original design conversation, rather than an afterthought that’s in place to meet [construction] standards.
What are the biggest challenges in facilitating an ADA compliant streetscape?
Gabe: While I hope to learn more about the technical details of street compliance at the Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place conference, I can say that the biggest challenge is going beyond compliance and identifying what the actual experience is for people who are walking through the neighborhood.
ADA compliance is a minimum standard, not an aspirational goal. In software, people talk about going beyond accessibility to improve usability. The urban design equivalent would be moving beyond ADA compliance to improving the overall quality of place. Considering the full user experience and daily paths of a person. I’d love to see an architectural design competition to create the least livable streetscape that managed to meet the basic requirements of ADA compliance. Accessibility isn’t just something you can spray on later like a varnish, it’s a design priority.
Another big challenge in accessible design is raising expectations among both people with disabilities and the general public. I’ve had a lot of conversations with really well meaning people who assumed that people with a particular disability wouldn’t want to participate in some major category of activities. You can’t just write people off like that. I think it’s a good policy to say that our urban design needs to be fully inclusive.
How can the average concerned citizen get involved to ensure streetscape design is inclusive of all users?
Gabe: The average citizen can begin by asking, is this intersection built for cars or for people? It is the most basic litmus test that helps us evaluate a streetscape.
People also always have an opportunity to influence development in their neighborhoods. When we build major developments, the public comment periods are critical because this is when you may contact a city councilman, and they have to listen. People should always weigh in during comment periods because once construction is complete, the development is in the ground for decades.
However, the only way to guarantee that we’ll have a better streetscape, is to ensure that we have planners and developers who prioritize accessible design. We have to think about the whole ecology of decision makers, including people who live in neighborhoods, urban planners, and government officials. We need all of them to care about building quality places for real people rather than sprawling systems for cars and short term real estate gains.
You co-founded Pittsburgh’s Accessibility Meetup, could you describe the purpose of your group and the work you’ve done up to this point?
Gabe: Pittsburgh Accessibility Meetup hosts monthly events for people to learn about how to make our everyday world more accessible to people living with any disability. Chris Maury co-founded the group in December 2011 and Google’s Pittsburgh office hosted the launch event. We have 120 people registered to our group and events draw 40-50 people. We really want the group to be interdisciplinary, and it is important to bring together users and designers of accessibility.
Up to this point, we’ve had speakers like Jonathan Duvall, who is doing research that could change sidewalk standards. We’ve also featured software developers and people working with artists who have disabilities. We’re also working on several projects including an accessible cycling event, and we’re currently talking to the City of Pittsburgh about gathering information about accessibility priorities to help inform the capital budget process, as well as exploring adaptive sports and coding accessible software.
If someone is in Pittsburgh for 24 hours, what do you suggest they see and experience? What is your favorite place?
Go see the Alleghany riverbank at 43rd street, Allegheny cemetery or the homeland cemetery, and take a walk to the Northside Strip District. For food, go to Lili Coffee in Polish Hill, and get coffee and empanadas.
Polish Hill is my favorite neighborhood— Polish Hill is on a hill rising out of another larger hill, above a forested valley with train tracks. The neighborhood feels like an village in an urban setting.