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Imagining a more inclusive design for Atlanta

We must make the entire urbanism of Atlanta—everything from the designs of city streets and developments, to the way they affect our lives—inclusive of everyone. That includes people with mobility needs due to age or physical disability and also people traveling with small children or pushing strollers.

I started writing about Atlanta’s urban design 12 years ago after being infuriated by how dangerous it was to push a baby stroller to a nearby grocery store. Car drivers brazenly turned left and right into the crosswalk inches from my son even though we had a walk signal. The parking lot in front of the store was a minefield of frustrated motorists that had to be navigated. 

The experience made me feel like a bad parent for putting my child in harm’s way; but it also gave me clarity: the environment was not inclusive for people outside of a car, with babies or toddlers in tow.

The long walk across a crosswalk on Ponce de Leon Avenue. Bulb-out sidewalks could decrease this distance, and “centerline hardening” could prevent drivers from turning quickly into the crosswalk.

I felt guilty for not having noticed this before, and for being part of a society that was too accepting of problematic urban design. As an able-bodied young adult I could easily sidestep blocked sidewalks, and I could quickly launch into the humiliating jog across a crosswalk to accommodate impatient folks in cars trying to make turns.

But when caring for a child, I realized that a city that’s only navigable on foot for healthy, single adults is simultaneously giving the finger to everyone else.

Once my son got old enough to carefully walk and bike on his own, I thought I was out of the woods when it came to fearing violence from the clueless or angry drivers who, too often, have free rein within our overly-car-centric urban space. Instead, I had a health emergency resulting in nerve damage that affected my ability to walk, and that also prevented me from driving or riding a bike. I suddenly became deeply dependent on pedestrian infrastructure and bus stops.

A broken pedestrian sign, echoing the sad state of a sidewalk that’s already too narrow, and that offers no protection from cars (or shade) by way of street trees.

It’s given me further perspective on the dangers of streets that aren’t inclusive for all: the narrow sidewalks that get blocked by trash cans which I can’t easily move while balancing with a cane; the crosswalks that become panic zones as I slowly find a path while cars creep forward. 

We must make the entire urbanism of Atlanta—everything from the designs of city streets and developments, to the way they affect our lives—inclusive of everyone. That includes people with mobility needs due to age or physical disability and also people traveling with small children or pushing strollers.

Inclusivity in our urbanism requires that all our local leaders understand that simply being able to walk the city as an able-bodied adult, without kids in tow, is too low of a bar to set. It’s a bar that lets skinny sidewalks, often blocked by trash cans or utility poles and adjacent to speeding cars, seem OK when they really aren’t; it allows a lack of great crosswalk infrastructure to seem OK when it isn’t; and it makes us too comfortable with a suburban style of land development that separates homes from daily necessities at a distance that’s only reachable in a car.

In his book Cities for People, Danish architect Jan Gehl writes that an important prerequisite for this kind of inclusive urbanism is providing people with “room to walk relatively freely and unhampered, without having to weave in and out and without being pushed and shoved by others.” This is important because “children, older people and people with disabilities have special requirements for being able to walk unhindered. People pushing strollers, shopping carts and walkers also need plenty of room for walking.”

Cars parked on sidewalks; a too-common sight in Atlanta, forcing people with disabilities and people pushing strollers into the roadway.

I’ve experienced the truth of this many times while walking slowly on Atlanta’s more narrow sidewalks, on streets with a lot of pedestrian traffic. There’s usually not enough room for people who travel at different speeds to pass each other safely without stepping into a roadway that’s too often occupied by dangerously fast cars. City leaders who make decisions about spending and planning should be keenly aware of this.

One person who appreciates this issue on a personal level is Atlanta’s outgoing Department of Transportation chief, Josh Rowan. In a recent statement to City Council, he talked about a struggle with his child and street safety: “You know, it’s been a personal journey for me with my son. As you start looking at what neurodiversity means in our our transportation system, I have a five year old son who just wanders into traffic; because of his autism, he doesn’t recognize the risk — and I don’t think that things like that should be a death sentence because you happen to wander into the street.”

It’s a good example of why slower streets are safer streets, particularly for people of all ages and all abilities who benefit from slow car speeds due to conflicts with the way they interact with the built environment.

blocked sidesalk
When this block is developed, it will get a better sidewalk due to city requirements. But too many blocks remain awful for walking while we wait for, essentially, capitalism to rescue us.

In the United States, approximately one in four adults lives with at least one disability. That’s a lot of people who can benefit from an urban design that includes their needs. Studies show that improvements in street design will allow adults with physical impairments to better engage in recreation and social interaction; to have better access to jobs and health-care facilities; and to go shopping for daily needs. ADA ramps and barrier-free sidewalks, for instance, promote independence in adults who have weakness in movement-related functions and balance.

But we also have to reach beyond the design of streets and aim for improved urbanism in the way we develop land in the city to achieve better inclusivity. For people with visual impairments, data shows that neighborhoods with a mix of homes and destinations in walkable distances play a positive role in promoting mobility. Those clutter-free, wide sidewalks need to lead to useful things like groceries and transit stations, instead of just being filled with blocks of nothing but homes as is too often dictated by our zoning laws, which need to be revised

E-scooters blocking sidewalks. People with mobility issues or impaired vision can’t easily dodge these.

I know that the end result of making bold changes in our urban design isn’t going to come quickly. For several decades, Atlanta invested heavily in car-centric planning and suburban-style separation of land uses, basically waging a war on the classic format of walkable urban density for the usual reasons (racism, class bias). It’s going to take time to undo all the damage. But like anything worth doing, we need to take that time to reverse the bad decisions of the past.