Making the Public Right of Way Truly Public
Emily Nasiff (she/her) is a 2022 Summer Fellow with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, working with many departments in the City to ensure we are building accessible curb ramps in accordance with our consent decree.
In 2018 a group of disability advocates and The Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC) came together to put pressure on the City of Boston to make them ensure that city streets and sidewalks are accessible to all. They sued the City, leading to negotiations that ended with the City signing a consent decree (a legally binding promise) to upgrade roughly 1600 curb cuts a year for the next 10 years.
So what are curb cuts, and how do they impact the public right-of-way?
Also known as pedestrian ramps, curb cuts are the softening of street corners that allow all of us to glide across the street from one sidewalk to another. We see them all the time since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, requiring curb cuts at all new or updated crossings.
The ADA is a hard-won set of legal requirements that fundamentally changed the built environment we all experience for the better. Its history is rich and full of inspiring activism.
The call for curb cuts started in 1940 as a form of rehabilitation for veterans. From there, disability activists started to “edit” public spaces to call attention to the need for more accessible streets. They mixed and poured concrete to create a smooth path from the sidewalk to the street and even smashed concrete curbs to create their own curb cuts.
But the most striking demonstration was the “Capitol Crawl” that took place on March 12, 1990. To physically demonstrate the barriers that make a space disabling, people who use adaptive tools like wheelchairs and canes climbed up the 100 steps to the United States Capitol, casting aside any gear that could not make the trip.
A little over four months after the Capitol Crawl, the president signed the ADA into law, on July 26, 1990. Now, many helpful designs like curb cuts are required in the public right-of-way and beyond.
Michael Muehe, Colleen Flanagan, and other disabilities advocates — along with help from law firms like CREEC — are continuing the tradition of securing more accessibility in our built environment. The ADA was a great achievement; it was not a cure-all. Since it didn’t require every built environment to be rebuilt in an accessible way, old cities like Boston are still filled with designs that cause mobility challenges. These vestiges of a pre-ADA era dictate who participates in public life.
The public right-of-way is a public right to travel unhindered over a piece of land. Who can travel unhindered determines who we see as “the public”. To have an inclusive definition of the public, our built environment — and particularly the public right of way — need to be truly accessible to all. That is what the negotiations between Boston and CREEC sought to ensure.
As the city looks to reimagine public space and reclaim streets through programs like Open Streets Boston and Boston Together Again this promise to install more curb cuts is aligned with our greater vision and will help these and future efforts be truly inclusive.
Ramping up the City’s ramp production sounds like a somewhat straightforward project. I however, have found out rather quickly that is not the case. The City used to build only a few hundred ramps a year and now they are tasked with building more than 1600 annually. To increase production requires the city to prioritize pedestrian ramps across departments. This then requires coordination to facilitate an effective assignment of ramps. Once the City identifies and assigns the ramps they still need to have the capacity to actually do the work. Contractors need to be identified and incentivized to submit bids on contracts.
Boston also faces the unique challenge of areaways. Areaways are basements of privately-owned buildings that extend out under the sidewalk such that it intrudes on public space. This makes working on sidewalks or curb-cuts that are above the areaways difficult since you face the possibility of breaking through the roof and into the basement. This all leads to a rich project scope that is riddled with intriguing questions and opportunity spaces.
As I investigate some of the answers to these questions and the identified opportunity spaces, I’m excited to get to be a small part of the effort to help all residents reclaim and engage with the city’s public right-of-way.
Emily Nasiff is passionate about solving “people problems”. She studied Human Centered Design at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, MA where she learned to include people as early and as often as possible in her design process. Emily believes in the government’s ability to provide effective, equitable solutions to all. She is currently studying law at Boston College Law School with the goal of a career where she combines her human centered design and law backgrounds to develop and pass people-centered policies.
About the Fellowship:
The New Urban Mechanics Summer Fellowship is designed for entrepreneurial students and professionals interested in working in public service. During this highly selective eight-week program, summer fellows work as a team and on their own projects, generating and implementing creative and thoughtful new prototypes to benefit the City of Boston.