What does inclusive design mean today? When it comes to buildings and public spaces, equal access has not only become expected — it’s written into law.
Thirty years ago, a landmark civil rights legislation was passed that would forever change architecture and urban design in the United States. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed on July 26, 1990, aimed to guarantee equal rights for 40 million Americans living with physical and mental disabilities.
Born out of a grassroots movement, the ADA barred discrimination in many areas of life, including employment, schools, transportation, and public services. For public buildings and spaces, the act enshrined a fundamental premise: that accessibility is a human right.
Design choices can either create physical barriers, or remove them; this has always been true, yet the ADA spurred a shift in mindset — among architects, but also the broader public. By establishing standards and mandating compliance, the law has made an incalculable impact for the one in four Americans living with a disability today. But while the standards are written in black and white, there are infinite ways in which they can be applied.
The trick is often in how to find inventive solutions to meet the standards, or even go beyond them. It’s not enough to simply tick off requirements; just as important as adhering to the letter of the law is embracing the broad spirit of inclusivity that it represents. Designing for accessibility is a creative opportunity, and one that architects and planners have seized in a multitude of ways. The aspiration is to create places that are not only inclusive, but also beautiful and inspiring.
Millennium Park, a model for universal design
In 1997, Chicago mayor Richard Daley announced plans to create the city’s most significant new park in a century. By covering a vast rail yard to extend the historic Grant Park northward, this new public space — called Millennium Park — would be built atop what is effectively the world’s largest roof garden.
The master plan for Millennium Park recalls Chicago’s rich tradition of Beaux-Arts public spaces. At the same time it demonstrates new ideas for what a 21st-century park can be. Its inviting pavilions and iconic works of public art, like Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,” immediately come to mind. But one of the most significant innovations at Millennium Park, less noticeable to most visitors, was the attention paid to creating a seamlessly accessible experience.
The guiding principle for Millennium Park was universal design — creating a place that could be enjoyed in the same way by all people, regardless of ability or disability. The planning team applied this approach to laying out every element of the park, including pathways, pavilions, and picnic areas. Ramps were designed for everyone to use — not placed as an afterthought, but crafted as an integral part of the landscape.
While these ideas may seem commonplace today, they were certainly not taken for granted at the time. “We employed new ideas around topography and infrastructure to achieve an almost entirely barrier-free outcome,” says Peter Kindel, an urban design and planning director at SOM. “If you go there today, you may not even notice that you can move through almost the entire park without negotiating any steps, despite significant elevation changes in several areas.”
One of Millennium Park’s most striking features is the winding pedestrian bridge that connects to the adjacent Maggie Daley Park. Designed by Frank Gehry and engineered by SOM, the bridge traces a long, curving path to span a busy roadway between the two parks. Its gentle slope, easy to navigate in a wheelchair, never exceeds a five percent incline — much lower, in fact, than what is required by ADA. As a result, no handrails or flat landings were needed, allowing the sculptural quality of Gehry’s design to define the experience.
Even “Crown Fountain,” another signature destination within the park, was carefully designed for all to enjoy. Artist Jaume Plensa envisioned the fountain as an interactive artwork, incorporating video projections of the faces of Chicago residents in an ever-changing array. Visitors are invited to splash around in a shallow reflecting pool, and to be soaked by jets of water that seem to emerge from the mouths of the giant projected faces. The pool, designed without edges, allows everyone to easily enter and participate in what has become an essential summer ritual.
Today, Millennium Park is one of Chicago’s most beloved public spaces, fully accessible to all. Like the illuminated faces at “Crown Fountain,” the park presents a living portrait of the city in all its diversity.
Lifting the lawn at Barnard College
In 2018, Barnard College opened the Milstein Center, a new academic building and library envisioned as the intellectual heart of its New York City campus. The project has helped to further the college’s mission to provide an inclusive and equitable learning environment.
Replacing the former Lehman Library, the new building doubles the amount of study spaces and classrooms of its predecessor, while connecting various disciplines and centers for specialized study. In planning the Milstein Center, the design team at SOM sought to connect the building within its surroundings, including Lehman Lawn — a popular gathering place and treasured green refuge within Barnard’s urban setting.
There was just one problem: the existing lawn was not fully accessible from all surrounding points. The product of an earlier era of campus planning, it was essentially a sunken garden, situated slightly below the level of the main campus entrance, and surrounded by low steps leading up to nearby buildings. “We saw an opportunity to reimagine the lawn as a truly inclusive crossroads for the campus,” says Meredith Bostwick-Lorenzo Eiroa, an architect at SOM and one of the leaders of the project.
Resolving the issue required a bit of ingenuity — and lots of dirt. During construction of the Milstein Center, the lawn was filled in to align with the entrances of neighboring buildings and the main campus entrance. Now replanted, this green space has become fully accessible to the entire Barnard community. Students and faculty can effortlessly navigate this central part of campus. It’s a small change that makes a big difference — and it’s done in such a way that the lawn appears as a timeless element of the campus, like a quintessential college quad.
Today on Barnard’s historic campus, newer buildings like the Milstein Center and the Diana Center make a contemporary impression. But students reading or relaxing on the lawn might never imagine this green space had ever been any different.
A Fifth Avenue landmark, reinvented
As cities constantly evolve, the practice of adaptive reuse — transforming older buildings to serve a new purpose — has become an essential strategy for urban development. When it comes to landmark buildings, protected for their historic or cultural value, any renovation project is a delicate matter. Add in the desire to improve accessibility, and you have a real juggling act: maintaining a building’s historic integrity, while providing for the needs of today’s users.
But these goals, however difficult to balance, are not mutually exclusive. “Renovating a historic building can provide the opportunity to make it accessible in a way that might not otherwise have been possible,” says Frank Mahan, an architect at SOM who leads adaptive reuse projects in New York City.
A modernist landmark on Fifth Avenue, originally designed by SOM and renovated nearly 60 years later, provides a case in point. When the Manufacturers Hanover Trust building opened in 1954, it introduced an entirely new approach for bank architecture. Luminous and transparent, it was the opposite of the fortresslike masonry construction typical for institutions of finance. Distinctive interior features, such as twin escalators and an enormous bank vault, were visible through the glass facade. Designed by Gordon Bunshaft, the building helped to define an era of midcentury design.
In 2010, SOM took on the task of adapting the building, now designated a New York City landmark, to serve as a retail space. Bunshaft had always intended his building to be adaptable to future uses; bringing it up to current accessibility standards, however, was a challenge he might not have envisioned. While the escalators were an important feature of the original design, prominently located in the central banking hall, there was no equivalent way for people in a wheelchair to reach the second level without using an elevator in a side lobby.
To create universal access, the design team inserted a new elevator into the main floor plate. Drawing on archival research, including Bunshaft’s original plans for the building, the team designed the new elevator in a way that appears as though it was always intended to be there. “We focused on detailing the new elevator to be as minimal and transparent as possible, consistent with its midcentury modern surroundings,” Mahan says. While aspects of the renovation were complex and at times contentious, the Landmarks Preservation Commission easily approved the elevator design as an alteration worthy of the building’s modernist heritage.
In the three decades since the passage of the ADA, the built environment has been transformed in subtle and meaningful ways. Many changes, such as curb cuts and ramps, have created benefits even for people without disabilities, as anyone who has pushed a stroller or wheeled a suitcase will attest. Other innovations, like automatic doors, have become newly relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic as people think twice about touching surfaces. It’s safe to say that the ADA has led to a much broader awareness of the challenges and obstacles that people with disabilities encounter in daily life.
While there’s much to celebrate, there is still progress to be made. Perhaps we are only beginning to imagine the possibilities for technologies that can help blind people navigate buildings, or for how stimulating urban environments can be attuned to the challenges faced by people with autism. The definition of inclusive design continues to expand — and 30 years since accessibility became the law, our work continues.
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