// Why are We Applying ADA to Everything?


By Matt Mitchell

When the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, the standards were a long overdue addition to building and development codes. However, at some point, these requirements have morphed from a standard that provides fully accessible buildings and amenities for all, into something that is blindly applied to entire sites by designers and code enforcers alike.

As a landscape architect, I encounter my fair share of engineers (and fellow LAs) who seem to think ADA standards apply to every back alley, peripheral connection and pathway on a site. At one point in my career I was one of those. I was propagating an overreaching and misunderstood interpretation of ADA to all that would listen. Many in the field of architecture and engineering should re-examine the language, intent and goals of standards enacted within the ADA, rather than applying them carte blanche to every paved surface on a project. If we were to paint ADA in San Francisco with the same broad brush applied in other locales, there would be nothing left to marvel at other than the monstrosity of switchbacks and engineered ramps consuming the city.

While we certainly shouldn’t only apply ADA to the bare minimum, we should be mindful of when unnecessarily enacting code impedes the function of a streetscape or of an entire project. The primary intent missed by many is that ADA only applies to the “Accessible Route” from clearly defined site arrival points, limited to accessible spaces and entrances, public streets and sidewalks, public transportation stops and amenity areas. A critical note that designers need not only to consider, but also deliver on is that these routes are to be “located in the same area as general circulation paths.” This phrase is critical because it specifically narrows ADA standards to the route from access points to site amenities that would include buildings and outdoor features. Even further, it allows for access to be provided in the “same area,” which implies that other non-ADA routes may be in the same vicinity.

While seemingly opening a Pandora’s box on where ADA needn’t be applied, it is important to remember the intent is to provide fair and full access for all. If a path or connection becomes an experience or amenity, it should be treated in a manner that provides fully compliant ADA access. If not, designers don’t need the burden of compliant hardscapes, where the majority of the public isn’t visiting, that have all too often become the norm.

Building off these thoughts, my hope is to see:

  • Fewer excessively long walls eating up grade until a pathway connection becomes 5 percent or less, rather than having far more interesting connective pathways that may slope at 10 percent or more on occasion
  • Roads that dare exceed 5 percent on occasion and can still have adjacent sidewalks where the path is not a portion of the general circulation from access points
  • Unnecessary back-of-house switchbacks that are wasteful eliminated, as they lead to years of complaining by those who must navigate these fenced in mazes with trash bins and deliveries
  • Sidewalks adjacent to roads to not have incessant ramps and landings, attempting to keep up with a 7 percent road grade

At times, the ADA has unchallenged power to squash our well-intentioned, but apparently not ADA compliant, visions of grandeur for interesting and engaging outdoor spaces. By critically examining how we implement ADA practices, we can truly create better places for all.