Annals of Bad City Planning

If you hunt extremely vigorously through the City of Fort Bragg’s website, you will find the proposed citywide design guidelines that got unveiled at City Council last week, because someone kindly scanned, or possibly photographed, them and converted the resulting mess into a .pdf document. Should you peruse this meticulously laid-out hodge podge of bad ideas that appear intended to convert Fort Bragg into a replica of Healdsburg, you will notice a number of glaring problems. Indeed, every single person I’ve discussed these plans with has expressed outrage, horror, and infuriation.

There’s one area of particular concern to me, and that is the utter disregard for accessibility issues. Universal design is a growing movement in architecture and urban planning, and it absolutely makes sense that a city developing design guidelines would include universal design in those guidelines. For those not familiar with the concept, the thumbnail definition of universal design is that it is design intended to be universally accessible, to allow communities to age in place, to allow people with disabilities to be wholly integrated into their communities. It goes beyond ADA guidelines and into the realm of making genuinely welcoming architecture that will be accessible to as many people as possible.

I had a great hope that these documents would outline some universal design goals for the city, and that Fort Bragg could be a model of urban planning. I was very, very wrong. It’s not just that these design guidelines do not even mention the ADA, which provides a bare minimum of guidelines for new development, including both residential and commercial, I note. It’s not that. It’s that some of the recommendations in these guidelines actively work against accessibility and could in fact be considered hostile to people with disabilities and older adults.

20% of the population experiences disabilities. Not all of these disabled individuals have a need for physical accessibility, although it can certainly help. But it’s not just disabled people who need accessibility. Older adults benefit from spaces designed with features like shallow inclines, wide doorways, and grab bars. As do parents handling young children, who may appreciate extra room for strollers and gear, or who may be fatigued from carrying a growing child around all day. There are lots of reasons to make spaces inclusive, especially in a community with a large aging population and in a community that claims to want to attract more young people, many of whom are parents or plan to become parents at some point in their lives.

I don’t want to go through these documents to nitpick bit by bit, although I will point out a few things. We see absolutely no attention to disabled access in discussions of sidewalks and parking lots, for example; no discussion of the need for room for scooters and wheelchairs. Likewise, the recommendations for residential housing include the suggestion that every house have a ‘porch or stoop,’ which, guess what, is accessed by stairs in every single image provided. The possibility of ramps is not brought up. In the sections on the downtown business district[1. Notably, these plans basically suggest creating an entirely new downtown and ignoring the old downtown. Appallingly, they suggest that new designs should ‘respect’ the old downtown while basically proposing that we gut it and start over. Needless to say, many downtown business owners are not particularly pleased or amused by this.], the document suggests ‘outdoor dining.’

Outdoor dining in a place where evening temperatures regularly drop into the 40s is just silly. It’s doubly silly when it inevitably causes congestion. I’ve never seen outdoor dining and accessibility in the same place. People inevitably spill over and viciously resent anyone who needs to navigate a wheelchair, cane, walker, scooter, or stroller through that space. There are long-suffering sighs and pointed heaving of chairs to the side, if you are lucky. So what I am reading in these designs is that disabled people, parents with young children, and older adults are not welcome in the ‘new downtown.’

This document is supposed to represent some kind of unified vision. What it is is a horror show. It proposes design that, for the most part, looks like a carbon-copy of a strip mall. The guidelines are so rigid and so ridiculous that they remind me of a militant HOA. Homeowners are directed, for example, to preserve original door widths. Ignore the fact that in many older homes, the doorways are actually too narrow for a wheelchair, so the message being sent here is that older homes shouldn’t be retrofitted or made accessible for people with disabilities. And that people with disabilities are never homeowners who might want to make modifications to their homes in order to make them meet their needs.

These plans are not just exclusionary, they are really just actively offensive. A community should be welcoming to all people, not just a select few, and universal design makes communities flexible. Well designed communities can age and grow with their residents, and prevent situations like people having to leave their homes because they are no longer able to navigate them safely. In a town facing significant changes in architecture, development, and design, there’s a golden opportunity to set out more inclusive guidelines, to make sure that it is a town that welcomes all people.

I’ve written City Council about this and have yet to hear back; I am not surprised, given that they ‘invited public comment’ and then hid the document as efficiently as possible to make it difficult for members of the public to read it, let alone comment on it. Furthermore, of course, a scanned .pdf is entirely inaccessible to viewers on slow Internet connections as well as visually impaired computer users who rely on screenreaders (I would be blown away if a hard copy braille version is available at city hall).