accessibility

Is universal design always a good thing? Sam wonders about accessibility and fitness (Part 3)

This is the third in a series of blog posts in which I wonder about the value of accessibility in natural spaces. As I said in the first post, I’ve been thinking about these things for awhile and I don’t have settled views. In my terms, I’m still mulling

See Part 1: Whose natural beauty is it anyway?

And Part 2: Natural beauty and the value of accessibility

When I teach the issue of access and accommodation in my undergrad classes I often talk about the principle of universal design. That’s the idea that we don’t set out to meet individual, special needs (which focuses on individuals necessarily) instead we start (though we may not end there, it may not be enough) by trying to make our space/course outline/classroom/national park as accessible to everyone as we can.

Curb cuts in sidewalks are made for wheelchairs but when I’m walking my bike across an intersection I’m glad they’re there. Likewise, I was fond of them when I was pushing a stroller and now I like them because of my uncooperative knee.

Think about the same case for wooden boardwalks in parks. We build them for wheelchairs and walkers but lots of other people appreciate them too. In my other posts I worried about the value of universal access clashing with environmental values. We want everyone to be able to visit but we also want to preserve wild spaces.

My worry today is a new one. It’s about the clash between access and physical fitness.

I’ve written here about a hike I did in Iceland, Active adventures in Iceland: Sam hikes to a hot river .

It wasn’t an easy walk. If I were grading walks, I’d call it “intermediate.” Only 1 hour in but almost all hills with uneven paths and some slippy sections. (Steam makes for wet rocks!) When we did it–first thing after our overnight flight got in–it was quiet. There were only a half dozen people bathing in the river when we got there. We saw just a few people on the beautiful hike up and and down hills through the steamy river valley.

But on our way out the parking lot was full and there was a long line of people walking on the trails. Notably there were few children, few older people, and no one with a wheelchair or walker.

A friend who lives in Iceland remarked that the trail used to be much easier but it was overrun and it hurt the land, so they swapped to this new tougher trail.

Why not keep both, I wondered? So people who couldn’t do the hilly, hard walk could still get to the steamy rivers. He asked, would I have taken the hard trail if there were two?

Truth be told, after the long sleepless overnight flight, maybe not.

Is this the downside of universal design? Build an easier option and we all take it, rather than making our day harder? I’m pretty good in airports. I take the stairs with my backpack while other people escalate with wheelie suitcases. I avoid moving sidewalks. I try to not sit at the gate. I’m glad these things are there but I leave them for those who need them.

That said, I can’t imagine choosing a long, muddy, hilly portage over a flat one with a boardwalk if that were the only difference.

If it weren’t for the overnight flight, I might choose the long hilly trail for the virtue of fewer people.

Why does it need to be the only way to get somewhere for the hard thing to have value? The natural beauty at the end is our reward for effort, yes, but surely other who can’t do the trek deserve that thing too. Surely, a good chunk of the story about why I can do what I can do is luck? I’m feeling that hard at the moment as I struggle with my damaged knee.

If you build it, they will come? But what if they all come? What if we all opt for the easy way? The boardwalk and the flat trail? What do we lose and what do we gain?

(The story of Iceland and too many tourists is complicated. Too complicated for this blog! See here and here.)

I want to hear what you think. Would you take the hard trail for the sake of taking the hard trail if the reward at the end was the same?

2 thoughts on “Is universal design always a good thing? Sam wonders about accessibility and fitness (Part 3)

  1. I don’t think these examples are about something being hard and that gives it value. High-altitude mountaineering, maybe, or grades 4 to 6 climbing. But boardwalks and declining to maintain a trail because of overuse are about preservation. In other words, specifically to control and limit access. Boardwalks in particular are built explicitly to protect the land beneath and discourage moving off trail. (And may be prohibitive to build/maintain depending on the environment.)

    I don’t know the answer (or even just “my” answer) to your larger question.

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  2. I’m not sure I know the answer in terms of difficult trails, but several of the parks I enjoy have a variety of trail types–some are paved and very wide, others are narrow and treacherous (with roots, leaves, mud, etc.). Some of them lead to the same places, but some don’t. That’s worked very well for me–when I’m with someone who has a stroller, we stay on the paved trail (which is much more populated). When I’m running by myself, I use the less-traveled “rough” trails.

    Obviously, that’s not a solution for everywhere, but I’ve enjoyed it. But is it unfair that some people will never have a chance to enjoy the area around those rougher trails? I don’t know.

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