The news headline was optimistic: “Three ‘Ribbon’ Bike & Pedestrian Bridges For NYC Are More Than A Coronavirus-Concocted Fantasy.” In the early months of the pandemic, city planners added several dozen miles of open streets to encourage socially distanced recreation and transit. But as the article in the Gothamist explained, a group of well-connected transportation engineers was pushing for more ambitious plans, urging the construction of three new bridges for New York City. These would not resemble the traditional “bulky” and “clunky” bridges that for more than a century have carried car traffic through the metropolitan region; these would be comparatively delicate structures dedicated to cyclists and pedestrians — “wispy ribbon bridges crisscrossing the city’s waterways.” 1 One crossing in particular drew the engineers’ attention: the “Queens Ribbon,” a slender, twenty-foot-wide suspension bridge that would span the East River from Long Island City, to Roosevelt Island, to Manhattan.
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For months now the design press has been filled with stories about the possibilities of post-pandemic urban planning, envisioning cities where commuters have options beyond overcrowded buses and subways, where streets have fewer cars and more bike and foot traffic. “The first new bridge to Manhattan in decades — one just for cyclists and pedestrians,” is how the New York Times described the proposed Queens Ribbon. 2 Indeed, proponents of “active transportation” — defined as human-powered mobility, chiefly walking and cycling — are hopeful that contingency measures adopted during lockdown will outlast the arrival of coronavirus vaccines. But what is usually missing amidst the growing enthusiasm for non-motorized mobility is any awareness of the ways in which projects like the Queens Ribbon, and more broadly the concept of active transportation itself, can reinforce longstanding forms of exclusion.
Consider, for instance, the campus of Cornell Tech, on Roosevelt Island, at the midpoint of the proposed Queens Ribbon. Since opening in fall 2017, this twelve-acre, multi-billion-dollar applied sciences campus, master planned by SOM, has been widely praised for its stellar architecture, sustainable landscape, environmental bona fides, and all-around leading-edge ethos. “The City of the Future Is in Beta Testing,” was the celebratory headline of a review in Fast Company. “The first three buildings and the landscaping that joins them project confidence that life will one day be smoother, safer, more exciting, and more just, all thanks to the ideas that go hurtling around these dozen acres of greenery and glass,” wrote the critic Justin Davidson, in New York Magazine. The campus plan has received major awards from the American Institute of Architects and the Urban Land Institute, which lauded the project as a “new model for higher education.” 3
As a design historian, I was eager to see this ambitious campus and delighted to be asked to deliver a lecture there soon after its opening. It did not occur to me when I accepted the invitation that an award-winning campus built almost three decades after the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act might prove difficult to access. As a physically impaired person who walks with an assistive device and tires easily, I am very sorry to report that even a self-consciously forward-looking project that not only adheres to the ADA but also presents itself as “a humming center of creative thinking” can still be insidiously inaccessible. Is this the best we can expect from “the future”?
“Built for Innovation”
Like many disabled people, I carefully plotted my campus visit in advance. Mass transit was not a good option. I could take the F train, and find an accessible subway station (that is, with an elevator) on Roosevelt Island; but the overall system of which it’s a part is notoriously inaccessible. Barely one-quarter of New York City subway stations are in compliance with the ADA, “one of the lowest percentages of any major transit system in the world,” according to a report in the New York Times. 4 So I realized I’d need to arrive by car, and explored the options. Where are the parking garages nearest my destination? Where are the accessible entrances, ramps, and elevators that will take me from my parking space to the lecture room? The campus website was, at first, reassuring: “Cornell Tech is committed to diversity and inclusiveness, with the goal of providing an accessible, usable and welcoming environment for faculty, staff, students and visitors with disabilities.” 5 I saw inviting vignettes of Tech Walk, a smoothly paved path linking the buildings and open spaces, and when I looked closely at the middle ground of one rendering, there was even a woman pushing a wheelchair along a tree-lined sidewalk.
Cornell Tech’s campus reflects the pervasive influence of the active transportation concept. But what if you have trouble walking and can’t ride a bike?
Alas, the images were over-optimistic. Online, I couldn’t find much specific information; confusingly, the “accessibility” link led to a map for the university’s main campus, in Ithaca. When I called to ask about provisions for individuals holding state-issued disabled parking permits, I discovered that there was no on-campus parking at all, not even for those needing extra assistance. Returning to the website, I realized that Cornell Tech has been planned to be car-free. Parking is available on public streets or at a six-story parking garage in the middle of Roosevelt Island, a mile north of campus. Quickly it became clear that getting to the school, and navigating through it, might not be as accommodating as I’d hoped. Cornell Tech has been designed to minimize its carbon footprint, with net-zero buildings and stormwater gardens; and it reflects the pervasive influence of the active transportation concept. But what if you have trouble walking and can’t ride a bike? What if, indeed. On the day of my lecture, having parked at the garage, I discovered that the shuttle bus stops are located — again, from the perspective of a mobility-impaired person — a considerable distance from the entrances to campus buildings, which do not open onto surrounding city streets but onto Tech Walk. When I finally arrived at the building for my lecture, I found that the elevators required a pass card, and that I’d need to struggle up a flight of stairs. 6
At Cornell Tech I was reminded, again and again, of one of the fundamental experiences of disability — the feeling that the world has been designed for somebody else. In fact disability is a relatively recent concern in the environmental design disciplines. The first serious discussions of access and the urban environment began in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and ultimately produced landmark legislation, including the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. These were major achievements for the nascent disability rights movement. Yet there is a caveat. Too often the letter of the law is observed, but not the spirit. In all too many buildings and landscapes, the individual guidelines do not function together to create a fully accessible environment. If, for example, an accessible walkway leads to a step, or to a room with a doorway too narrow for a wheelchair, or to a noncompliant restroom — or to a passcode-protected elevator — the pathway is invalidated. It was just such concerns that led activists — including the architect Ronald Mace, who contracted polio at age nine and used a wheelchair for the rest of his life — to develop the holistic principles of universal design. As propounded by Mace and other advocates, the core concept is deceptively simple: “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” 7
The rise of critical disability studies has led to new recognition of the lapses in our environments, of the outdated assumptions that continue to guide our thinking, no matter that we know better. Cornell Tech might be, as its website declares, “built for innovation”; nonetheless it recalls older practices and attitudes in which bodies that are less than fully able were marginalized or segregated. In this light it is instructive to consider the extraordinary history of Roosevelt Island.
On the day of my campus visit, after I parked in the garage and checked the local map to find the stop for the free shuttle bus that circles the island, I was surprised to find a dozen or more wheelchair users already on the bus. The possibility that the disabled seating area might be crowded caught me unawares; often on public transit I am the only person using an assistive device. As I chatted with others along the way, I learned that they weren’t visitors; they were running local errands, mostly along the island’s main thoroughfare, a narrow street lined with mid-rise apartment buildings. Only then did I begin to understand that Roosevelt Island has long been home to its own disability culture.
Just 300 yards from the shores of Manhattan, the island was close yet distant, ‘a convenient yet out-of-view depot for the city’s poor, infirm, and insane.’
Cornell Tech administrators have claimed that Roosevelt Island offered a “clean slate,” but this statement ignores the site’s long and often troubled history. 8 Two centuries ago the city of New York bought the 147-acre island from Robert Blackwell, the descendant of British colonists who had earlier acquired it from the Dutch, who had still earlier purchased it from the Lenape. Almost immediately the city found harsh uses for its new property, and by the middle of the 19th century, Blackwell’s Island, as it was called then, was home to the Penitentiary, the Lunatic Asylum, the Workhouse, the Almshouse, and a cluster of hospitals. 9 All these municipal institutions were created to serve the poor, and their conglomeration on Blackwell’s was calculated; back then poverty was widely linked with criminality, insanity, and infirmity, and all were seen as arising from personal or moral failings. (The city agency that ran these institutions was then called the Department of Public Charities and Corrections; not until the turn of the 20th century would the programs be separated.) As Stacy Horn puts it, in her aptly titled history, Damnation Island, “the criminal and the insane still formed one group in people’s minds, along with the poor, who were often thought to be de facto ‘guilty.’ The arrangement on Blackwell’s Island only reinforced this devastating association, which persists to this day.” 10
If the arrangement was deliberate, so too was the siting. Located 300 yards off the shores of Manhattan, Blackwell’s was close yet distant; as the authors of New York 1960 write, “it became a convenient yet out-of-view depot for the city’s poor, infirm, and insane.” 11 Its inaccessibility was indeed the attraction. For many decades Blackwell’s could be accessed only by a boat that made two daily trips from a wharf at East 26th Street, and even today, the island in the midst of the metropolis feels oddly isolated, with transportation options limited to that one subway line, or to a small bridge from Astoria, or to an aerial tram constructed in the mid 1970s, and originally intended as temporary.
In the mid-20th century, the island became home to public hospitals dedicated to rehabilitative care.
The 21st-century campus of Cornell Tech features strong buildings by major architects — including the Tata Innovation Center, by Weiss/Manfredi, and the Emma and Georgina Bloomberg Center, by Morphosis — and these structures figure prominently in the university’s promotional materials. The mid-19th-century planners of Blackwell’s Island had a similarly keen understanding of the cultural power of iconic edifices, and over the decades the island filled with imposing stone buildings by leading architects of the day, from the neo-gothic Smallpox Hospital, by James Renwick, Jr., to the neo-grecian Lunatic Asylum, by Alexander Jackson Davis. But the period styles could not conceal the grim and punitive purposes of the institutions. In the early 1840s Charles Dickens visited the asylum, and was troubled by what he witnessed. “Everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful,” he wrote. “In the dining-room, a bare, dull, dreary place, with nothing for the eye to rest on but the empty walls, a woman was locked up alone. She was bent, they told me, on committing suicide. If anything could have strengthened her in her resolution, it would certainly have been the insupportable monotony of such an existence.” 12 In the mid 1870s, the journalist Nellie Bly published a shocking story based on her ten days undercover in the asylum, describing the place as a “tomb of living horrors” and a “human rat-trap.” 13 And several years later the activist Emma Goldman had equally grim recollections of her year in Blackwell’s Penitentiary, after being sentenced on “incitement to riot” charges. “The prison was old and damp, the cells small, without light or water,” she wrote, “The moment the door was locked on me, I began to experience a feeling of suffocation.” 14
When Nellie Bly’s exposé, “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” was serialized in the New York World, it caused a sensation. It also inspired the city to initiate a grand jury investigation, which led to demands for more humane treatment. 15 And soon more changes were in the works; by the early decades of the 20th century, Blackwell’s had become so associated with what one journalist called its “medieval horrors” that the island was poised for wholesale reform. In 1921 the municipal board of aldermen, citing the “stigma and prejudice” attached to the old name, officially changed its name to Welfare Island. 16 Eventually the penal institutions were closed, relocated, or demolished, and the island became home to hospitals dedicated to chronic and rehabilitative care.
Goldwater Memorial Hospital was renowned for its humane and longterm treatment of severely disabled polio survivors.
The most significant was Goldwater Memorial Hospital. Constructed by the Works Progress Administration and designed by architect Isadore Rosenfield, Goldwater was located near the southern tip of the island, on the site of the old penitentiary, which was torn down in the mid 1930s. When it opened, in 1939, Goldwater Memorial — named for Dr. S. S. Goldwater, a champion of public health 17 — quickly became a pioneer in the research and practice of rehabilitative medicine. The 1,500-bed facility was designed to be therapeutic; the ten-acre complex comprised several buildings, including four chevron-shaped wings — a plan that allowed the patient rooms to have plenty of natural light and ventilation. 18 Early on, Goldwater became renowned for its humane treatment of severely disabled polio survivors, often providing long-term residential care. At its height, the hospital was famous for the easy mobility it afforded patients who could not walk; it even ran an innovative wheelchair repair shop, and developed a special motorized chair, the Goldwater model. In the early 1950s, another chronic care hospital, Bird S. Coler, opened on the northern edge of the island. Crucially, both hospitals were public institutions dedicated to serving low-income communities; Dr. Goldwater was an early proponent of nationalized medical insurance, arguing that “the health of the people is the proper concern of the state.” 19
“The island nobody knows”
The hospitals and their communities of care faced new challenges in the late 1960s when, after decades of more or less benign neglect, the city, with much fanfare, convened a planning and development committee to determine the island’s future. The upshot was an ambitious new mixed-use development, master planned by the firm of Philip Johnson/John Burgee and constructed with impressive speed by a state-sponsored agency. By the mid-1970s, a cluster of new apartment buildings occupied the center of the island, along with a scattering of retail and municipal facilities. As before and since, the architecture was understood to be a crucial factor in attracting residential and commercial tenants to the nascent town, and building commissions went to major designers, including Josep Lluis Sert, John Johansen, and Gerhard Kallmann/Michael McKinnell. 20
Also in those years another significant new project was proposed. A conceptual design for Four Freedoms Monument, a memorial to Franklin Roosevelt to be located at the island’s southern tip, was formally unveiled in 1973 in a well-attended ceremony on the site. Designed by Louis I. Kahn, the presidential memorial would not be built for another four decades, but in that year Welfare Island was officially renamed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Island. Curiously, a New York Times story about the dedication ceremony noted that the island had long been “used mainly for hospitals and rehabilitation facilities,” but failed to mention that Roosevelt himself had been, for the last two decades of his life, a paraplegic, a polio survivor who relied upon a wheelchair. 21
In its initial public presentations, the high-powered committee incorporated Goldwater Memorial and Bird S. Coler into plans for the island’s future. Yet on the whole little attention was paid to the history of these remarkable medical institutions, or to their culture of rehabilitation and disability. In a 1969 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, titled “The island nobody knows,” the urban planners refer to the place as a “forgotten asset”; and in the exhibition catalogue you will look in vain, in the black-and-white line drawings of bustling plazas crowded with pedestrians, for any scale figures in a wheelchair, or indeed any who are less than “normally” ambulatory. 22 Yet the hospital community was ready to assert its claim on the island. When, in 1975, the city proposed closing Goldwater Memorial — in reaction to the notorious fiscal crisis of that year — the patients organized a successful protest outside the mayor’s office. As the New York Times reported:
Quadriplegics in motorized chairs and wrapped in blankets against a chilly breeze were the among the 500 patients and employees at Goldwater Hospital who gathered in City Hall Park to protest Mayor Beame’s proposed closing of the hospital as an economy move. Some sat motionless and others were wheeled by attendants in wide circles around a patch of tulips while being led in a chant of “Save Goldwater,” one of the few facilities with special programs and medical equipment for patients with chronic, long-term illnesses. 23
Not only were the activists successful in saving Goldwater; a year later, as the first tenants were moving into the island’s new housing, four dozen of the initial 2,000 housing units were set aside for Goldwater patients who were enthusiastic about the opportunity for quasi-independent living near the hospital that continued to care for them. These units included special features such as wider doorways, lower light switches, and accessible bathrooms and kitchens. Along Main Street, the central spine of the new development, the presence of the Goldwater community was accommodated with wide curb cuts, numerous elevators, and, in the stores, lower checkout counters. In the words of an island doctor: “People in wheelchairs became part of the fabric of our lives.” “An island world for quadriplegics,” is how a contemporary story in the New York Times characterized the results. And as Judith Berdy, a longtime resident and head of the island’s historical society, emphasizes: “This was extraordinary for the 1970s, nearly two decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed.” 24
After the successful protest, Goldwater Memorial continued to serve patients for another four decades. Then, in 2013, the city-owned hospital was shut down, and the immense multi-building care facility that had been constructed on the site of the old prison was demolished to make way for the new campus of Cornell Tech. As I slowly labored across that newly opened campus on the day of my lecture, I had ample time to consider not only my immediate needs but also the larger issues of access, human difference, and planning for mobility — and who matters when crucial decisions are being made, and who does not.
In the past generation, urban planning has been guided by the belief that our environments should encourage physical activity.
In the past generation urban planning has been increasingly shaped by the belief that our built environments should encourage physical activity. In the mid 1990s, doctors and statisticians alike became alarmed by rising levels of obesity and growing mortality rates from heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. Many put the blame on our sedentary lifestyles, and at the same time argued that traditional approaches to exercise, which emphasized sports and athletics, were too limited in scope. In the words of an influential 1996 report from the U.S. Surgeon General: “You don’t have to be training for the Boston Marathon to derive real health benefits from physical activity. A regular, preferably daily regimen of at least 30–45 minutes of brisk walking, bicycling, or even working around the house or yard will reduce your risks of developing coronary heart disease, hypertension, colon cancer, and diabetes.” 25 Urban planners were encouraged to address the problem of chronic disease through environments designed around the goal of “active living.” Soon the Centers for Disease Control started the Healthy Community Design Initiative, which advocated for “stairwells, bicycle paths, walking paths, exercise facilities, and swimming pools” to be incorporated into buildings and landscapes. In a similar spirit, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sponsored Active Living by Design, a grant-making program that “sought to address barriers to active living in the built environment — such as a lack of sidewalks, bikeways, and trails that provide ready access to schools, shops and workplaces.” 26
This highly prescriptive approach toward environmental planning is now pervasive, and “active living” has led inexorably to “active transportation,” a term generally understood to comprise all human-powered forms of mobility — not only walking and cycling but also running, scootering, skateboarding, in-line skating, rowing, canoeing, etc. But the broad acceptance of the concept raises difficult questions about the underlying assumptions, and about which human bodies and which mobilities are being accommodated, or excluded. Too often the active living approach is rife with subtle biases, emphasizing such neoliberal shibboleths as “personal responsibility” and “individual choice,” while at the same time overlooking the very real social and economic disparities — including vastly unequal access to medical care — that determine health and well-being. 27
Active living emphasizes neoliberal shibboleths like ‘personal responsibility’ while overlooking the social and economic disparities that can determine health.
On that count we might well ask: who is really using the new urban amenities to scooter and skate to work? People with physical disabilities comprise fifteen to twenty percent of the population in the United States, yet so far the proponents of “active” environments have failed to adequately account for their needs, or even their presence; as the disability activists Judith Heumann and John Wodatch argued recently, “People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States, but for the most part, we remain invisible.” 28 One especially revealing survey found that much of the literature on active living has neglected to discuss disabled people or even to mention the Americans with Disabilities Act. 29 And in a refreshingly candid essay, the scholar/activist Mojgan Sami admitted: “As an active transportation planner and researcher, I am guilty of having focused on promoting bikeable and walkable infrastructure and policies without due consideration to the diversity of people-powered mobility on our streets and roads.” Moreover, she continued, “the near-exclusive focus on walking and biking has resulted in a gap in active transportation assessments, funding, and data that may lead to inequitable outcomes for skateboarders, wheelchair users, and other non-walkers and non-bikers on the road.” 30
“Shoes and Bikes”
The likelihood of those inequitable outcomes was even evident at Four Freedoms Park. The memorial to the 32nd president was finally constructed and opened to the public in 2013, to widespread praise, including in this journal. 31 Yet activists soon raised concerns that neither the gift shop nor bathroom were ADA compliant; that a tree-lined terrace was accessible only via a broad flight of stairs or along a rocky, uneven path; and that a sunken terrace that culminates the design was completely inaccessible to anyone in a wheelchair. In 2017, after a series of inconclusive discussions, a disability rights legal group filed a class-action suit against the park conservancy, arguing that the monument’s “blatant violation of disability law is tragically ironic in light of the fact that President Roosevelt himself used a wheelchair for mobility after becoming paralyzed from polio at the age of 39.” The suit was settled when the conservancy agreed to install a wheelchair lift, to smooth the paths, and to make the memorial fully accessible. 32
Soon after Four Freedoms Park opened, activists raised concerns that the memorial to a disabled president was not ADA compliant.
Much like the campaign for disability rights, Roosevelt Island remains a work in progress. Today the island is home to 14,000 residents, barely more than half the population envisioned 50 years ago, when the city triumphantly announced plans for a “new town in the heart of the city.” 33 The retail community has long struggled, and many storefronts along Main Street are shuttered. And even as the sleek new campus and presidential memorial draw more visitors, access to the island remains too limited, a vulnerability that has long been exacerbated by the maintenance problems that plague the city’s under-funded public transit. 34 The continuing semi-isolation underscores the value of new bridges, like the Queens Ribbon. Yet this proposed connector exemplifies the ableist assumptions described by Mojgan Sami. As one of the engineers declares: “The urban travel of the future won’t be flying cars, or robo-cars, or even cars. It will be shoes and bikes.” 35 But as a bridge designed for walking and cycling, the Queens Ribbon will be a partial solution, at best; and as such it will perpetuate the island’s history of exclusion. For if in the past the absence of good infrastructure served to keep “undesirables” from escaping, today it will work to prevent the disabled from arriving at all.
The press release for the Queens Ribbon features an illustration that shows the bridge spanning from Queens to Manhattan; the text informs us that one of the slender “delta shaped” piers will accommodate elevator access to Roosevelt Island, yet this aspect of the design is not pictured. The press document also features a “typical cross-section” of the twenty-foot-wide bridge. 36 In this colorful drawing, we see two cyclists, each riding in different directions in the five-foot-wide bike lanes, and three pedestrians, all sharing the ten-foot-wide sidewalk. One of the pedestrians is a woman who is leaning on what appears to be a walker. To those who are young or fit, the vision of the Queens Ribbon might well seem inviting. To me the cheery image — much like the rendering of the woman in the wheelchair on the Cornell Tech campus — seems a fantasy of inclusion. The span of the proposed bridge from Queens to Manhattan would be about 2,300 feet, or almost half a mile. Yet most jurisdictions define a disabled person as someone who cannot walk more than 200 feet without pain or exhaustion. The scale figure in the cross-section, in her bright green dress and solid shoes, looks sprightly, but I know she will never be me.