Environmental and Architectural Barriers

How Accessible is the Urban Environment?

These materials were developed by Shannon Crum and Kenneth E. Foote, Department of Geography, University of Texas at Austin, 1996. These materials may be used for study, research, and education in not-for-profit applications. If you link to or cite these materials, please credit the authors, Shannon Crum and Kenneth E. Foote, The Geographer's Craft Project, Department of Geography, The University of Colorado at Boulder. These materials may not be copied to or issued from another Web server without the authors' express permission. Copyright © 1996. All commercial rights are reserved. If you have comments or suggestions, please contact the authors or Kenneth E. Foote at k.foote@colorado.edu.

This page is available in a framed version.  A Full Table of Contents is also available.

The Research Problem

 How accessible is Boulder's built environment? Most people take for granted the ease with which they move about the city, but for those with mobility impairments the built environment presents challenges daily. This project addresses three questions: (1) what types of environmental or architectural barriers are found in Boulder's built environment; (2) how prevalent are these barriers; and (3) to what extent do these barriers limit access for Boulder's mobility-impaired citizens? It is clearly impossible to survey the entire City of Boulder, but a good deal can be learned from a case study of a small section of the city.

What is environmental accessibility?

Free movement in pubic spaces is assumed by most people to be a right. Access to public transportation, easy movement along streets and through buildings, and clear routes of egress in emergency situations are all elements of an accessible environment. For some, however, these basic conditions are not adequately met. This bus stop, for instance, is not easily accessible to someone in a wheelchair. The grass on either side of the cement and the bench present obstacles between the bus and sidewalk.

In the photograph below, the street is not accessible from the sidewalks. Accessibility would be improved if the sidewalk were at street level and curb-cuts were installed.

Compare to this sidewalk:

 The environment is not wholly accessible to anyone, nor should it be. There are, for example, very good reasons for limited access: situations which may be dangerous to children, construction sites which endanger the safety and security of adults, etc. What we are talking about is an "average" level of access that often inadvertantly excludes many who shouldn't be excluded.

For this project, a disability is defined as a condition that limits mobility, lessens visual or aural acuity, reduces stamina, or otherwise inhibits a person's ability to manipulate the environment with a "normal" degree of effort. Accordingly, barriers are those aspects of the built environment which lessen a disabled person's access. They may be parts of buildings, landscaping, walkways, or parking areas, and include high curbs, lack of curbcuts or ramps, gravel walkways, narrow sidewalks, extreme variations in the grade of walkways, debris which interfere with passage along sidewalks, narrow doorways, heavy doors requiring excessive force to open, and insufficient parking.

Notice that while this telephone is itself wheelchair accessible, the support on which it is mounted divides the passageway into two very narrow walkways, making it difficult for a wheelchair to reach the phone. Even high counters in stores and restaurants can become barriers to access to goods and services. In addition, lack of information in the form of braille signs, tactile maps, or aubible announcements present barriers to visually impaired persons.

 Since the passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, many public buildings, facilities, and open spaces have been renovated in order to come into compliance with the ADA's accessibility guidelines. Many have voiced concerns over the cost and inconvenience of these revovations. But, if accessibility is designed into the built environment rather than approached as an afterthought the costs are minimized and the end result is often more effective.

 Mobility impaired populations have been widely ignored in the past, but in recent years have begun to wage a campaign for equality. This includes equitable opportunities for employment, equitable access to education, and equitable access to goods and services. All of this requires a minimum degree of access to the places where employment, education, and goods and services may be found.

 While only about 5% of the American population has a chronic physical impairment, acute conditions will strike virtually everyone one or more times during a lifetime.

 This is an issue of concern to geographers interested in urban and social geography and environmental perception because it raises issues about equity and use of the environment.

 It also raises very interesting questions about differences in the ways people perceive and use the environment; what are the factors, for instance, that make the commercial built environment "user-friendly"? And, how does the perceived degree of friendliness change between different populations?


 Up until the 1970s, people with physical impairments were not generally expected to participate in day-to-day life. Many were cared for by family or institutionalized. Few were expected to hold jobs outside the home, if at all. The situation began to change for a number of reasons, one of the most important being improved medical care, particularly emergency medicine. People suffering severe injuries were more likely to survive, albeit with permanent loss of mobility. Emergency care also extended to the battlefields of Vietnam, and sizeable numbers of veterans returned to the United States with physical disabilities.

 These groups, sharing little more than related injuries, were not satisfied to remain at home. They wanted to hold jobs and participate in everyday life and began to lobby for change.

 In recent years a rather extensive body of literature has developed that pertains to barriers and access for the disabled. The idea of equal environmental access for all people has gained a great deal of support over the last three decades. Much of the discussion on what constitutes a disability or a barrier began with the passage of the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 which requires that:

Since that time, numerous definitions of "disability" and "barrier" have been published. Alan Farber defines architectural barriers as those: This definition suits the current study nicely because it includes a full range of barriers extending from the presence of large debris to the absence of curb cuts.

The literature which specifically discusses architectural barriers and their effect on the mobility impaired can be divided into two categories. The first group discusses the rights of disabled persons and the degree of access they should be afforded (Bruck 1978; Hopf and Raeber 1984). Bruck, for example, outlines exactly what barriers are, and then explains exactly what the rights of the disabled are concerning access to the built environment. The second category examines the current state of the build environment and the experience of being disabled (Carver 1978; Foote 1986; Hill 1985; Phillips 1990; Wolpert 1976).

The disabilities which cause impaired mobility generally include those which confine a person to a wheelchair or crutches, and those that interfere with vision. While hearing impairments make communication difficult, they generally do not constitue an impediment to movement in the types of enviroments studied in this project.


 As awareness of the issues discussed above increased, laws which address them gradually emerged. Among the earliest was the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, which targeted buildings constructed or leased in whole or in part with federal funds. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 extended the range of laws requiring accessibility for the disabled to buildings housing programs receiving Federal financial assistance. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act extends to all the activities of State and local governments, and businesses operating in the public arena, whether they receive Federal funds or not.

Links to legislation and interesting sites on the Web

The U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board prepared the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities, which defines specific levels of accessibility. Most of these guidelines, which carry the force of law, are intended for the interiors of public buildings. Some, however, deal specifically with external guidelines and transportation.

 The Americans with Disabilities Act Document Center maintains a full-text web site.

 U.S. Department of Justice

ARC Access Strategies Chart

Techniques for Assessing Accessibility

 There are many techniques one may use to assess the degree of environmental accessibility in Boulder. Remember that the key questions in this study are (1) what types of barriers are found in Boulder's built environment; (2) to what extent to those barriers limit access; and (3) how prevalent are these barriers? Since you are studying a small area for this project (4-6 square blocks), a reasonable way to identify and locate barriers is to walk transects of your study area, taking measurements and noting barriers as you go. Only exterior barriers (those outside buildings, but up to and including doorways to businesses) need be identified. You will probably need to survey your study area more than once.

 In order to identify the barriers that exist in your study area, during your first survey you should note each of the barriers you encounter on a base map. Record each type of barrier every time it is encountered in order to determine the frequency with which they occur.


The following standards are drawn from the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities as published in the Federal Register, July 26, 1991.
Project Steps

 You should follow these steps in completing your project.

1. Study existing campus map and accessibility guide
2. Field check data for your area of campus
3. Design maps to display access information
4. Design Web site to display maps as atlas

What To Put Online

Present your findings in the Web.

Further Reading

Architectural Barriers Act of 1968. Statutes at Large. Vol. 82.

Bruck, Lilly. 1978. Access: The Guide to a Better Life for Disabled Americans. New York: Random House.

Carver, Vida and Michael Rodda. 1978. Disability and the Environment. New York: Schocken Books.

Foote, Kenneth E. 1986. Mobility Impairment and Pharmacy Accessibility: Conflict in a Commercial Built Environment. Environment and Behavior. Vol. 18, p.571-603.

Gleeson, Brendan.  1999.  Geographies of Disability.  London: Routledge.

Hill, Miriam Helen. 1985. Bound to the Environment: Towards a Phenomenology of Sightlessness. In Seamon, David and Robert Mugerauer, eds. Dwelling, Place, and Environment: Towards a Phenomenology of Person and World. Dordrecht: Martinus Nyhoff.

Hopf, Peter S. and John A. Raeber. 1984. Access for the Handicapped: The Barrier-Free Regulations for Design and Construction in all 50 States. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, Inc.

Kliment, Stephen A. 1975. Into the Mainstream: A Syllabus for a Barrier-free Environment. n.p.: American Institute of Architects.

Phillips, Marilynn J. 1990. Damaged Goods: Oral Narratives of the Experience of Disability in American Culture. Social Science and Medicine Vol. 30, p. 849-857.

Reznikoff, S.C. 1979. Specifications for Commercial Interiors. New York: Whitney Library of Design.

Syracuse University. 1979. An Outline of Provisions for a Uniform Barrier-Free Design Act. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Williams, Martha. 1993. ADA Handbook: Employment and Construction Issues Affecting Your Business. Chicago: Real Estate Education Co.

Wolpert, Julian. 1976. Opening Closed Spaces. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Vol. 66, p. 1-13.

World Health Organization. 1980. International Classification of Impairments, Disabilities, and Handicaps. Geneva: World Health Organization.

Last revised 2001.3.5. k.foote@colorado.edu