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IDEA Man: Edward Steinfeld

Edward Steinfeld has traded barbs with New Urbanism leaders who chafe at perceived design-restricting elements of the Americans with Disabilities Act that demand ramps, lifts and level entrances.

But as one of the founding fathers of the concept of Universal Design, he sees a much bigger picture beyond the bickering: a need to recognize that NU's walkability, transit, density and mix of uses go hand-in-hand with Universal Design.

"Universal Design has a higher level of convenience for people,'' says Steinfeld, the director of the Center for Inclusive and Environmental Design Access (IDEA Center) at State University of New York -- Buffalo. "It may have started out of a disability rights movement, but now advocates for older people ask for it, families with children in strollers benefit from it, and people of all ages recognize the value of design that is universally accessible."

The 61-year-old Steinfeld was destined from an early age to advocate for architecture that removes barriers and design that is flexible enough to be adapted for differing physical needs as a person ages in place in an urban community. Born into a family of tradesmen, it was a natural for Steinfeld to pursue an education in architecture at Carnegie Mellon University.

Steinfeld came away from undergraduate school "with a belief that successful building design is knowing the outcomes for the people for whom you're designing the building."

He next attended a master's program at the University of Michigan in gerontology and architecture. His Michigan studies ultimately resulted in his being one of the first people in the country to earn a doctorate in architecture.

Armed with a PhD, Steinfeld hired on with the federal government at the National Bureau of Standards.

"I got interested in barrier-free design because I was appointed to be the liaison for the President's Committee for Employment for the Handicapped," he says. "People were designing rehab centers -- there were a lot of disabled vets after the Korean War and people who had polio. People got rehabilitated, but once they got released, they couldn't do anything. They couldn't be independent because nothing outside the rehab center was accessible."

Steinfeld helped create new standards for accessibility, then left the government for a joint appointment in architecture and gerontology at Syracuse University.

"Because of the lack of knowledge architects had about disability, I put together a self-instructional learning package on barrier-free design for the elderly," Steinfeld recalls. "I also made a proposal to HUD to do research leading to a better standard of accessibility. They created a competition and I got the project. I was under 30 and had the largest government grant to explore barrier-free architecture. That led to a whole new standard and launched my career in the accessibility arena."

"One of my projects was about new towns -- that's why I'm interested in New Urbanism," Steinfeld adds.

In 1978, he came to SUNY-Buffalo, where he created the IDEA Center. Steinfeld said Universal Design should be a challenge, not a threat.

"The CNU Charter embraces the idea of design for diversity. But actions speak louder than words," he states. "The reality of most New Urbanist communities is that accessibility is provided only to the extent that it is required by law, and sometimes not even that. Leaders of the movement have even attacked these laws loudly and publicly arguing that they constrain their ability to create livable communities. I think that this perspective reflects badly on the movement and its leaders. At its root is the placement of a higher value on 'authenticity' than usability."

Steinfeld, whose design initiatives have won awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, wants to work with NU leaders to embrace design that is inclusive for all.

"The accessibility laws came into existence because the citizens of our country decided that traditional building and infrastructure design was discriminating against a class of individuals. Thus, if we truly believe in diversity as an essential aspect of healthy and sustainable communities, then we have to invent new techniques and approaches that welcome and empower all residents," he concludes.

Steinfeld says he is no extremist -- "I don't think any responsible disability rights advocate would say 100 percent of houses have to be 100 percent accessible" -- but he says every building site and housing type can be made accessible through creative design.

"When there is true commitment and a change of priorities, then usability will be viewed as an asset rather than a liability," he says. "Then we will find out that increasing usability for people with disabilities and older citizens, if done well, does not impede livability nor aesthetics. It will create a community that combines continuity with the past with new ideas from the present in response to new realities. Such communities will serve us well into the future, as our society ages, and prove to be more valuable, establishing a more positive public perception of New Urbanism as a movement."