The Curb Effect

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

We hardly notice its existence even though it provides us with convenience in our everyday lives. We have all seen it and used it before, the simple curb-cut, when we had to roll the heavy shopping cart out towards the car or when trying to move the stroller quietly as to not wake the baby, the curb-cut is there providing us a service even though it was not truly meant for us.

It seems this process started to take shape after World War 2 when returning disabled veterans had difficulty using their wheelchairs around the streets. Instances have been documented of wheelchair users and their aids taking sledgehammers to curbs in order to make an access or dumping cement down a set of stairs to create a makeshift ramp. It wasn't until the 1970s in the extremely politically active Berkley, Ca where the college population, led by Ed Roberts, took action and started a movement for movement, creating the first official curb cut located on Telegraph avenue and being unofficially dubbed 'the slab of concrete heard around the world'.

The movement carried weight all across the country making small strides for disabled Americans until 1990 when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed thus increasing the accommodation and accessibility requirements to public places and equipment by an unprecedented amount.

George H.W. Bush who had recently spoken about the divisive nature of the Berlin Wall spoke yet again, this time about the divisive nature of the architecture of our country saying" “And now I sign legislation, which takes a sledgehammer to another wall, one which has for too many generations separated Americans with disabilities from the freedom they could glimpse but not grasp. And once again we rejoice as this barrier falls, proclaiming together, we will not accept … excuses or tolerate, discrimination in America.”

What the curb-cut effect boils down to is the fact that what merely makes a task easier for someone without disabilities can make it possible for someone with disabilities. This benefit of the curb-cut, which had been designed for disabled individuals trickles down the benefit to the rest of society, everyone wins.

Some other interesting examples of instances like this include the origin of the football huddle whos creation was to assist deaf players at Gallaudet College keep their game plans secret from opponents who could have read their sign language. It happened with seat belt legislation, which was adopted initially to protect young children, led 49 states to adopt seat belt laws that have saved an estimated 317,000 lives—children and adults. It happened when flight attendants spearheaded a national campaign to end smoking on planes, thus setting into motion a public-health campaign that has largely banished smoking from public spaces and cut tobacco consumption in half.

What the curb-cut effect teaches us is how the power of design and planning has effects and ramifications that although not visible at first, can have positive influences all throughout society, that are felt by each and every single member.

See you next time!

Ryah Letim, Architectural Intern

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