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Sidewalks, Trees and Legislating Barriers

When it comes to development, I fully agree that we need to strike a balance between functional use and environmental protection. At the same time, a recent decision by city council in London to prioritize existing trees over accessibility needs is an interesting study in ableism and the privilege of the normate and their aesthetic preferences. Similar to the bylaw that restricted group home location, by not installing sidewalks we are yet again unintentionally disabling a vulnerable segment of our population, legislatively engineering barriers that make it harder for those with mobility challenges to live in certain (established) communities. Whether they meant it or not, this keeps the disabled out of certain areas in our city.

Busy streets without sidewalks are at best inaccessible to people with mobility challenges and at worse an accident waiting to happen. When sidewalks don’t exist, we are routinely forced to use the road instead and, as we’ve seen over the past few months in London, people who use wheelchairs are more likely to be struck by vehicles than their bipedal friends. By refusing to install sidewalks, we are all but ensuring this trend will continue.

This decision by council outright says that preservation of a tree, something that can be replanted or re-established elsewhere, is more important than a disabled person’s right to access public spaces safely. They are saying that we care more about landscaping than communities that are universally designed.

Perhaps not intentionally, we are saying here that our communities are built for SOME to use, but the entrance requirement is based on your level of ability — you must be THIS high on the hierarchy of ability to be a part of this community. Anyone below need not apply.

Yes, it is sad to lose mature trees, but trees can be replaced. New property and subdivision development regularly requires the removal of trees, but we offset this loss by requiring developers to replace them. The beauty here is we can have it both ways. When possible, let’s move these trees back to provide room for sidewalks. For every mature tree that needs to be removed to install a sidewalk, let’s commit to planting three new trees elsewhere on the property. And for new subdivisions going in, let’s ensure sidewalk installation gets priority FIRST and that we are developing landscaping that won’t inhibit our ability to make universally accessible spaces.

By Jeffrey Preston

Born with a rare neuromuscular myopathy, Jeff has spent his life dedicated to advocating for himself and others with disabilities. With a PhD in Media Studies from Western University, Jeff's research focuses on the representation of disability in popular and digital culture. Jeff is currently an Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at King's University College @ Western University in London, ON.