4 Areas Where Sustainable Pittsburgh Development Must Focus On Accessibility

Image of a stone church wall with two small windows showing an accessibility sign with arrows pointing to the left, and the other sign pointing to the right with conflicting directions.
Photo by Callie Oliver


When people think of sustainability and cities, they are most likely to think about environmental issues and things like urban gardens, water conservation, and LEED certified buildings. “Sustainability” touches every part of a city from buildings to streets, public transportation and education, medical access, food access, and beyond. Sustainability in Pittsburgh can only be achieved through inclusion of the disability community by increasing accessibility. As the city population grows and with urban redevelopment underway across the city, the disability community is being left out of the conversation. Here are four areas where accessibility by disabled folks must be included for Pittsburgh to achieve any sustainability goals.

City Living Must Be Inclusive

As more people choose to live in cities, it is estimated that 6.25 billion people will live in cities by 2050. About 16 percent of the Pittsburgh population is considered disabled. This number is consistent with the global 15 percent of the population. Pittsburgh is notorious for old buildings that lack elevators, ramps, or have too many steep stairs. This affects housing inclusion and reduces options for disabled people. New housing development in Pittsburgh must meet accessibility standards to be sustainable.


In a city full of higher education institutions, campuses must be inclusive and accessible. This includes the physical aspects of the campus itself, but also the courses and institutional supports for students with disabilities. Because universities are a huge part of Pittsburgh’s appeal, they serve more than students paying tuition. Universities regularly host events for the entire community of varying types. Accessibility in higher education is necessary for creating sustainable universities, but they also contribute to a sustainable workforce. 

Medical Access

While Pittsburgh is a major medical hub for the best technology, doctors, and facilities, those with disabilities routinely lack adequate access. Part of a sustainable city is ensuring that all citizens have equitable access to healthcare. Pennsylvania expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, but since the people who need healthcare the most are often further from the city, they also lack healthcare. Sustainable development must consider these Pittsburghers when developing new hospitals and facilities and beyond.


Pittsburgh’s unique geography and historical city planning create major barriers for many citizens, especially those with disabilities, who may experience difficulties accessing and using public transit options. While increased accessibility to schedules, and new TrueTime bus tracking, have increased access to information, service cuts and reduced frequency in high-poverty neighborhoods may still have serious implications for individuals with disabilities. Pennsylvanians with disabilities can barriers to even seeing, navigating to, or physically using public transit systems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate approximately 2-in-5 Pennsylvanians with disabilities, have a disability that impairs daily functioning and limits access. Sustainable growth demands public transit systems are designed for access by all, which requires a critical review of the most vulnerable individuals, and the barriers they face to accessing a resource as vital as transportation.

You can have a role in sustainable Pittsburgh development by calling attention to accessibility issues you spot in the city. Port Authority can be contacted directly for commentary. UPMC and Highmark can also be contacted with concerns about accessibility to medical care, and you can attend events that invite community commentary on new developments. Be an ally and help making Pittsburgh a sustainable city for all.

Additional Resources: 

UN PDF on Accessibility and Urban Development

List of updated UN Resources on Disability and Accessibility Issues in Urban Development

Pittsburgh ADA Coordinator Information

7 Comments Add yours

  1. tabitha.weaver says:

    Thank you for bringing this to light! You are right about people mostly thinking about environmental sustainability . Accessibility is an issue I think we all struggle with if our daily lives are not personally impacted by it, we need to be better advocates!

    1. callie.oliver says:

      Certainly. I meant to include some links in this post too, which I am going to go back and put in. While scrolling through public documents from the UN and local Pittsburgh government, there is so much talk about accessibility within the sustainability movement, but accessibility is getting left out. It’s often thought that a wheelchair ramp is all it takes, but there’s so much more!

  2. jordyn.gilliard says:

    This is a really interesting read! I think this is an extremely important topic that always gets glanced over. I was watching a documentary recently and the man the documentary was centered around encountered so many limitations because places did not provide access for his wheelchair.

    1. callie.oliver says:

      Thank you! There are so many issues here in the city. I used to bus everywhere, from every edge of the city. Neighborhoods like Wilkinsburg and Homewood have really poor bus stop accessibility. The stops are dark, they get icy in the winter, curbs get build up of snow and ice, and that makes it hard for *able-bodied* people…let alone people like me, who use a cane or other mobility aids. I’ve seen so many elderly folks in motorized chairs struggle to get on a bus because of low visibility at the stop and the quality of the sidewalks and road. This is just one example. I encourage you to make complaints if you see these issues. 🙂

  3. roman.black says:

    I think that this is extremely accurate. My mom is handicapped and limited to using a walker. IN public however it is much easier for her to use a wheelchair. A lot of places just aren’t great for accommodating this. It is unfortunate and needs to change.

    1. callie.oliver says:

      I’m sorry your mom has this experience. Public spaces can be difficult to navigate if you have any sort of mobility aid, but they’re required to have accessibility standards met. Private businesses are included in this, but they can get away with a lot if people don’t complain or notice. If you ever go somewhere that isn’t accessible with your mom, be sure to speak up by emailing or tweeting the company, or speaking to a manager in person if possible, such as at a restaurant.

  4. holly.taylor says:

    I love how you centered this article around Pittsburgh- we are often quick to point out all of the great environmental attributes Pittsburgh has, but you never really read anything that points out what we can be doing better. Also, you cannot have an effective conversation about sustainability without including accessibility.

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