As some of you have read in the paper lately, there is a battle going on over accessible sidewalks in the historic neighborhoods of Boston. This story starts back in 2007. Below are some of the highlights:

  • Starting in 2007, disability community filed over 500 sidewalk violations against Boston with the State
  • State fined Boston $500 a day for violations
  • Violations included lack of curb cuts and tactile warning strips for the visually impaired
  • Fines eventually totaled over $400,000
  • City of Boston, State, and disability community agreed to new settlement
  • Settlement included the following:
  1. Plan to bring 5,000 curb cuts into compliance over 15 years
  2. Fines would be waived if put towards renovations of accessible sidewalks
  3. New sidewalk policy created which included concrete curb cuts, yellow tactile strips, and no “new bricks”
  4. Formation of new city disability commission
Same sidewalk intersection with newly installed curb cut and tactile warning strip
Same sidewalk intersection with newly installed curb cut and tactile warning strip


While the new sidewalk policy worked for much of Boston, it was not enforceable for the historic districts, which included Back Bay, Bay Village, South End, and Beacon Hill. These neighborhoods all have historic commissions that need to give permission for work to be done on the sidewalks. These districts were opposed to the sidewalk plan. They did not like the materials being used for the curb cuts or the use of the tactile warning strips, and they felt the plan was not historic in nature. They wanted brick ramps and no warning strips. To try and address this issue, the following was put into place

  • A task force was put together that included people from the Mayor’s office, historic neighborhoods, and the disability community
  • Ramps at curb cuts would be shorter
  • Color of tactile strips would change from yellow to terracotta
  • Neither side was fully happy with compromise but felt it worked for both


  • City of Boston approached historic commissions with compromise
  • 3 of 4 commissions accepted compromise
  • Beacon Hill Architectural Commission denied compromise
  • Mayor Menino stepped down; Mayor Walsh elected

The City of Boston and Mayor Walsh decided to move ahead despite the fact they did not have approval of the Architectural Commission. The City did this because it knew that it would not only risk getting fined by the State again if it continued to delay the project but that it was also the right thing to do for people with disabilities. In a final meeting with the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, the Beacon Hill Civic Association, and the residents, Mayor Walsh told people of his decision to proceed without their approval. He stated that construction would start in late summer and early fall.


Same sidewalk intersection with newly installed curb cut and tactile warning strip
Same sidewalk intersection with newly installed curb cut and tactile warning strip

Construction has started on the curb cuts in Beacon Hill. The Beacon Hill Civic Association has filed a lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court stating that the Mayor has overstepped his jurisdiction by not getting the approval of the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission. At one point the Architectural Commission said the residents would pay for more expensive materials that would create ramps they felt were more historic in nature, but the city of Boston said no for several reasons. First of all, it would not be fair to the other historic commissions who had already agreed to the compromise. It also would not be fair to have different rules for different neighborhoods just because one is more affluent. Finally, the City of Boston and the Mayor’s Commission for Persons with Disabilities feel it is a civil right for persons with disabilities everywhere to have safe, full, and equal access to sidewalks.


  1. Making sidewalks accessible for everyone is incredibly important. It was an ambitious goal to work on 5,000 curb cuts so they would be in compliance with code. I will be interested to how this project turns out and if it inspires people to take similar actions in other cities.

  2. The Disability Community should find ways to work with historical preservationists to have more productive conversations about this issue.

    Brick and curb-cut issues are played out over and over in communities throughout the state, and the conflicts are often very contentious. Sadly Municipal Disability Comissions are often not being heard and public projects are preserving a history of isolation and discrimination.

    The media coverage on the Beacon Hill issue was revealing. While society often supports civil rights for persons with disabilities as an abstract concept people don’t appreciate separate isn’t equal.

    The conversation is bigger than bricks or no bricks, bricks or wire-cut bricks.

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