Accessibility should be and is slowly becoming a concern all over the world, but cities have often been behind the times. Despite the idea of smart cities rising in popularity and many urban areas embracing technology to improve everything from user experience to safety, accessibility hasn’t had the same attention as these ‘glamorous’ innovations. Today, the world as we know it is changing, and cities will have no choice but to readdress their current accessibility or lack of it.
Why we need accessible cities
Why do we need anything to be accessible? Aside from the moral reasons behind accessibility, the fact is our disabled population is growing and so are their needs. Working, socialising and tourism are the pillars of the world economy, and people with physical or learning disabilities have become a large and important part of it. In fact, in the UK alone the “purple pound” is worth £212bn and the accessible-tourism market is estimated at £12bn.
These changes are becoming even more apparent in cities, where it is expected there will be an estimated 940 million people living with a disability by 2050. That’s a huge 15% of the total 6.25 billion urban dwellers predicted. Unsurprisingly, the UN has identified accessibility as a major challenge with the current infrastructure of most cities simply not up to the task.
The cities that are falling short on accessibility
In theory and on paper we should all be working towards a completely accessible future. From the UK’s Access and Equality Act 2010 to Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act, countries the world over have implemented and updated laws to specifically address the needs of people with disabilities. Many of these directly address the physical environment of residential, commercial and public buildings.
Unfortunately, these laws are often flouted or simply worked around. Ignoring or meeting the bare minimum of today’s accessibility standards isn’t working for the worlds disabled population and many continue to face everyday obstacles. Not only is this a physical barrier to their access, but can often create a sense of fear and anxiety that is a significant mental barrier as well.
Cities and urban areas are often the guilty parties and cite their own barriers to accessibility. Old and historical cities contend with strict heritage laws while others simply feel they can’t begin to change a huge area of established buildings and spaces. Today, people with all types of disabilities continue to face common and often easily solved obstacles.
- Physical mobility disabilities – for wheelchair users and those with limited mobility, barriers can include no or blocked wheelchair ramps, no lifts, inaccessible toilets and shops without step-free access.
- Audio and visual disabilities – often no or very little operational visual and audio cues around key areas such as train stations and buses.
- Learning disabilities – those on the autistic spectrum can suffer from the clutter and noise that city areas present.
Creating cities that put accessibility first
Fortunately, there are some cities starting to take the lead on accessibility. As technology has reshaped the lives of all of us, many are starting to see how it could also reshape the lives of those living with a disability. This in part due to increased awareness of accessibility failures, an increase in people living with disabilities and an ageing population that is resulting in the disabled population increasing even more for many countries.
Here are some of the best and most innovative solutions from cities around the world that are finally putting accessibility first.
While Google Maps has recently taken serious steps to address accessibility in their app, accessible specific directions and real-time information still fall far short of what’s needed.
Aiming to offer a better solution, The University of Washington’s Taskar Center for Accessible Technology have introduced AccessMap. The app aims to give more accessible routes to those with a physical disability and is currently being used in the hilly city of Seattle. Users can enter a destination and parameters such as limiting the slope grade of a road to get an accessible route.
The map is also now using other city transportation data and geological data along with crowdsourcing to populate their app with even more information. Together, this data can help users plan journeys with wider pavements, dropped kerbs, ramps, handrails and much more.
Universal Design principles
In Singapore accessibility got serious in 2007 after concerns about their ageing population, the so-called ‘silver Tsunami’. By introducing new Universal Design principles drawn up by Singapore’s Building Construction Authority, they have managed to significantly improve the number and success of accessible buildings. New developments now have a clear focus on accessibility, for example CapitaGreen, the 40-storey office block that has won various UD awards for innovative workplace accessibility ideas including:
- Column-free spaces
- Low concierge counters
- Lift doors stay open longer
- Handrails flank both sides of staircases
- Chairs with grab handles
- Hearing induction loop for hearing aids
- Braille directions, tactile guidance, east-to-read pictographs for visually impaired
While cities like London are starting to consider and implement more accessible solutions for transportation, progress has been slow, and ideas often miss the mark altogether. Fortunately, some cities have already accepted and conquered the accessible transportation challenge.
Washington undoubtedly wins the award for world’s most accessible metro system with all of their 91 subway stations now fully accessible along with all of its rail carriages and even its entire bus fleet. For other cities looking to embrace accessibility on their transportation systems, Washington proves that a completely accessible city is achievable.
Even cities with limited accessibility tend to address physical disabilities first. While visual and especially audio impairments can be left to the wayside, it’s often learning disabilities that get the least attention.
Looking to take on the learning disability design challenge, the Sweetwater Spectrum housing project in California has implemented some innovative features to create an autism-friendly space. Built with 4 homes to house 16 young adults, the project includes a variety of autism-friendly design additions, including:
- Simple, clean lines.
- Spaces can be seen clearly across thresholds.
- Noise is kept to a minimum with quiet heating and ventilation systems, placing laundry rooms away from bedrooms.
- Fittings and décor designed to reduce sensory stimulation – muted colours, neutral tones, recessed or natural light.
With awards from the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee, the new Musholm sports and holiday complex in Korsør has reimagined sports and leisure with a firm focus on accessibility. This includes a wheelchair friendly climbing wall and aerial ropeway as well as an integrated pulley system. A 100m spiral ramp provides access to a sky lounge while also serving as a wheelchair racetrack. Meanwhile, the hotel rooms also feature accessible design innovations including ceiling hoists, electronic curtains, electronically controlled beds, adjustable height sinks and accessible toilets.
Making accessible history
The historic city of Chester is well known for its ancient culture thanks to its circuit of Roman, Saxon and Medieval walls as well as elevated walkways known as Rows. Unlike most historic cities, Chester has looked beyond the impossible obstacles of their old and protected heritage buildings and have instead decided to embrace accessible change.
The addition of ramps, lifts and escalators have turned the Rows into an accessible landmark and a new regeneration strategy focusing on accessibility should see new developments prioritising the interests of people with disabilities in the future. One example of this new strategy in action is the Northgate shopping and leisure development that is due for completion in 2021. This enormous development will include accessible stores, restaurant, housing and even a hotel with eight completely accessible rooms.
Chester is also embracing superior accessible toilets. A new changing places facility in the hotel will join the eight that already exist throughout the city and there plans to open even more. These facilities are entirely accessible and far superior to traditional disabled toilets thanks to:
- Height adjustable changing bench.
- Adjustable sink.
- Toilet designed for assisted use.
If that wasn’t enough, they’ve also redesigned their new culture centre, Storyhouse, to include a whole host of disability-friendly features thanks to feedback from the disability groups and experts. The theatre, cinema and library complex now includes seven accessible toilets, a changing places facility, audio description and hearing loops.
Real-time audio cues
Finally, the Southern Cross rail station in Melbourne is also seeing some innovative additions designed to aid those with visual impairments. Using BlindSquare, a free GPS app, and Bluetooth beacons throughout the station, the new project run by Guide Dogs Victoria aims to provide real-time audio cues and directions to users.
The app can call out directions and important information outside while Bluetooth beacons help to provide the same real-time service in the station where the signal might be unreliable. Additional real-time information such as escalator outages and construction areas can also be relayed on the user. If successful, the project could be rolled out to other busy city sites like the zoo.
Aiming for complete accessibility
The seemingly snail-pace progress of accessibility is in part down to doubt. Cities with complex and established transportation networks or protected heritage sites simply don’t see how the accessibility challenge is completely achievable, so they fail to aim for complete accessibility. Aiming for 20% or 50% or even 80% accessibility seems like a more achievable target, but it slows down accessibility innovation and implementation.
All the cities currently putting serious efforts into accessibility have shown that a goal of 100% accessibility is not only achievable but also necessary if real progress is to be made. From historical sites to countries not typically known for their focus on equality, all the above examples highlight that any accessibility challenge can be overcome with the right infrastructure in place.
Feeling inspired to get accessible? Talk to one of our team today to find out how we could help you get more accessible with our enormous range of wheelchair ramps.