HEWI MAG / Knowledge

The accessibility city - approaches and ways to realisation

A guest article by Boris Schade-Bünsow | Editor-in-Chief of bauwelt

So of course it is in the 21st century. While it may sound like a twenty-first century city, there is no such thing as a accessibility city for all. Neither in the consciousness of the inhabitants nor of the planners and architects does accessibility play an adequate role so far. It doesn't have to be that way, and at least from that perspective, the US is one of the most progressive countries in the world.Boris Schade-Bünsow shows ways to a barrier-free city in his guest article.

Boris Schade-Bünsow | Editor-in-Chief of bauwelt

Approaches to a barrier-free city in the USA

30 years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act, "Americans with Disabilities Act" (ADA), went into effect; in 2015, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary, then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on the international community to "do everything in our power to enforce laws for inclusion and leave no one behind - everywhere."

This was preceded, from 1970 onwards, by a firm determination to enable injured and partially disabled veterans of the Vietnam War to return and integrate into civilian life with the fewest possible restrictions.

This has created a sustained awareness of accessibility in all public areas. Barrier-free building entrances, for example, are integrated into the architecture as a matter of course. In America, no one has to enter a library, restaurant or museum through the back entrance or down a hidden ramp, and every city government and agency are just as easily accessible.

In the USA at that time a change of perspective was achieved, it was not about adapting to the "normal" society, but about considering the whole society with people with different physical abilities as "normal". 

So what needs to be done here and now for a barrier-free city?

First and foremost is the awareness to plan for all people equally, regardless of whether they have limitations. In terms of public transport, this means equal and equal access to transport locations and means of transport without thresholds and with a low gradient.

Virtually no one has succeeded in doing this, whether by train, bus, car or plane. Even the sidewalk or wayfinding for pedestrians in the city are not adequately implemented. Often, even the wrongly selected flooring makes it difficult to move around without problems. It is particularly difficult with historic surfaces such as cobblestones or coarse paving slabs. 

How can public buildings be made barrier-free? 

For a public building, for example a museum, an office or a department store, this means many things, some of which may seem self-evident to us, although they have been implemented only partially or not at all. It is a matter of adequate lighting, existing quiet zones in the immediate vicinity of the traffic areas, sufficiently wide, level, step-free access, clear, unambiguous routing and complete signage with guidance systems and operating elements for people with visual impairments, door handles and doors that are easy enough to open, lifts with adequate cages and clear information and operating panels, and straight stairs.

It's about counters, for example in the reception area, that don't force visitors into a subordinate position, and about well thought-out, discoverable sanitary rooms, which are equally well designed architecturally. The question of the quality of design in all these components and building systems should not arise. The quality of the design must be equally good and naturally congruent. 

Conclusion: The barrier-free city is possible

Overall, then, the aim is to design and build public infrastructures, public spaces and public buildings in such a way that they are usable by as many people as possible without further adaptation or specialisation. In addition, this design must be flexible and robust enough to accommodate assistive technologies that people with disabilities may need to use.These people must not be discriminated against by subordinate or architecturally inferior solutions.

This is the challenge for planners, architects and the industry, which must supply appropriately designed products for this purpose. We don't need a new ordinance or even a law for that. The Basic Law is sufficient, Article 2 and Article 3, where the right to free development of the personality and the equal rights of all people are laid down. The law also explicitly refers to the obligation of the state to compensate for existing disadvantages. We have to stick to that. This is our moral and real responsibility. 

The author


Editor-in-chief of the architecture magazine Bauwelt, Berlin, since 2011. Prior to this, he spent ten years as publishing director of Bauverlag BV GmbH, Gütersloh, where he was responsible for the publisher's content programme. Before that, from 1993 to 2001, he was editor and editor-in-chief of TAB Technik am Bau and other construction journals published by Bauverlag. 

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