Thursday, 11 October 2018

Reconsidering the "Walkable City"

Based on previous posts (and chatter on facebook if you follow me there) you may be aware that I am interested in the concept of solarpunk and future cities. For those not initiated to the idea of solarpunk it is the concept of a better society that is built using modern (or future) science and is harmonious with the environment and with the people who live in it. If you read my post on Wakanda you will know my delight about a city that is not only environmentally sound, scientifically advanced but also people friendly and accessible and that’s a big deal.

The concept of walkable cities then, surely that fits into my solar punk future science ideal? Well yes and no. A recent article from the Guardian inadvertently provides the perfect example of this. The article itself is well written and well sourced with examples of a number of cities and studies but really the first indication of an issue is the title “a walkable city”. This name itself discounts large proportions of the population who can’t walk at all or easily. You could argue that the title isn’t specific but instead is referring to a concept. However the wording, as innocent it may be, directs people’s thoughts to walking and overlooking those that can’t walk.

A walkable city isn’t always about places being totally pedestrianised but the aim is for pedestrians to take priority and to be safe navigating on foot. The benefits are undoubted - lower levels of pollution, less collisions and accidents, better footfall and sales especially for small businesses. These are undoubtedly good things as is encouraging those who are able to to walk a little more to get more fresh air and be more active. But a potential benefit that is ignored is allowing disabled people to be more independent as well.

The article cites a number of cities and projects and the approaches they have taken. In London they have been using cameras and software to track the movement of cars, pedestrians and cyclists in order to determine the most efficient routes and road layouts to encourage more pedestrians. In Auckland the council have taken steps to make areas more “pedestrian friendly” by adding more trees and benches and removing car parking. Greater Manchester are creating “beelines” a joined up system of paths and cycle routes across their city to aid people walking from place to place and reducing the reliance on cars.

What is missing from all of these projects are considerations or even an acknowledgement of disabled people and the needs they may have or how their experiences may impact what counts as a “walkable” city.

Tracking footfall, bicycles and cars is a useful and important project and will certainly provide important information, however it only leads to an accessible city if those various pathways are wide enough for pedestrians and power chair or mobility scooter users. Trees and benches are great, especially providing seating for those who fatigue easily, but they must be placed in such a way that they don’t provide impediments to those who are blind or partially cited, and leave room for walking and chair based pedestrians alike to use the paths concurrently. Likewise for cycle and footpaths that span cities.
Creating pedestrian zones that allow easy walking is a wonderful idea but we also must recognise that walking across a city centre, even a walk of only a few hundred yards is impossible for some people. There still needs to be adequate disabled parking - and for there to be a cultural shift which doesn’t restrict them to only those who have been granted a Blue Badge (Blue Badges are often awarded based on your PIP award, since not everybody is awarded PIP no matter how high the need, this means people who need the badges may not have them).

But it goes even beyond that. According to some metrics York would be considered a “walkable city” by many. Much of the city centre is pedestrianised with limited traffic flow and priority given to pedestrians. This encourages a high percentage of thriving independent businesses. Anybody with mobility or other access issues would be quick to point out though, that it is most definitely not an accessible city. The streets are narrow and crowded, they are winding and uneven: a mix of narrow kerbs, cobbles, paving stones, sign-posts, bike racks and more. Getting around on foot with mobility issues is difficult: getting around in a chair is prohibitive. That’s even without addressing things like noise and visibility or the additional barrier of steps into buildings. A walkable city is not an accessible city and it’s very easy to end up with one at the cost of the other.

What frustrates me most about this article is how many of the project authors have been keen to consider inclusivity, for example Action Aid’s app and program to allow people to document streets and buildings they feel safe or unsafe in (and then hopefully passing that on to organisations that can make improvements). It quotes Susan Claris of Arup as saying “[a] huge indicator of a civilised walkable city” is safe public toilets. Clearly some thought and care is going into these studies. But what of people who don’t have access to a public toilet at all, safe or otherwise? Of the many public facilities across the UK (including over 4000 council run toilets) only a fraction of those are labelled accessible, fewer still are actually accessible (it’s not accessible if it’s also your storeroom) and even less are rated by Changing Spaces as suitable for an adult who needs a carer. In these pedestrianised walkable cities in which people aren’t able to dive into their car and speed home if caught short accessible toilets absolutely should be a priority.

Even worse in my eyes is that the article cites the “double buggy” test, being used by the Manchester project to determine if paths are wide enough that somebody could get a double pram down. That is important: parents and pushchairs should be thought about (and let’s not forget many of those parents may be disabled in someway themselves - using a double buggy instead of carrying a child may even be an accessibility adaptation for them) and it inadvertently helps disabled people - if a double buggy can get through so can the majority of mobility scooters, manual and power chairs. But nobody likes being an inadvertent afterthought, or in this case possibly not even an afterthought since we aren’t afforded the column inches by the journalist. It is significant because it would imply that the needs of disabled people aren’t being considered in these plans at all. If a double buggy can get down a path then yes a chair can too. But whereas a parent may be able to push a chair up or down a kerb, and over uneven surfaces or around awkwardly placed signs, a person in a power chair may not be able to and that’s just not a concern for these project builders.

Disabled people already struggle with getting out and about. But their absence from everyday public view on the streets of our cities isn’t because we don’t want to be there, it’s because of the barriers architects, councils, town planners and engineers have put in our way. The reason so many visionaries of future cities seem to have forgotten about us is because we are already kept out of site and out of mind by the societies we live in. Creating a fresh new walkable city or a city of the future is an admirable goal but if you look at your artists impressions and computer simulations and all you see are non-disabled people then you’ve gone wrong. You have neglected and discriminated against a large group of people who have every right to enjoy the businesses, places of work and attractions of a city with the same ease, safety and comfort as any other citizen disabled or not. That shouldn’t be forgotten about and it shouldn’t be reduced to an afterthought.

Truly revolutionary design and development comes by considering all the people who will be using your creation. Truly functional design that stands the test of time is something that can be embraced by the whole population and is fit for purpose, avoiding the need for decades of patching and re-engineering. That absolutely means considering the needs of everybody including disabled people.

So what of my shiny solarpunk dream cities? Would they be “walkable”? No. They would be accessible. Accessible to all who need to be there. For many that will mean safe and easy walking for others that will mean spaces and access routes for personal vehicles (electric and self driving of course, this is my dream after all). Streets that can be navigated with ease, clear road signs with braille or audio that can be picked up by a user’s app. Plenty of seating, and yes, good clean accessible toilets. Designated cycle lanes that don’t encroach on pedestrian space. Charging points for electric chairs and scooters. Smooth surfaces and ramps between different levels. Good lighting (reactive for energy efficiency and to reduce light pollution). Options and services for those people who need help carrying things (drones maybe?). Good public transport with easy access points and methods for getting into the centre of “pedestrian” spaces.

Yes some of these are out of our reach right now but many of them aren’t are are what I would think of as basic and minimal changes to a city to make it both accessible and pedestrian friendly. If the money can be spent on these existing projects then it can be spent on improving accessibility.

I don’t want to see any more think pieces on walkable cities. I want to see think pieces on accessible and inclusive cities. I don’t want to be erased from a future that hasn’t happened yet.

Amazingly, the Guardian has written on this subject themselves with an article called "What would a truly accessible city look like" from February 2018. They just must have forgotten about it. 

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