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Can Public Spaces Promote Equality and Inclusiveness?

My 5 year old has been in a wheelchair with a broken leg for the past 8 weeks and I have been made aware of the general challenges for wheelchair users in the public domain.

While most public spaces does have some form of access, manoeuvring up and down ramps, in and out of wheelchair accessible bathrooms and often choosing to stay home to avoid the challenges, got me thinking how it must be for people with permanent disabilities.

Does it create a feeling of alienation when everyone else enters buildings from beautifully designed steps and doorways and the wheelchair user has to make her/his way to the back of the building through the car park, past the fire door which is also used for deliveries, next to the smoking area… get into the pub?

Having to use the lift or the ramp might not seem significant, but I’m pretty sure that if you experience this sort of exclusion every day, it will have an effect.

Public spaces should be designed around access for everyone and not just with a ramp here and a dropped kerb there to satisfy the Building regulations. Adding an industrial looking ramp in a dark corner, where steps provide the main point of access is not inclusive, it actually creates segregation.

Looking at the usually brilliant MVRDV’s recent proposal - a 180 steps outdoor staircase accessing the roof of an existing office building temporarily marking Rotterdams recovery from the Second World War. It struck me how segregating a structure like this would be, not only for people with disabilities but for a large group of other people who for various reasons can not make use of steps.

While MVRDV would probably argue that they have proposed an alternative lift access somewhere, steps should not be a part of any new public space.

I believe that if all public spaces are designed with people with disability in mind we will end up with better spaces for everyone. People pushing buggies, older people with reduced mobility, toddlers on unsteady legs, people with a visual impairment, people on bikes and many more will benefit from this.

Woolwich Squares in London is a perfect example of how a public steeply sloping area can be designed with no steps creating a people friendly public space.

Buildings like Bernard Tschumi’s Lerner Hall on the Campus of Columbia University in New York, accessible by suspended glass ramp spanning 5 levels and Heneghan Pengs Kildare County Council building with its wide wooden ramp connecting most of the building are great examples of accessibility for all. BIG’s Danish Pavilion in Shanghai acting as a public space which visitors can cycle around makes you think that all buildings should be equally manoeuvrable.

So yes, public spaces can promote equality and inclusiveness, in fact they can be great starting points for creating new opportunities for social interaction in friendly, welcoming, usable and inclusive spaces.

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