To David Meere, a visually impaired man from Melbourne, among the various obstacles to life in cities is another that is less frequently discussed: fear.
“The fear of not being able to navigate busy, cluttered and visually oriented environments is a major barrier to participation in normal life,” says Meere, 52, “be that going to the shops, going for a walk in the park, going to work, looking for work, or simply socialising.”
That’s what makes an innovative project at the city’s Southern Cross train station so important to him. A new “beacon navigation system” sends audio cues to users via their smartphones, providing directions, flagging escalator outages and otherwise transforming what previously a “no-go” area for Meere.
“I no longer have to hope there’s a willing bystander or a capable staff member to provide direct assistance,” he says. “And on a very personal and powerful level it allows me to use this major transport hub in one of Australia’s largest cities with certainty and independence as a parent with small children. It’s a real game-changer.”
Meere is just one of the hundreds of millions of people with disabilities who live in cities around the world. By 2050, they will number an estimated 940 million people, or 15% of what will be roughly 6.25 billion total urban dwellers, lending an urgency to the UN’s declaration that poor accessibility “presents a major challenge”.
For the physically disabled, barriers can range from blocked wheelchair ramps, to buildings without lifts, to inaccessible toilets, to shops without step-free access. Meanwhile, for learning disabled people or those on the autistic spectrum, the cluttered and hectic metropolitan environment can be a sensory minefield.
Stairs, revolving doors, cobbles and steps on to trains are a few of the features that make it difficult for people in wheelchairs to access their cities
Mapping apps make navigating cities a doddle for most people – but their lack of detail on ramps and dropped kerbs mean they don’t always work well for people with a physical disability.
Take the hilly city of Seattle, where several neighbourhoods have no pavements at all, and many streets have a slope grade (or tilt) of 10% or even 20%.
The University of Washington’s Taskar Center for Accessible Technology has a solution: a map-based app allowing pedestrians with limited mobility to plan accessible routes. AccessMap enables users to enter a destination, and receive suggested routes depending on customised settings, such as limiting uphill or downhill inclines. The image above shows Seattle streets coloured by incline: green means flat; red means a slope of 10% or above.
For example, while Google Maps sends pedestrians from University Street station to City Hall via Seneca Street, with its steep 10% grade, AccessMap sends them via Pike Street instead – a slope of less than 2%.
OpenSidewalks is crowdsourcing information such as pavement width and kerb drop-downs
It also supplements data from Seattle’s Department of Transportation and the US Geological Survey with information from mapathon events. Now the Taskar Centre’s related OpenSidewalks project is taking it further by crowdsourcing extra information, such as pavement width and the location of handrails.
The Universal Design principles drawn up by Singapore’s Building Construction Authority have encouraged accessibility in new developments since its launch in 2007.
CapitaGreen, in the central business district, is a 40-storey office block that has won a host of UD awards. Completed in 2014 at a cost of S$1.3bn (£700m), the Toyo Ito-designed structure features column-free spaces and a low concierge counter to help disabled people move around the building more easily.
Braille directions on handrails in the award-winning CapitaGreen office block
Lift doors stay open longer, handrails flank both sides of staircases, and the chairs have grab handles. A hearing induction loop enables clearer communication for those using hearing aids, while Braille directions, tactile guidance and easy-to-read pictographs help the visually impaired. Routes into the office from underground pedestrian walkways and two Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) stations are barrier-free.
Singapore’s MRT has also been working to improve accessibility over the past decade. The 30-year-old nework has been getting more lifts, wider gates and tactile guidance, and more than 80% of the 138 stations have at least two barrier-free routes.
The title of world’s most accessible metro system, however, probably goes to Washington, DC. All 91 subway stations are fully accessible, along with its rail carriages and the entire bus fleet.
People with autism can be hypersensitive to sound, light and movement, and become overwhelmed by noisy, cluttered or crowded spaces. Sweetwater Spectrum, a $6.8m supported-housing project in Sonoma, California, aims to address this.
The site, which opened in 2013, includes four 4-bed homes for 16 young adults, a community centre, therapy pools and an urban farm – all designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects according to autism-specific principles recommended by Arizona State University to promote a sense of calm.
Inside the Sweetwater Spectrum housing project
Along with simple, clear lines, the homes are designed so residents can clearly see spaces across thresholds. Noise is kept to a minimum thanks to quiet heating and ventilation systems and thoughtful design, such as locating the laundry room away from the bedrooms. Fittings and decor reduce sensory stimulation and clutter, with muted colours, neutral tones and recessed or natural light.
At the centre of the venue, owned by the Danish Muscular Dystrophy Foundation, is a vast, circular sports hall, with an aerial ropeway and climbing wall for wheelchair users and an integrated pulley system. Outside, a 100m ramp spirals up from the base of the hall to a sky lounge. (The ramp can also be used as a wheelchair racing track.)
The 24 hotel rooms each have ceiling hoists, electronic curtains, beds that can be automatically raised or reclined, adjustable height sinks and accessible toilets. By the waterside, a private bathing jetty is wide enough for wheelchairs and accessible via a ramp.
The multi-purpose sports hall in the Musholm complex
“Accessibility must be felt but not seen,” says foundation director Henrik Ib Jørgensen. Musholm, which cost €14.5m (£12.9m) to build, is run as a social enterprise. “Lack of accessibility, other people’s assumptions, body ideals and a lack self confidence among people with disabilities are often the biggest barriers for diversity,” he adds. “We wanted to create a place where there is space for differences.”
Denmark is also home to what is widely regarded as the world’s most accessible office building. The House of Disabled People’s Organisations in the Copenhagen suburb of Taastrup is the shared headquarters of some 30 different disability groups. Built in 2012 for 178m krone (£21m), the Universal Design includes drive-through lifts so wheelchair users don’t have to turn around, and small, tactile knobs on railings so blind people can easily tell which floor they are on.
The Rows are accessible with ramps, a lift and an escalator, while the council’s 15-year regeneration strategy prioritises accessibility in new developments.
Take the £300m Northgate shopping and leisure development, to be completed by 2021. The site will include accessible stores, restaurants, housing and a 157-room hotel including eight accessible rooms with ceiling hoists. The hotel will include a changing places facility for people with complex or multiple and profound disabilities. (Unlike standard accessible toilets, these include a height-adjustable changing bench, adjustable sink, a toilet designed for assisted use and hoist.) Chester already has six such changing places facilities, including one at the recently opened bus interchange, and more are planned around the city.
The Storyhouse cultural centre has flexible seating, audio loops and accessible backstage changing rooms
The accessible design of Chester’s year-old cultural centre, Storyhouse, was created after feedback from disability groups and the council’s access team. The £37m theatre, cinema and library complex has seven accessible toilets, a changing places facility, flexible seating for groups of disabled theatre-goers, audio description and hearing loops. Backstage, there is an accessible toilet, accessible changing rooms and lift.
As David Meere discovered, in Melbourne, Australia, an eight-month pilot scheme is currently transforming how visually impaired people navigate public space. The project at Southern Cross station rail terminal uses Bluetooth and free GPS smartphone app BlindSquare to create a beacon navigation system.
Users receive audio cues via their smartphones, providing directions or real time information about issues such as escalator outages. Outside, the app provides real time directional information; inside, where GPS is unreliable, 20 wireless Bluetooth beacons means users still receive information. Audio cues include advice such as: “Approaching three escalators on left, followed by a set of doors – the doors on the left are automated.”
The trial is led by the charity Guide Dogs Victoria, which plans to install similar systems at Melbourne Zoo, Albert Park (home to the Australian Grand Prix) and the Docklands area.
“In many situations, the person with low vision and blindness will have greater knowledge than the sighted person,” says Alastair Stott of Guide Dogs Victoria. “It’s a complete role reversal.”
Saba Salman is editor of Made Possible, essays on success by people with learning disabilities
Art: Stefan Kalmar AN AGE OF CRISIS: WHAT A GREAT OPPORTUNITY…
2018 is all about reclaiming reality, opposing governmental and corporate paradoxes, and dissecting lies, before they become a new truth, the new normal – a new reality.
A moment of crisis is also the moment in which new movements come into focus and new ideas are formed. I’m excited by Forensic Architecture, an interdisciplinary group based at Goldsmiths College in London, which includes artists, journalists, architects, film-makers, lawyers, data analysts and activists.
Forensic Architecture is the name of the research group as well as an investigative practice that crosses fields. It is grounded in the use of architecture as an “optical device”, employing forms of spatial analysis, mapping and reconstruction, overlaid with witness testimony and visual documentation. The group has undertaken a series of investigations into human rights violations and acts of state and corporate violence that have informed military, parliamentary and UN inquiries.
At the same time, Metahaven, a Dutch design studio, deals with information democracy and corporate identity. Its most recent work, The Sprawl, considered the “ways in which fantasy can be designed so as to seem or feel like a truth … how propaganda multiplies within that upload/download architecture; an architecture in which both fact and fiction can exist side by side and even overlap”.
These groups are, in many ways, the contemporary version of the Independent Group, a collection of radical young artists, writers and critics who in the 1950s called the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) their home. And if the groups look similar, then this is because the struggles are too.
Stefan Kalmár, a former Turner prize judge, is the director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts
Politics: Ed Miliband
EMBRACE THE IDEALISM OF THE YOUNG
A major reason to be cheerful in politics in 2018, and for years to come, is young people. Amid the gloom that has hung over politics and society since Brexit and Trump, young people have represented the most noticeable countervailing force. We saw it this year at the general election, and we have seen it in the waves of young people engaged in the anti-Trump movement, the #MeToo campaign and much else.
The significance lies not just in another set of people demanding progressive things, but a set of people with a new set of demands, unencumbered by the past and driven by the circumstances of today. People born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, for many of whom LGBT+ rights, a new wave of feminism, the fight against climate change and an openness to radicalism are part of their generational DNA. When they look at the mess previous generations have made, they are driven to this desire for something better. Our deeply unequal world, including inequality between generations, is turbocharging this movement, which is not scared to demand big change.
Their idealism will often be dismissed as naivety or worse, as every wave is always dismissed, including the 1960s wave of feminism and anti-war sentiment. But older generations should resist the “we know better” impulse, the tendency to being a “centrist dad” as the term goes. Of course, this idealism is not always right, but its spirit is essential, and the demand it embodies for a new, fairer, more equal society should be embraced.
Pessimism and cynicism achieve nothing. By contrast, the energy and vitality of this new generation can help defeat Trump and lead us to build a post-Brexit Britain that doesn’t float off into a low-wage, offshore tax haven.
Just as the causes of earlier generations of young people, once dismissed as outlandish and radical, eventually became mainstream, so too it can happen again. They are the best hope for the transformation of the country we are to the country we can become.
What we are is determined by our genes and by the sequence of the four chemicals – nucleotides – that make up the strands of our DNA. Fifteen years ago scientists sequenced and mapped the DNA in the human genome: they determined the order of the three billion nucleotides that make up our genetic material and they established (roughly) what the different parts of the genome do.
That has been extraordinarily powerful in helping us understand how life works and what it is to be human. But to say we have sequenced “the” human genome is misleading. Our genomes are all different, and if we are to understand susceptibilities to disease, or how people will respond to certain treatments, we need to correlate the health of individual people with their individual DNA sequences.
2018 should see this begin to happen. Thanks to advances in DNA sequencing technologies, and contributions from private sources, government and charities, it is now feasible to read the precise DNA sequence in every volunteer recruited to UK Biobank. Set up 10 years ago, UK Biobank represents a cohort of half a million people between 40 and 69, all of whom contribute information about diet, activity, body measurements and other personal information, as well as samples of blood, urine and saliva. Participants have agreed to have their health monitored, and approved researchers from academia and industry have access to all the anonymised data.
Already UK Biobank has transformed our understanding of health and disease, improving diagnosis and care for those with cancer and rare diseases. But if every participant has their genome sequenced, the prospects for understanding and treating disease, including obesity and mental health disorders, will be extraordinary. We do not know what we will find, but we can be confident it will transform our understanding of what it is to be healthy and what it is to be sick.
Dr Jim Smith is a developmental biologist and the director of science at Wellcome, the science and health foundation
Infrastructure: Sadie Morgan
TIME TO BUILD PRIDE IN OUR ROADS AND RAILWAYS
Our built environment is so integral to our lives that most of us rarely think about it – we take it for granted. We can say the same about the design of our infrastructure and how it affects people and place. It rarely gets the attention it deserves.
As architects and designers our focus has been on buildings at the expense of everything else. We can all think of our favourite building, but can you name a great streetscape, road junction or railway viaduct? That’s because often what defines the infrastructure of our countryside and cities is the miles of security fences, concrete noise barriers and railway stanchions.
Reimagining our built environment is one of the greatest opportunities we have to put a healthier, more compassionate and greener philosophy into place.
From stations to bridges, roads to railways, electricity pylons to flood defences,our infrastructure should engender national pride and a sense of local ownership. Look to the past, and there are plenty of great examples from Brunel’s bridges to Bazalgette’s sewers and pumping stations to power stations reimagined for the 21st century, as in Battersea and Bankside, now Tate Modern.
The UK consistently nurtures some of the best engineering, technical and architectural minds in the world, but we are building it elsewhere.
The good news is that big projects such as HS2 – the largest infrastructure project in the UK for a decade – has committed to high-quality design from the outset.
Britain has proved it is capable of designing and building world-class infrastructure. Add that to a commitment to invest hundreds of billions over the next decade, and this is an exciting prospect. I see 2018 as the year Britain rediscovers its infrastructure mojo.
AS PRICES RISE, RESTAURANTS AND FARMS WILL STRUGGLE
Of all the falsehoods peddled by the pro-Brexit lobby, the most egregious was the notion that it was a decision for our future; the impact of the decision to leave the European Union on our food chain was instant, with the devaluation of sterling leading to an acceleration in food price inflation. By November this year it was running at 4.2%, a third higher than the headline rate.
In 2018 it is only going to get worse: the price of food will continue to rise ahead of general inflation, and as a weakened pound makes exporting ever more attractive, the major retailers will find themselves locked in competition with international markets for produce. Expect to see the big four supermarkets – Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons – softening up their customers for higher prices. Meanwhile, the discounters, especially Aldi and Lidl, which keep prices low by restricting choice but buying in enormous volume, will flourish.
The optimistic view is that this should all be good for food producers in 2018. In reality, Britain’s farmers have rarely benefited from competition among retailers, which have always prioritised shareholders over suppliers. What’s more, farmers have their own price issues. Few food items are the result of a solely domestic supply chain. They depend on inputs – seedlings for fruit growing, for example, or animal feeds – from abroad and the prices of those have also risen. More pressing are the accelerating labour issues. British agriculture depends on migrant labour, and there is increasing evidence of a reluctance to come to work here, both because the wages are worth less when sent home, and a growing perception that Britain is a less welcoming place for workers from abroad.
This is all going to be felt most keenly in the restaurant sector, which is preparing itself for a brutal 2018. Those ingredient price rises, combined with increased business rates, a shortage of vital staff from abroad and a general softening in consumer confidence, are expected to result in many restaurants going bust. For Britain’s food industry the next 12 months are not expected to be kind.
Jay Rayner is Observer restaurant critic
GRAVITATIONAL WAVES WILL CHANGE ASTRONOMY
We all know Einstein was a pretty smart chap, but few things show how ahead of his time he was as the recent detection of gravitational waves, which came out of his theory of general relativity, and is now transforming the way we look into space.
In this theory, Einstein merged three-dimensional space and time into a four-dimensional continuum called spacetime. Within it, mass causes distortions in spacetime and this manifests itself as gravity (you may have seen this shown as a distortion of a rubber sheet). A gravitational wave is formed when two or more super massive objects collide, resulting in ripples in spacetime that, like ripples on a pond, expand outwards into space.
The challenge was that these ripples are minuscule. The measurement needed is the equivalent of detecting a movement of 1mm over the distance between us and Alpha Centauri (our neighbouring star about 25 trillion miles away). It sounds impossible, but the gravitational wave has a very distinct signature that can now be detected.
The joy of this is that it gives us a whole new way of doing astronomy. For thousands of years observations with the eye, telescopes, photographic plates and digital detectors all relied on detecting electromagnetic waves – one of the few things that can travel through the vacuum of space.
Ligo (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) can now make these challenging detections and is now fully operational after a big refurbishment. And with five confirmed gravitational wave detections in the past 18 months, we are gaining momentum – many more exotic collisions should be detected in 2018. A whole new field of astronomy is being established, and it all stems from Einstein’s genius.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a space scientist and honorary research associate in University College London’s department of physics and astronomy
Equality: Sophie Walker WOMEN MUST BE AT THE HEART OF A FAIRER FUTURE
Politicians could make 2018 the year that women matter, not by talking about equality but by creating it. Not by telling women to try harder – (“All you need to lift centuries of oppression is to ask better for that pay rise and stop making lifestyle decisions about babies”) – but by understanding the structural inequalities holding women back. By remaking our economy, our society and our institutions.
That would mean understanding that harassment is caused by a power imbalance and is not the result of occasional deviant behaviour; that austerity and welfare cuts damage women because they are designed to; that unaffordable childcare hurts national productivity; that we all get less from gender-blind spending choices.
We could all share care if paternity leave was funded and extended. We would all value it if we saw the benefits of investment in it: care yields twice the economic benefit of investing in construction. The next generation could thrive on relationships based on consent and respect if we taught equality in classrooms. And ending competitive tendering of women’s services could give the specialists who understand how to end violence against women and girls sustainable grant funding to do that work.
We could create a fairer future. If Brexit is the process of remaking our relationship with the world, women must be at the negotiating table. If Brexit is the result of our qualms about immigration, we must build a new system that gives women equal chances to build new lives, with access to public funds. If Brexit is opportunities for all, then women’s jobs and rights must be protected and extended as part of trade talks.
2018 marks the centenary of a small group of white, wealthy women winning the right to vote. It should also mark the year when all women, in all their glorious diversity, could finally vote for their equality.
Sophie Walker is a former journalist and the leader of the Women’s Equality party
Books: Jonny Geller WE’LL WANT ‘REAL’ PEOPLE AND NUANCED STORIES
We have seen a shift in the nonfiction market to “authentic” voices such as memoirs of doctors (Adam Kay’s bestseller, This is Going to Hurt), nurses (Language of Kindness by Christie Watson, to be published in May), shepherds (James Rebanks’s No1 bestseller The Shepherd’s Life) and surgeons (Henry Marsh, Paul Kalanithi). I suspect this trend of “real” people writing about “real” experiences will continue.
But it is fiction that gives voice to our greatest fears and the political upheavals of 2017 have proved a great distraction to the necessary occupation of reading fiction. I can see sweeping love stories that take us away from the Twitter rages of world leaders (Ruth Jones of Gavin and Stacey fame and Jojo Moyes have new books out early in 2018), complex thrillers that take us closer to how the world works (McMafia on BBC1 from 1 January is taken from Misha Glenny’s book on the links between international crime and business), and fantastical stories to transport us (Harvill’s big debut, The Mermaid & Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar).
Added to this, the Weinstein earthquake and its inability to swallow Trump will result in a new narrative conversation. In the 80s and 90s, movies such as Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Disclosure emerged from Hollywood’s sense of a perceived threat posed by a new working female population, and I suspect Hollywood will find a way to give voice to the #MeToo movement. I also believe one response to “populism” will be detailed and specific stories of human struggle, filled with nuance, complexity and ambiguity. Most of all, the huge diversity of voices in Britain that have been waiting to be heard will find a place in the mainstream, and as we move away from continental Europe politically and economically, we will find expression in the bigger questions and multifarious voices in this country.
Jonny Geller is a writer, book agent and joint chief executive of Curtis Brown