Seeking access

When it comes to the design of public structures and facilities, a high value ought to be assigned to accessibility. After all, what is the purpose of building something if significant segments of the population cannot use it?  Shopping centres learned the lesson a long time ago, by installing elevators and escalators. The fewer physical obstacles between shoppers and retailers, the better. The economic imperative drove accessibility — although, of course, accessibility is not just about economics but about the promotion of equality and fairness.  When the National Capital Commission built the York Street Steps more than a decade ago, it did think hard about questions of access. But one gets the feeling that, in the end, the overriding value behind the design was esthetic. The steps are indeed a fine piece of urban architecture, in the grand tradition of ornamental staircases.

But even in the short years since the York Street Steps were conceived, the importance of accessibility in public spaces has increased. This is due not just to the activism of disability rights groups; it’s also a reflection that we live in an aging society. It won’t be long before many a baby boomer finds the York Street Steps, all $1.7 million of them, a daunting obstacle.  For the young and able-bodied, the steps will always be a welcome link between Mackenzie Avenue and the ByWard Market. But for a growing number of people, the steps risk becoming a symbol of exclusion, even though the NCC surely did not intend them to be.

Last week, the Federal Court of Canada opened the door for a new hearing before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, to decide whether the steps discriminate.  The unfortunate truth is that this is one case where what’s done is done. It’s not practical to rebuild the steps, and the steepness of the grade doesn’t allow for a ramp. (Plus, there is an elevator not too far away. ) It’s not fair that disabled or elderly people don’t get to enjoy the steps, but at least the controversy has had the salutary effect of raising public awareness and, one hopes, ensuring that future structures are more accessible.

While we’re on the topic of mobility and aging, it’s interesting to note that a $400,000 seniors park has been created as part of a public-private partnership to develop the Orléans Town Centre. This new green space features a petanque pitch, outdoor chess tables, a gazebo and a sundial.  The intention may be noble, but it’s hard not to detect the outline of old clichés about “seniors.” The only things missing are piped-in show tunes from Oklahoma and shuffleboard.  Members of the demographic that a generation or two ago would have been on park benches feeding the pigeons are today on golf courses. As lifespans continue to grow, and joint replacements and cataract surgeries become routine, 80 really is the new 60. The clientele for whom the Cumberland Seniors Park was designed might not have as many free afternoons to sit in a gazebo as you might think.


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