A note on accessible cities

While living in Germany I’ve been able to experience the presence and lack of accessibility throughout Europe. Additionally, while writing my thesis on refugees with disabilities migrating to Berlin, I learned of new accessibility barriers. For example, the idea of urban planning for housing for refugees with disabilities. How do we create livable cities for not only citizens, but also migrants?

A friend has recently been sending me articles from The Guardian on accessible cities. They also called for feedback from readers with disabilities. I submitted my thoughts which you can read HERE. I’ve noticed that the news has been covering the topic of disability more frequently and sharing stories of success. The Guardian even posted an article about accessible metro stations in a variety of cities. It blatantly called out the lack of access in cities like Paris with only 9 of 303 stations being accessible. Bringing this information to the forefront helps individuals without disabilities understand the difficulties in transportation in some cities. After living in Berlin, and now near Frankfurt, I can say Germany does a really good job on accessible transportation. I can travel locally or internationally with my manual or power chair on trains, busses and trams.

As I mentioned in my comment on The Guardian, sometimes cities get too caught up in ensuring transportation is accessible, but can forget about the other needs for a well-rounded life. To get a little theoretical for a moment – Human Needs Theory tells us that humans need a number of essentials to survive. They include both physical and nonphysical elements needed for human growth and development. It can be noted that all human needs theorists agree that needs can include a feeling of belonging, self-esteem, personal fulfillment, identity, cultural security, freedom, distributive justice and participation (Marker 2003:2). With this in mind, one can realize that a holistic approach is needed to address accessibility. Using public transportation is extremely important to me, but engaging with all public/social places is also vital. 

The United Nations has also been expressing the necessity of inclusive urban planning.  While some countries don’t even posses the basic infrastructure for individuals with disabilities (India, Asia), other countries that are more developed (America, Western Europe, etc.) should continue pushing urban development standards to ensure inclusive living in all areas. Furthermore, countries that are ‘advanced’ seem to be falling behind in terms of supporting refugees. In Berlin, my research showed that these individuals are often overlooked during a time of crisis and migration. Berlin was housing refugees in gyms and old office buildings  that lacked disability friendly accommodations. Looking into the future, it seems cities are struggling to plan for permanent housing for refugees. Refugee data on disability is extremely rare and incomplete. Therefore, planning for housing projects is often a guessing game when it comes to meeting the needs of refugees with disabilities.  General integration of refugees with disabilties can be a hurdle and requires planners and NGOs to look at the variation of human needs to ensure a sense of belonging. Needs assesstments are a good way to do this, but take time and resources that seem to be lacking in most planning organizations I encountered (at least in Berlin).

This is an ongoing stream of thought for me and in an effort to leave some critical thinking for yourself, I’ll end here.

_____________________________________

Marker, Sandra.(2003). Unmet Human Needs. Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder.

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