City starts to break down barriers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 September, 2008, 12:00am

A vision of ensuring equal access to a city's amenities for all residents, regardless of their age and physical conditions, is the ultimate goal of architects and city planners.

But Hong Kong - squeezed for space, high-rise and traffic-bound - is still a city most suited to the young, fit and able-bodied.

The notion of 'barrier-free access' was virtually unheard of 20 years ago, and wheelchairs were rarely seen on the city walkways and pavements. But over the past two decades, more comprehensive building regulations and a greater awareness of the need for accessible architectural designs slowly redressed the oversights of the past.

The government will complete renovation of more than 190 public housing estates by the end of this year, adding features such as ramp accesses and tactile guide-paths to outdoor spaces, and grip rails and shower facilities to individual flats. It will also issue the new building planning regulations - the Design Manual 2008 - which will increase the mandatory requirements for disabled access to new buildings, and reinforce the shift from barrier-free access to 'architecture for all'.

'There is higher public expectation and a growing demand for a more sustainable and accessible built environment in which people with diverse needs and lifestyles can be satisfied,' said a spokesman for the government's Architectural Services Department. 'In terms of accessibility, the goal of the department is to adopt a holistic approach to cater for diversity in meeting the needs of all sectors of society, including those with different abilities, the young and the elderly.'

The new regulations will reinforce mandatory architectural features such as a ramped access to the entrance way of a building, a wide-roomed toilet for wheelchair users and lifts with Braille buttons. It will also outline a number of 'good practice' features such as increasing the lux level of lights to help the partially sighted, the use of auditory signals to help the visually challenged, and wider walkways and doorways to increase the mobility of wheelchair and pushchair users.

But, while these regulations offer Hong Kong a baseline of universal accessibility, encouraging private developers to go beyond the minimum towards architecture for all is far from easy.

Ivan Ho Man-yiu, director of Ivanho Architect, said: 'Most of the developers in the commercial field still consider their role as profit generators. Although I can start to see some change, the majority consider money their primary concern. Anything extra, beyond the requirements of the law, is hard for us to convince them to do.'

Joseph Kwan Kwok-lok, director of the International Union of Architects Work Programme in Hong Kong, and a past vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, has seen the Design Manual progress from its 1984 version to the present. He said that there was still 'significant room for improvement'.

'The government needs to recognise the issue of universal access and not just in a token way. The Design Manual is still a basic minimum,' he said.

Raising local awareness about the impact and importance of equal, accessible architecture is one of the missions of the ReHabAid Centre, a local organisation providing specialised rehabilitation, education and consultancy services to people with disabilities.

Cecilia Lam Shiu-ling, hospital chief executive at ReHabAid Centre under the management of the Hospital Authority, said: 'I think sometimes there is a lack of awareness about how to provide solutions. And they [developers and architects] need to know that there are many different ways to follow the ordinance to make it work.'

Ms Lam wants to see more government-led initiatives to educate architects and developers about the new regulations and to monitor compliance in the private sector.

She believes that offering incentives to smaller, private developers and even running competitions to encourage better universal design will help create lasting change.

'Sometimes people have the wrong idea about accessible design. For instance, they think that things are going to be expensive. But if you consider universal accessibility and design at the beginning, this need not be the case,' Ms Lam said.

Despite improvements in the regulations and a growing awareness of the needs of people with disabilities, the Design Manual can create serious challenges for architects. Renovating an existing building can uncover tricky issues that will oppose universal accessibility. The need to retain a historic feature, for example, can render any of the mandatory access features impossible. And space limitations can make the inclusion of a basic access ramp at the correct gradient, difficult.

Mr Ho said: 'In certain situations it is next to impossible to fulfil the requirements. With universal accessibility as a target, as a norm, we also need to look at individual cases. We are a high-density city - we are very compact - and the building lots in urban areas are very close, and this can make universal accessibility very difficult.'