Easy and equitable access to public spaces needed in all new buildings

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2012, 12:00am


I write on behalf of AECOM, a global provider of design and engineering consultancy services.

There has been increased media coverage regarding the standards of 'access for all' in Hong Kong. Lam Woon-kwong, chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission, says he wants upcoming major infrastructure projects in Hong Kong to have world-class accessibility. Thanks to the availability of information and people with the right expertise, that goal is not only necessary, but achievable.

The term 'barrier-free access' was coined in the 1950s by the accessibility movement. Its intent was primarily to regulate how buildings and facilities were designed to accommodate people with disabilities. This 'separate but equal' concept, however, is outdated and differs from the more current principle of 'universal design', which shifts the focus to a more egalitarian approach. Simply put, universal design is the art and practice of designing facilities so that all people - with or without disabilities - have easy and equitable access to public spaces.

Take, for example, the revolving door that is so much a part of Hong Kong's urban landscape.

While these doors may help manage traffic control in and out of buildings, they are not all equally accessible for many Hong Kong citizens. People in wheelchairs, those with baby strollers, and the elderly are often excluded from these entrances because it is impossible to manage these doors, as they move on a radius and often rotate too quickly for many people. An alternative door on the side is required, and the mechanism controlling the door should be at a safe distance while the door swings open. The door controls should be tactile, with braille for the visually impaired. And the surface should be level to prevent people slipping backwards while the door operates.

Incorporating universal design concepts in building projects - a norm already adopted in other developed cities - has the potential to accommodate close to 90 per cent of people with disabilities. However, the construction industry in Hong Kong has yet to fully integrate these standards into its planning and development processes.

As we progress further into the 21st century with an ageing population with prolonged life expectancy and associated changes in mobility, universal design is a 'must do' rather than a 'should do'.

Mabel Chan, associate director, access consulting, Asia AECOM