Cobbles – Can a Paving material be evil?

Now this blog’s title might be a little dramatic but as I am still recovering from an injury incurred while wheeling around on my arch nemesis cobblestones I hope you understand why I am so down on the outdated solution for the creation of a road/pavement surface. I think most people truly underestimate how much cobblestones impact in the lives of people with mobility issues, and how they are in fact a very subtle form of apartheid.

Lock Night Market

Only yesterday my wife and I wandered down into the heart of Camden Town with the intention of spending an evening at the Camden Lock Late Night event, but found that the only way to gain access to the area was via some very uneven cobblestones. Now I didn’t fancy making my injury any worse so instead we ended up going straight back home. Can you imagine how it feels to have to change your plans just because a pavement might cause you an injury? Do you have any experience that allows you to empathise with the emotions that run through the minds of people who feel excluded just because of the choice of material used to pave an area? Have you any idea how unimportant you feel when time and time again the concepts of heritage and conservation are held up as being more important than creating an inclusive society that allows you to experience all it has to offer like most of the other people in it?

Well trust me, after attending many local planning meetings and community engagement events I know all too well. So often I witness people arguing passionately about saving local heritage but when I raise the issue of ensuring that alongside this there must be an equal drive to make sure the place where I live is accessible to me and other disabled people I find that my arguments are met with anger and dismissal. So this is why I am going to explain the problems with cobbles in this blog. From now on I can just point planning officers, architects, town planners and local conservation committees to this and save me having to make the same impassioned argument over and over again.

Cobble stop

I think I should first explain what it feels like to wheel over cobblestones, whether you are a manual chair user or use a powerchair. The best description I have heard is that it feels like being kicked or toe punted repeatedly in your bum for as long as you are traveling over the cobbles. I know that after one particularly long wheel over some very uneven cobbles in Camden Town centre my left testicle swelled up and was very painful. Another time on a site visit with the late David Morris to assess Camden for a Paralympic Tourist information leaflet we had to bungy cord David into his powerchair to stop him falling out as he was being thrown around so much by the cobblestones. He decided to advise any wheelchair using visitors not to come to Camden, which is not something I would have expected the local council to be happy about, but even then nothing was done.

The key reason for the lack of movement around building a more accessible environment in Camden Town is the power of the heritage and conservation lobby. I have witnessed far too often the voice of history winning out over other lobbies, even ones like access that have a legal requirement. I currently work advising the owners of the Stables Market here in Camden on ways of making their site more accessible, but it is a difficult path as so many areas have had new cobblestones laid to mirror old ones, even down to the terrible unevenness of them. All of this was due to the advice and lobbying of the local conservation groups, but at no point did the council ask if there was anyone giving access advice. So annoyingly we are now playing catch up, but hopefully we will get there.

Stables Market

But it’s not just modern cobbles laid to continue the local feel or poorly maintained original cobblestones that cause issues. Oh no, I injured myself in an area that is held up as an example of good practise when trying to maintain heritage while ensuring access, the area around Tower Bridge. The issue is, as the wife of a TV director friend of mine says, there is no such thing as a good cobble. Even when they are laid well and maintained they are still very uncomfortable to travel over if you are on wheels, and so they surely are not fit for purpose?

Modern cobbles

To me that’s the most important issue here. No other material would be continually used that so poorly carried out it’s desired task. Whether we are talking original cobbles, stylised copies or modern granite setts none of them really fulfil their desired use in a manner that works for all of our society. It is always a choice of aesthetic over function and we really need to start to reconsider this. There has to be better solutions that can maintain a heritage feel while making travelling surfaces smooth and easy to use. Well of course there, but I am not arguing that we remove all cobbles everywhere and damn history.

I entirely understand the desire to maintain the historic feel of our towns and cities, but I do ask (no demand) that it is not done at the expense of function. If some members of a community cannot use an area due to conservation then not only have we conserved our building heritage but the social injustices from the past too. But there are ways of creating access beautiful historic environments. One answer is to create pathways over the cobbles that are flat and allow those who need a flatter surface easy access. I have seen them in Barcelona and they work very well. I hope that this solution may be put in place here in Camden, as not only does it ensure accessibility but also allows all of the cobbles to preserved. I also know that English Heritage support the creation of Yorkstone pathways through historic cobbled areas, although why this is hardly ever done I have no idea.

BCN path

In future I hope that we can find a way of ensuring our heritage is preserved for future generations and our society can become more accessible, but while we wait for that day it is vital that we remember it is now a legal requirement of any new build, environmental works and major refurbishments to ensure accessibility. The heritage lobby might be very vocal but they do not have the strength of the law behind the. All it will take is one very annoyed wheelchair user to take case to the EHRC and win, and suddenly all cobbles and the like will be deemed illegal. I don’t want that to happen, although I must admit I close to becoming that litigating cripple myself, so I feel it is time that all parties start talking with each other and find a way to work together for a common goal. As it currently stands all everyone does is fight their own corner and no really wins. Especially those of us who spend our lives living on wheels.

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The "Social Model" strikes back!

Now I didn’t really want to write a yet another blog that is heavy on the disability issues agenda, but recently I’ve had a bit of access bother that really grinds my gears! I live in Camden Town and as everyone knows it is a shopping Mecca for those of us who like life on the alternative side. I first came to Camden from my home town of Luton back in 1983, and soon became a regular at the Camden Palace. and the Electric Ballroom There were always issues about enjoying Camden in a wheelchair. Whether it was crawling down stairs to get to the dance floor at the Palace, or fighting to go to the toilet in the Ballroom, it was always kind of do-able. But however hard it was to experience Camden in the 80’s, there were two things that made it bearable. One was that the rest of London was equally as bad, and the other was that things would obviously have to get better in the future.
So let’s leap forward in time 27 years, to today. While other areas of London, such as Islington, Covent Garden, The South Bank, Spitalfields, Kensington and pretty much the entire East End, have made steps towards building access into the environment, Camden seems to be going backwards. If I was to list the problems individually this blog would be a mile long, so instead let’s look at this in a more general fashion.
Where should I start? Well to get around a place you have to use the pavements. Paving in London is in a shocking condition, even in some of the areas listed above. Here in Camden the council have just re-paved Camden High Street, from outside the tube station (let’s not get started on accessible transport just now) right up to where it meets Chalk Farm Road, and there are plans to re-pave that part of Camden too. So wheeling on new paving should be like wheeling on glass (not broken of course). No chance! Large areas of the paving is concrete with slab pattern etched into it, which makes the surface bumpy. Even though it has only just been laid, it has already been dug up by a power company and they filled the holes with tarmac, that has sunk to cause great big holes that you hit in a wheelchair on pain of death. There are trees planted at regular intervals with huge areas of earth around them. These will turn into quagmires when it rains and will be equally dangerous to anyone with mobility issues. Then there are areas for delivery vans to park on that are paved with cobbles. COBBLES!
Cobbles in themselves have there own place in hell, and are the bane of anyone living in or visiting Camden in a wheelchair, pushing a pram or even wearing high heels. They are everywhere, and are even being promoted as a paving material by the council’s planning department. The Henson Building, a new housing development in my street, has been paved right up to the front door with cobbles, and not even well laid cobbles at that. So you’ve had it if you want to buy or rent a flat there and you are in a wheelchair. Huge areas of Camden have been paved in cobbles. Almost all the Stables Market, and the Dingwalls Market are cobbled as well as bits through out the borough. Now I’m currently advising the Stables Market’s owners on how to improve their access, but they informed me that they were told to lay cobbles during their re-development of the site by the council. Even if every cobble in Camden was lifted and re-laid and re-pointed so they are a level surface, they are just not suitable for high traffic areas. As the cobbles stand at the minute, with their uneven surface and massive gaps between them, there are places in Camden that are dangerous for Olympic athletes to get round, let alone those of us with mobility issues.
Lastly, so many of the shops, bars and restaurants in Camden have steps up to get into them. Not only that but some places have had their access made worse during recent re-furbishments. One bar on the High Street has had it’s disabled toilet turned into a cupboard, and a restaurant near my flat has had it’s level entrance replaced with steps. Has the council pointed out that this not only breaks the Disability Discrimination Act but also building regulations? Have these venues had their licenses revoked for barring disabled people? Of course not. This week I visited a cafe/bar that used to have a fantastic wooden ramp outside that was so good I used as an example of good practice to other businesses in the area, only to find the ramp had gone. When my wife asked the staff in the shop, she was told they had removed it after the council had told them they couldn’t leave it on the pavement, as it blocked foot traffic. To put it back the shop needed to apply for planning permission, even though it was a temporary ramp that was laid out when they opened and removed at closing time. If that is the case, why have so many places in the area got folding signs, with menus and “2 for 1” drinks offers advertised on them, outside on the pavement? They cause people to have to avoid them just as a ramp would. But then most places in Camden don’t even have a portable ramp that can be put out when needed, which is now required by law. Time and time again I get the “Huh?” response when I ask how I get into a shop or cafe.
I thought that council’s all understood the social model of disability, and how it is our environment creates our disabilities. So why is it that Camden council seems hell bent on making Camden less inclusive? Let’s face it, in less than two years time there is going to be a massive influx of disabled people into London, thanks to the 2012 Paralympics. Does the council want them to visit Camden and feel excluded due to the terrible access? Do they want disabled people from Third World countries to come here and think “Hey it’s a bit like the pavements back home”? Whatever the council think, it’s time that we disabled people say no more. So come on everyone, let’s stand up to this injustice and tell them we’re not going to take it sitting down any more! (wheelchair joke to end on!).

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