Return to Derby – An Accessible City

Earlier this year I wrote an blog about my trip to Derby, and how fantastic the access was for disabled people. After reading my blog, the local council invited me back to Derby to show me around this historic city. Of course I jumped at the chance, and so in April I set out up the M1. I booked into the Cathedral Quarter Hotel and paid a visit to the very talented Derby resident and friend, local photographer Rei Bennett for a night out. She took us for a great meal at a Japanese restaurant called Moonsha. Truly superb food, great service and a totally accessible venue (as well as the yummiest house white I have ever tasted!). Already the joys of Derby if you are disabled were hitting home, as I had spent a great night where the issue of access hadn’t raised it head once.
The next morning I went down to the lobby of the hotel accompanied by the darling wife Diane and met up with Andy Smart, a projects manager with Derby council, and Stella Birks, a visitor services development manager with Derby tourist board. As soon as we set out, the heavens opened. So rather than get soaked we retired to Jack Rabbits coffee shops for a latte and yummy cakes. This was already my kind of visit. While the rain fell, we chatted and it soon became clear that everyone at Derby council has a real commitment to making the city not only accessible but fully inclusive. On cue, as we finished our coffee the sun began to shine, so we set off out once again.
We walked down to the river side, and saw the works that have been carried out to create a community space that is used for public events and entertainment while also providing a great public space. Even the grass areas had been ramped and the whole site was a real triumph of inclusive design. impressed we then wondered towards the shopping centre. There are loads of live events on through out the year. As soon as you enter Derby City centre you discover how well shared spaces, once called pedestrian zones, really work. I know that there is a great deal of controversy around creating shared spaces, but Derby has been using them since the early 90’s and they have ironed out many of the issues that some groups raise. Andy informed me that this has been done with the full cooperation of local disability groups.
Sure as a wheelchair user I do think that shared spaces are a great idea, but as someone who works in accessible design I also appreciate that there are major concerns about taking this route when trying to create accessible environments, especially within the visually impaired community. However, I must admit that it seemed to me that Derby had found solutions to many of these objections. There is a clear demarcation between the pavement and road areas, created by a dramatic colour changes in the paving around these transitions, for those with some sight, and using the drainage gully to mark where the pavement ends for those who use canes. The dreaded tactile paving, well dreaded  by us wheelies, has not been used through out, which may worry some people I know. The best solution is that huge areas of the centre are closed to traffic during the day. As of 10am all the cars vanish from the city centre and the roads belong to the pedestrians alone. Having said that, later on that night we were walking across one of these streets, now open to traffic, and a car slowed down a let us cross as if it was totally natural. If I’m honest I think that everyone who is interested in the issues around shared spaces should visit Derby and get in touch with Andy Smart.

Next we went to new arts centre, The Quad to meet up with Derby’s very active disability group and the council’s Equality and Diversity Manager Ann Webster to discuss the cities entry in to the European Award for Accessible Cities. Developments like The Quad are examples of great inclusive design, with all the facilities on offer being open to all, and as we chatted over sandwiches and coffee it became obvious how vocal local disabled people were in the evolution of their city. Just shows what can be done if you get involved. From this fantastic public facility we visited the local Shopmobility Scheme, which was staffed by a great bunch and really well equipped. Then off to see the new fully accessible bus station, which serves a fleet of accessible buses. I think you can see there is theme developing here.

Although this all sounds wonderful, the funny thing was that both Andy and Stella felt that there was still a lot to do. The picture above is of a proposed new access down to the river Derwent, that runs through the city centre. The plans for the new Council House, which is currently being developed, really demonstrates the commitment to inclusion, as do the proposals for the train station. A key element to Derby is the amount of historic and heritage buildings there are. Normally the preservation of historic buildings can be a bar to access and I know I have worked a couple of projects where all of my work has been stopped by the heritage lobby. But in Derby the council is so pro-access that they provide a fund available to local businesses to pay for any access works on historic buildings to ensure access is created that is in keeping with the preservation of the feel of several areas of the city.

This means that for anyone who is disabled and especially those of us with mobility issues, the entire shopping district is a dream. From the Westfield and High Street, through to the boutique shops in the side streets and even the local markets everywhere you go is just easy. In fact it is so good that when you do stop a shop with a step or two it actually shocks you. On top of the access, every one I have ever met in derby was really friendly and helpful. Before we parted I made sure that Andy and Stella understood that if Derby didn’t win that award there was no justice. 

Back at the hotel we prepared for another night out with Rei and a gang of local creative types, including local disabled film maker Jen White. This time were we taken to a student pub The Friary and we weren’t let down. Fully accessible, and very reasonably priced (hic), we had a great time, even if I was easily the oldest person in there. As we got ready to leave the next morning I felt a little sad. After two days of being able to do what I wanted, when I wanted as easily as imaginable, I was going back to the real world.

Now all this might sound like I am in the pay of the tourist board, but honestly I’m not. It’s just that I discovered Derby by chance, and was totally blown away at how easy it was there for me. Every time I visit, I can forget my disability completely. Maybe it seems so good because I live in Camden in London, a place that is world famous for it’s appalling access. All I know is that Derby has won a place in my heart. The council is totally committed to inclusion, as I keep saying, and that shows everywhere you turn. I now hold Derby up as an example of what can be done if you put your mind to it when I am talking to my access clients.

If you are disabled and haven’t been… get yourself there ASAP! Check out the Visit Derby website for information of what going on and places to stay. I know I’m planning to go back very soon.

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Too Close For Comfort

So the Olympics opening ceremonies are now a year away, with the Paralympics following 44 days after. Whatever my feelings on the event now, when the bid for the games was announced I was overjoyed. In fact I volunteered to help the bid team by demonstrating how the games would help make London more accessible for disabled people. You see I regularly holiday in Barcelona and have seen how much the Olympics improved that city. It was especially amazing as Barcelona is a city filled with historic buildings. Not only did it have an effect during the work around the games but it has influenced how the city has developed ever since. Every time I go back it has got better, and it is a credit to the city and it’s government.

Which is why I feel so let down by London’s bid. I really believed what I was told. That by bringing the games to London it would be the catalyst to a massive move forward in the city’s accessibility. Yet with only 365 days to go before the games and 409 days before the Paralympic opening ceremonies where do we stand… or sit? Sure things have got a little better but how much of that is due to the games? Has our public transport system been up graded to ensure that disabled people can attend the games? Have the tourist attractions of our capital been made inclusive? Do we have the capacity in our hotels for the predicted numbers of disabled visitors during the games? Can we all say that London is now a world class city when it comes to access and inclusion?

Sadly the answer to those questions is not a resounding YES. The tube has no chance of being accessible in time and the buses still only have one space for a wheelchair (unless a Mum has decided that her push chair needs that space). The DLR was already pretty accessible, but unless you live in East London getting to the line is a nightmare. Black cabs are accessible, but they are not allowed into the Olympic site so there’ll be no door to door journeys there either. As for driving to the games, forget it. While many more visitor attractions are accessible now, that is not really due to the games. Regarding the hotels situation, it is well documented that we will fall massively short. So with such a short time to go it looks like London will not have seen the major improvements that were promised.

Yes, East London and the Olympic site especially will be state of the art, but if the games are to be the London games I think we all expected the whole city to feel an effect. Not only for those of us who live, work or visit London from inside the UK, but for all of those people coming here from abroad. I know that I got involved as I really thought everyone involved in the games would want to make London a shining example of how a city can be made inclusive to the rest of the world. Instead, unless we see a huge rush of works in the next year, London will be a major let down to many of the people who travel here.

I know that in my area, Camden, there has been almost no change at all. In fact in some places things have got worse. Bars and shops have become harder to use, and there has been almost no drive from the games organisers to help the businesses and councils in London to improve their access. Instead the organisers are advising disabled athletes that places like Camden, with it’s poor access, should be avoided in case they injure themselves before their event. How sad is that?

To me the saddest thing is that there has been no outcry from the UK’s Paralympic athletes about the lack of improvement. Sure sport is selfish at it’s heart, and athletes at such a high level must focus mainly on their training, but I have heard no mention from any of them around how little is being done on the issue of access. I do hear that merely seeing so many disabled people excelling in sport will change opinions towards disability, and I am sure it will, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to make real physical change to our capital and it is slipping through our fingers. Mouthy gits like me do not have the profile to raise the issue, but these athletes do.

So come on Team GB. Stop working so hard going for gold, just for a minute, and give a thought to what real legacy for all disabled people the games could leave. Look at how little has been done, how little time we have left and make some noise. Trust me, if you do every disabled person in the land will be cheering you on in a way you could only dream of. If you do raise the issue you’ll be doing more for disabled people than winning a gold medal ever could, and long after the games have gone you will be able to look at the London left behind and feel a sense of pride second to none. You’ll be a real winner. As will we all.

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