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an injury incurred while wheeling around on my arch nemesis cobblestones I hope you understand why I am so down on the outdated solution for the creation of a road/pavement surface.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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.