This is how hosting the paralympics can help make cities more accessible

Some of Britain's paralympians wave to the crowds during the London 2012 victory parade. Image: Getty.

In September 2016, 4,350 Paralympic athletes will arrive in Rio de Janeiro to compete for medals across 23 different sports. The games in Rio have a lot to live up to. London’s 2012 Paralympics proved to be a magnet for sponsorship, and competitors have said that the crowds – and their enthusiasm – were unparalleled.

But there’s another respect in which the 2012 games set the standard for future Paralympic tournaments: it made the host city itself more accessible.

In order to secure their bid for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, organisers had to make two key promises to do with transport. One was to make public transport a key part of their sustainability agenda. The other was to make London 2012 more accessible than any previous games. London 2012 was planned as a public transport-driven games, and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) took action to maximise its usage.

The challenges

To live up to their promises, the committee had to overcome a number of challenges. Parts of London’s transport system had to undergo a radical overhaul. The commitments also had major implications for venue design, equipment and even the workforce of the games. And because the idea of “legacy” was central to all of the preparations for the games, the solutions put in place needed to work over the long term – not just the main event.

When LOCOG started its work, disabled people’s confidence in using the public transport network was very low, so there was a need to change people’s perceptions through advertising. The demand from disabled people to attend the Paralympics was higher than expected, but organisers did not know what sort of mix of disabled spectators they needed to plan for. For example, while they knew that many groups of wheelchair users would be arriving, they did not know how many would be using electric wheelchairs, manual wheelchairs or scooters – each of which has different requirements for travel.

Finally, the transport system needed to be flexible enough to accommodate the extra short-term influx and diverse needs of disabled people, and revert back to more “standard” operations after the event. For a transport system first developed in the mid-1800s, these were no small demands.

Queensway tube station, circa 1900. Image: Pigsonthewing/Wikimedia Commons.

The London Underground – commonly known as “the tube” – was the first underground rail network in the world. At some points, the tracks are almost 60m below ground.

Modernising such a system involves working around complex arrangements of existing infrastructure. For example, adding a two-lift shaft to Green Park station in central London in time for the games required engineers to build a straight path between pedestrian tunnels, escalators, stairwells and the platforms themselves – not to mention finding the least disruptive times to carry out the developments and space to store the construction equipment.

Such logistics meant that it was impossible for LOCOG to create new accessible entrances into all of the stations. Nevertheless, the organising committee worked with Transport for London, the city’s transport authority, to adapt the public transport system and improve accessibility.

The changes

Evidence such as wheelchair ticket sales, pre-booked journeys and increased lift usage suggests that many more people with disabilities were using public transport throughout the games. Tactile paving and protective walls at the platform edges made the system safer for the visually impaired. And 66 of London’s 270 functioning tube stations were fitted with step-free access (the overground DLR system was already fully accessible).

In many stations – particularly on the Piccadilly line – the issue was the height difference or the gap between the platform and the carriage floor. Changing the position of the platforms would have been disruptive and costly. So instead, platform ramps were installed across four stops on the Piccadilly line, while manual ramps were provided at 16 strategic stations, to make it easier for wheelchair users to get on and off the train.

These ramps not only benefited disabled people but could be used by the wider community, including parents with pushchairs and tourists with suitcases. They were left in place after the games as part of LOCOG’s legacy commitment – and, since then, they have been added to 28 more stations.

Of course, there’s still much to be done before London can be a truly accessible city – a fact highlighted by Paralympian Hannah Cockroft, who challenged London mayor Boris Johnson to spend a day navigating the tube in a wheelchair (he declined). And there are concerns that the momentum toward further improvements is waning.

But London 2012 still marked a major leap forward in disabled access to public transport. Through a combination of controlled traffic management, communication with Londoners and collaboration with industry partners, LOCOG was able to develop practical and efficient transport solutions. These did more than fulfil the transport requirements for the Olympic and Paralympic Games: they also left a legacy value for Londoners to enjoy, and set a new standard in games-time transport.

Now, Rio is taking the challenge to heart, by launching projects to improve accessibility in the city ahead of the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Indeed, British experts have been actively involved in helping to transfer the learning from London 2012 to improve accessibility for Rio 2016.

Rio has a golden opportunity to seize this legacy opportunity and set even better standards. Let the games begin.

David Bamford is professor of operations management at the University of Huddersfield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.

…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.