What does it mean for a city to be accessible?
Accessibility can mean a variety of different things, from wheelchair access to comprehensive information. For the historic city of Chester, becoming an accessible city has been a careful, long-term process - with real rewards.
Sandie Williams, Age-Friendly Lead, explains how Chester became one of Europe's most accessible cities.
Breda in the Netherlands was earlier this year hailed as Europe’s most accessible city, after making all its buses and bus stops accessible to wheelchair users and training all bus drivers to meet the needs of passengers with disabilities. Breda also checked more than 800 shops and bars for physical accessibility, with many now providing full wheelchair access. Karel Dollekens, a civil servant working on accessibility in the city, told the Guardian “People aren’t disabled. The environment they live in is.”
This is something we know well in Chester, having become the first UK city to win the European Access City Award in 2017. Accessibility in Chester has been a long-term approach, and the award recognised the dedication and commitment to making improvements so that the city can be enjoyed by as many people as possible regardless of age, mobility or ability.
Chester is a city steeped in history, famous for its Roman heritage, 700 year old medieval ‘Rows’ (elevated walkways on the main shopping streets), Eastgate Clock, Racecourse and distinctive black and white buildings. The historic nature of the city has needed careful thought and consideration to make it more accessible but we know that improving accessibility is good for everyone; young families with pushchairs and any of us who may find mobility difficult. It also makes our towns, cities and villages more welcoming and better places to live, work and visit.
Chester is perhaps most famous for its City Walls, the most complete circuit of Roman, Saxon, and Medieval walls in the UK. As a nationally important archaeological site, accessibility had to be approached with great care and sensitivity but over many years changes have been made to make the 3km circuit more accessible. Wheelchair users are now able to access the walls and information panels around the city and the City Centre Access Guide shows where the access points are. Where options are more limited for heritage reasons, other improvements have been made such as additional handrails.
For those visiting Chester for the first time, online information from AccessAble can make planning ahead easier and the city’s Shopmobility scheme can help with getting around. Wheelchairs and mobility scooters can be hired and Ability Angels can provide some friendly company and help with shopping. There is also plenty of Blue Badge parking in the local car park.
All of the city’s public transport buses are accessible by wheelchair and a Dial-a-Ride scheme uses wheelchair accessible vehicles to provide door-to-door transport for those who need it. All the buses serving the Park and Ride facility into the city are also accessible. Council policy also requires all of its licensed ‘hackney’ taxis to be wheelchair accessible and have other accessibility features such as hearing loops and colour-contrasted grab handles.
The historic nature of the city has needed careful thought and consideration to make it more accessible but we know that improving accessibility is good for everyone.
Taking Action Together – The Corporate Disability Action Forum (CDAF)
CDAF is a partnership of local and regional disability organisations, local access groups and Cheshire West and Chester Council. The group ensures people with disabilities (including hidden disabilities) and older people have a strong voice when it comes to accessibility.
CDAF and the Councils Access Officer were key in making sure we have Changing Places toilets in the city. Toilets can often be taken for granted but can make a big difference for many when planning a visit to a new place. We are fortunate in having seven Changing Places toilets in the city, enabling anyone who needs more specialist facilities to be able to visit and enjoy the city for longer.
CDAF play a key role in the design of major new developments including retail, culture and leisure facilities and the improvement of transport and health facilities. These projects have included the Chester Bus Interchange, which now includes a range of inclusive design features from dual-height customer service counters to colour-contrasted seating, and Storyhouse, a former art deco cinema, now an a unique cultural and community hub that has access and inclusion at its heart for visitors and performers.
We know that there is always more to do and things we can always improve on when it comes to accessibility, but we are committed to working together to make positive change happen and make our borough a better place to live, work and visit.
In 2018, Cheshire West and Chester joined the World Health Organization Global Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities, a network for sharing ideas and best practice between places committed to making their neighbourhoods welcoming and accessible as people age.