Independent Living Institute

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Report of the Second International Expert Seminar
on Building Non-Handicapping Environments:
Renewal of Inner Cities

Prague, October 15-17, 1987

Download the Prague proceedings as a PDF file (420 KB)

Opportunities for Barrier-Free Inner City Renovation in The Hague

J. J. Kroon, Gravenhage, Netherlands

The Hague with 450,000 inhabitants is very similar to many other European cities when it comes to the problems of its disabled citizens. Most buildings lie above ground level without elevators. The city has many old buildings that are difficult to adapt; parking space is insufficient, public transport is only for non-disabled people. These problems will grow, as the number of old people increases.

Inner city renewal, extensively supported by the municipality, still offers little for people with disabilities. The reasons given are that other basic objectives would have to be sacrificed, if architectural barriers for people with disabilities were to be eliminated. If this was true, every effort at barrier-free design would be doomed to failure.

In this presentation three typical cases are reviewed, to see if there is any basis for the thesis that architectural objectives are in principle incompatible with barrier-free design.


Each year the Queen opens Parliament in the Ridderzaal. If she used a wheelchair, she would have to be carried inside. The entire complex, dating from the Middle Ages, of which the Ridderzaal is a part, is inaccessible to people with disabilities, notwithstanding innumerous daily visitors and frequent use of the building for a great number of events. One of the few initiatives in The Hague, to meet the needs of people with disabilities, was taken by the owner of the Ridderzaal complex, the State. The Ministry of Works and Buildings gave a tentative order, to investigate to what extent this and four other heritage buildings can be made accessible for people with disabilities including wheelchair users.

It is now generally accepted that new buildings can be designed accessible for wheelchair users, without extra cost. The modification of existing structures, especially heritage buildings, on the other hand practically always implies additional costs. There is another and altogether different problem, however, that often carries more weight than the cost argument: in the eyes of public and authorities alike a heritage building is untouchable. For this reason it is often extremely difficult to make changes or additions acceptable to the public at large on behalf of people with disabilities. It is not unlikely that this reaction has some connection to current architectural views, which, even in new buildings, give little room for people with disabilities. More on this subject later.

By adapting heritage buildings, the fact that they are seldom untouchable in every aspect has to be utilized. Often such buildings have less conspicuous areas which can be adapted. A less sensitive area is to be found, for example, under the stairs to the main entrance of the Ridderzaal. The stairway itself need not be altered, but in the open space under the stairs a vertical scissor-lift would not be noticed. Therefore everybody, including wheelchair users, could enter the Ridderzaal by the royal route.

In the same manner, it is possible to make the halls on all floors of the building accessible, without harming real heritage space. The discussion about what should be considered ’real heritage’ and what is ’less sensitive’ has not yet reached a conclusion.

In the middle of the city center of The Hague, a fairly large area has been laid open for important new public buildings, amongst which are a concert hall and a dance theater. These halls are united in one block, with common lobbies. The needs of people with disabilities are met as far as stipulated in the building code. (The regulations concerning the needs of people with disabilities apply to public buildings only, not to private homes.) Disabled visitors are able to park their cars on specially allotted parking places and can easily enter halls and lobbies where there also are accessible toilets.

The question arises, why all parties involved have not done more than to keep strictly to the building regulations. The architects of the Concert Hall are well known. More than once they have shown great ingenuity. But it appears that ingenuity is put out of action once people with disabilities are concerned. As a result, disabled visitors have to be satisfied with a seat in one of the side corridors, outside the area designated for the rest of the audience. Architects of this rank should be more than capable to prevent such situations. They could also have come up with a solution to offer people with disabilities the opportunity to sit next to a non-disabled companion, which is not the case at present.

Since it cannot possibly be due to the lack of capability that these architects have not developed these facilities, then it must be due to their architectural objectives. The next and last example of city renovation in The Hague will show more detailed data about a possible conflict between architectural objectives and the interests of people with disabilities.

De Katerstraat

De Katerstraat is a new street in an old neighborhood. This little street differs from all the other city renovations in The Hague, because it is unanimously appreciated by the authorities and the public. It includes 56 houses, 4 communal dwellings and some shops. It is the show piece of the local authorities and functions as a national example in the field of residential construction in inner city renovation. Here too, capable architects have been at work. One of them granted me an interview, in which he made it clear that the architects had considered the needs of people with disabilities. However, as it later turned out, they could not be accommodated - other goals were of greater importance. The architects came to the conclusion that they would have to sacrifice too much of their goals if they were to take into account the interests of people with disabilities.

For De Katerstraat, the architects had the following seven goals:

  1. low rents
  2. the maximum number of 4-room houses - besides houses with 2 and 3 rooms - to make a stable population possible.
  3. building height, parcel-measurements and scale, in line with the neighborhood. The result are buildings with three floors; narrow and small houses; some flats with 1 1/2 floors;
  4. building entrances towards the street to increase social interaction and control; no balconies, but instead front entrances; each entrance leads to only two flats on each floor.
  5. maximum privacy for the balconies, terraces and small gardens located in the rear,
  6. underground parking for a maximum number of housing units on the land and an unobstructed view from the homes,
  7. a pleasant, lively small street, offering a fine spatial effect.
The architects have shown great ingenuity in reaching these rather difficult goals. They have succeeded and assumed, that because of their success, the houses are unsuitable for people with disabilities. The assumption can be tested by investigating whether the project, if designed barrier-free for disabled people, would still satisfy the above goals of the architects. The architects have given me permission for this test, for which I am duly grateful.

In spite of many barriers, there are favorable conditions for the adaptation of De Katerstraat to wheelchair users: the underground parking garage and the fact that half of the houses are on ground level. The street level houses can be adapted to wheelchair users with minor floor plan changes. There appears to be enough room to install a small elevator within the homes, should the need arise. Such elevators can be individually subsidized and thus need not be included in construction costs.

The flats on upper floors can be made accessible by constructing a central corridor on the second floor on each of the four quadrants of the plan. In the revised floor plan, each central corridor leads to a landing with a staircase and an elevator shaft in which, if necessary, an elevator can be installed. If this is the case, these elevators can also be used by the four communal houses. At the other end of each central corridor, an emergency exit could be made. The four staircases, elevator shafts and emergency exits extend down to the parking level.

The apartments on the upper floors can be adapted to wheelchair use in a similar way as is suggested for the flats at street level. Instead of an elevator inside the house, room can be found for a lifting platform that can accommodate a person using a wheelchair.

What about the Architectural Goals?

  1. Construction costs will not increase. The costs of the elevator shafts will be compensated by the fact that fewer staircases are necessary. The extra space on the first floor, necessary for the central corridors, is offset by the space won through elimination of the entrances.
  2. No change.
  3. The measurements of the houses remain the same.
  4. Not all the entrances to the houses are situated on the street. In the revised plan, the entrances to the 28 upper flats are situated in the central corridors, which terminate in common entrances at street level. Summing up, the difference is as follows. In the existing plan: 60 entrances to houses (individual and communal) at street level, of which 28 are two and two combined. In the revised plan: 36 home entrances at street level.
  5. The rear of the houses is not changed.
  6. Underground parking can remain almost the same.
  7. Spatial effect and vivacity are also guaranteed in the revised plan.
Six of the seven goals will thus remain feasible and one to a large extent.

In the case of De Katerstraat, a perfect example of city renovation in general, it is clear that if allowances are made for people with disabilities, these do no particularly hamper the architectural goals. With these goals in mind, including low rents, it should therefore be possible to renovate cities in such a way that people with disabilities can remain in their own neighborhood and have the same choices in the housing market as everybody else.

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