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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)

From ’Barrierfication’ towards the ’Barrier-Freecation’ of Inner Cities

Hanne Weiss-Lindencrona, Ministry of Housing and Physical Planning, Sweden


Throughout history cities have always awakened strong emotions in people. Cities have been seen as bases for employment and economic well-being for the individual and as centers of creativity. They have, however, also been regarded as dens of iniquity, and as being the sources of physical and psychological ill-health. Cities have always attracted, charmed and frightened; they have both drawn people and repelled them. And countless accounts in literature bear witness to the fact that this is how it has been both in different epoques and in different cultures.

The central parts of cities frequently form their hearts. They become the economic, social and cultural centers for a region or a whole country. If the motto "Full Participation and Equality" from the 1981 United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons is to be taken seriously, then the city, the inner city, must exist for everyone and be accessible to everyone.

At the same time, however, there is no doubt whatsoever that cities, with their intense traffic, their high tempo and their multiplicity of activities and happenings, do in fact handicap people. They do this partly in a very concrete fashion, such as traffic accidents, and partly because cities make big demands on people, both mentally and physically. It is the pace and the intensive stream of information, together with the physical environment, which has developed over a number of different epoques, that in various ways combine to create barriers to the use of inner cities. Cities are therefore capable of handicapping a large number of people who in other environments would in no way be regarded as being disabled.

Renewal of Inner Cities

The inner areas of European cities have been subjected to drastic changes during the last 50 years, and, of course, many European cities suffered very badly during World War II. The increase in the number of private cars, the restructuring of the retail trade and the inroad of office buildings and office accommodation are examples of some of the factors which have led to these changes. Furthermore, a large amount of old housing accommodation has been swept away in these areas. Demolition and new building was the solution in many places. But this trend has now turned, as is visible today in a new and widespread interest in our building heritage and its cultural, social and economic values. The remaining housing in the border zones around the inner cities was previously allowed to degenerate into slums. The process of urban renewal over the last decade brought with it a regeneration and refurbishment of these areas, but the improvement in housing conditions which was achieved did not, however, benefit the people who had lived in these run-down areas prior to the work of urban renewal.

Today, in the 1980’s, cities are experiencing a renaissance, and people who moved out into rural areas during the "green wave" of the 1970’s, now once again want to live in cities, including families with children. An attempt is being made to maintain a city culture. In professional planning and architectural circles, there is talk of developing a form of architecture - or an environmental, psychological way of looking at cities - which will help to create a more human form of urban planning. However, much of the work and thought in this area is characterized by the fact that analyses of the interplay between people and cities have seldom been based on the possibilities, needs and demands of people with many different forms of physical disabilities. This must be regarded as an important area of research for those interested in the field of disability.

Many countries are now considered to be moving into what has been called the "information society". It is, of course, still too early to have a clear picture of what this will entail, but there are, of course, theories. For example, one theory is that in the future we will have a number of metropolis-like cities forming creativity centers, where (it is assumed) the highly educated intelligentsia will live. But even the more sparsely built areas outside the cities will have a place in this new form of society. Thanks to the new information technology, many different types of work can be decentralized, and can even be carried out in people’s homes. It is, however, feared that the middle-sized towns and cities will be badly hit by this new development.

Among the many question marks in connection with this development is which groups in society will suffer in the process. In my opinion, this is a field which, in terms of research and development work, must also include sociologists and social psychologists. And furthermore, it is clearly of particular interest to us to illuminate the consequences of this development for the different disability groups.

How to Make Inner Cities Accessible

In order to simplify the discussion regarding the accessibility of inner cities, I now intend to go into the question of accessibility in its more tangible forms, i.e., using pavements, streets and public transport, and being able to enter and move around in different types of buildings. If current trends continue, changes in the inner cities will consist mainly of renovation and modernization of existing buildings and environments, although there will of course be some new construction. Renewal of inner cities is therefore not solely a question of renovation and improvement. It also calls for an overall way of looking at the contents, activities, planning and design of cities; a way of looking which must also include new construction. Unfortunately, we often see results which take the form of a ’barrierfication’, i.e. the creation of obstacles, instead of what is the real goal regarding accessibility, i.e the ’barrier-freecation’ of inner cities.

Swedish local authorities have by tradition a major responsibility both for physical planning and for the housing stock. Practically all residential construction is government subsidized. For this reason it might be interesting at this point to describe how our different policy instruments cooperate with each other; what carrots and sticks are available in the Swedish model in making the physical environment accessible.

Since the late 1960’s, accessibility regulations and requirements for public buildings, places of work and dwellings have been successfully introduced into Swedish building legislation. On the whole, the standards have been relatively successful in new construction. In renewal and renovation it has proved difficult to apply the accessibility requirements. Local authorities have frequently been prepared to grant exemptions from requirements in individual building projects, particularly in connection with the installation of elevators. A new Planning and Building Act came into force on July 1, 1987. The new legislation places more emphasis on questions of accessibility for the disabled than the old one did. For example, it is now required that attention be given to accessibility as early as during the initial planning phase of a building project. It is also required that the outdoor environment be able to be used by people with impaired mobility or impaired orientation capacity. The new act also entails increased decentralization in the planning process, and last, but by no means least, reduces local authorities’ possibilities to grant exemptions.

Building legislation in Sweden covers all types of buildings regardless of ownership, form of financing or tenant contract. Sweden has a state mortgage system which covers more or less all residential construction. Here, we can observe tightened requirements to enforce elevator installation. Together, the new Planning and Building Act and the state mortgage system will contribute to a drop in property prices for buildings without elevators. As a consequence, elevator installation will be a more common part of residential renovation than it is now. The government has also set aside funds for both central government and local authority subsidies for retrofit elevators in old three-storey multi-family housing and for the development of elevators primarily intended for retrofit installation in lower apartment blocks.

The Swedish model contains a third steering mechanism for the housing market. Residential rents are controlled and based on use value and must be in line with rents established in negotiations between the Tenants’ Association and non-profit housing companies. In other words, rents are not related to production costs. These two groups’ evaluations of accessibility, i.e. how much the Tenants’ Association considers accessibility to be worth from case to case, will in time become as decisive as production costs and subsidies in owners’ evaluations of the economic feasibility of renovation projects.

Problems in ’Barrier-Freecation’

For many years now Sweden has had an integrated society as a political goal, and has successively developed policy instruments for reaching this goal. However, in spite of the fact that Sweden is a rich country by international standards, we still face a number of problems when it comes to the practical implementation of the goal of full participation and equality.

The Physical Environment

Inner cities have a cultural meaning for the people who live or work in them. They also represent very considerable capital values. Therefore, changes must be carried out with care. We can neither demolish these areas nor flatten out their contours in order to build the new and accessible society.

Undeniably, we face a conflict of interests between cultural conservation and accessibility for people with disabilities. I have heard people in the field of cultural and historical building conservation scornfully refer to disabled people and the fire department as obstacles in the way of the conservation of heritage buildings. Statements of this type deserve as little sympathy as do uncompromising demands for accessibility in all buildings. The basic principle of accessibility must naturally be asserted in every individual case, but its application must be adapted to the building’s cultural, architectural and technical conditions.

In my opinion we know rather a lot about the problems which people with different disabilities face in the physical environment. What we now need are examples of good and economically acceptable solutions. I would, however, like to make an exception in this context for people who have different forms of allergies. Here, we need considerably more knowledge about the relationship between individual and environment and the resulting ill-health.

When a building reaches final completion, its accessibility is given.. But, as in the case of many other construction characteristics, accessibility can be destroyed by inadequate service and maintenance. The qualities and characteristics of all parts of the physical environment must be maintained during their entire life-span. More expertise in this field is therefore of great importance, if proper service and maintenance of the different physical elements involved in accessibility are to be guaranteed.

Economic and Financial Relationships

The costs involved in making existing buildings accessible are in many cases a very real obstacle. Ignorance and lack of imagination among many of those involved in the building process frequently result in unnecessarily high costs. Furthermore, other aspects of renovation and modernization are often given higher priority than accessibility, with the result that there is no room for accessibility features in cost calculations. Often, it is what people imagine the costs to be that is the biggest obstacle. We must put an end to the myth that accessibility results in high building costs.

In residential construction cost is not the only factor in calculating returns on a particular investment. As mentioned earlier, rents and government subsidies are also important considerations. But there are other ways of looking at the question of costs than construction costs. In a broader, societal calculation, there are a number of intricately related cost-benefit items. For example, if people can live in their own homes longer than was previously possible, demand for residential institutions will be reduced. On the other hand, aging in place puts additional demands on home-help and special transport services for old and disabled people. Accessible environments, indoors and outdoors, and availability of support services also influence the need for home-help and special transport services.

We need to increase our knowledge about the relationship between these different factors. In Sweden, we have another aspect which enters overall economic evaluations of this type, the division of economic responsibility between central government, local authorities and county councils. Under this division, even if a particular measure would be favorable in national economic terms, resulting costs and benefits accrue to different bodies. I imagine that the majority of taxpayers are somewhat baffled by the lack of overall perspective which this can entail.

A common problem in this type of calculation is how to evaluate the gains of the individual in terms of personal integrity, self-respect, feeling of security or maintained social networks. These benefits are some of the reasons behind the desire for a home of one’s own and to keep it as long as one wishes.

Decentralization and Citizen Participation

The new Planning and Building Act is part of a decentralization process in decision-making, mainly from central to local government, and an effort to increase citizen participation. The political rational is clearly formulated: decisions made in participation with those affected are a better guarantee for quality and real change than decisions made by the anonymous state. Unimaginative and rigid application of government regulations in the physical environment results in changes which are far from "careful", neither for users or the buildings, nor for national or personal economy.

On the other hand, persons with disabilities fear that an increase in local authority responsibility together with an increase in citizen participation will make it difficult for minority groups to make their voices heard. Specifically, there is fear that less consideration will be given to questions of accessibility. This is, of course, an expression of distrust in the will and determination of the local authorities and in disabled people’s capability of informing the public and making demands. The future will show whether the distrust is justified.

A broad legislative reform such as the new Planning and Building Act must, of course, be evaluated over a period of time in a number of criteria including the treatment of accessibility issues by local authorities. This represents a major responsibility for researchers and government authorities. Here, local disability organizations have an important role.


Quality control in construction is currently a fashionable concept in Sweden, the reasons being numerous complaints about faulty construction work, particularly in buildings from the 1960’s and 1970’s. Dampness and mould, defective heating, rotting window frames and leaking roofs are examples of some very tangible problems which annually cost huge sums to repair. I feel, however, that the concern of the building industry for these problems indicates a willingness to take on more responsibility for quality in construction which might make regulations in this field unnecessary.

The concept of quality control must, of course, be expanded in order to cover other aspects. It is a question of getting the product the buyer has ordered, a product which meets the requirements which were stipulated during the various phases of the building process. A knowledge of the whole process is important in achieving accessibility. Minor faults in the final product can jeopardize good intentions and large financial investments. It is also important that researchers in the area of disability play their part in identifying critical phases in the whole process, from the planning stage to the administration of the completed building, and pointing out who makes which strategic decisions on accessibility.

More clarity in documents, legibility and intelligibility, are called for, if disability organizations are to have the means to influence accessibility decisions. With the increase in citizen participation in the planning and building process these issues will receive more attention. Information must be presented that enables people with different forms of disabilities to participate in this process.


Human settlements are result and expression of the social, cultural and economic characteristics of a given society. They also reflect the ways in which different societies regard persons with disabilities. Discriminatory attitudes constitute one of the main obstacles to the integration of people with disabilities into society. Attitudes towards people with disabilities vary greatly from society to society and are strongly linked to social and cultural factors. In some societies, people with disabilities are expelled or abandoned. In others, the disabled person’s family is condemned as well.

In my opinion, discriminatory attitudes are to a great extent based on ignorance. For many years now disability groups in Sweden have very actively spread information on different forms of disability, their consequences for the individual and society, and the implications for planning and design of the physical environment. As those who work with these questions know, it takes time to bring about changes in people’s attitudes. The disability organizations are very aware of this fact. They also know that strength, perseverance, and conviction is required in increasing awareness and sharing their problems with everyone involved in planning, building and administration and the general public. The manifestation of positive attitudes, in words and action, is relatively easy in a society which is enjoying a period of economic expansion. The seriousness of intention behind the slogans of solidarity are best put to the test at times when "savings" is the key-word.

The physical environment can have an indirect influence on people’s attitudes to persons with disabilities. With improved accessibility, people with different disabilities will be more visible, on underground trains, at work, as classmates and neighbors and will be regarded as part of the community.

Knowledge = Research?

I have already pointed out the need for knowledge in the different areas. However, this should not necessarily be taken to mean that such knowledge does not already exist, but that information on the existence of such knowledge may not have reached the people who need it.

In Sweden, as of July 1, 1987 the responsibility for the overall planning of disability research rests with a research committee. The basic elements of disability research lie in many different disciplines, and its applications and financial sources are also widespread. Purely from a point of view of research policy, it would be interesting to know if any similar form of coordinated responsibility exists in other countries. It is, of course, too early to be able to carry out any form of evaluation of this Swedish initiative, and we will have to return to this subject at a later CIB seminar.

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