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)

Creating A Barrier-free Environment in Beijing’s Main Streets

Bai Demao, Beijing Institute of Architectural Design, People’s Republic of China

China is a developing country with a tremendous population and the highest number of disabled persons and old people in the world. According to the 1982 census, there were about 890,000 people over the age of 60 living in Beijing, 8.6% of the city’s population. It will top 10.6% in 1990 according to forecasts.

Disabled persons and old people raise a serious social problem, to which great concern has been shown by the whole society since 1949. The government has provided employment for persons with disabilities, and old age homes for single old people. Also, some universities and colleges have been opened to students with disabilities. In 1985, more than 14,000 factories and manufacturing enterprises employed 230,000 persons with disabilities in our country. Over 70% of the people with disabilities with working abilities were employed in urban areas. These factories and enterprises are exempted from income tax or a part of the business tax. There were 3,400 old age homes run by collectives in cities and towns, and more than 23,000 such homes in the countryside. These homes accommodated 300,000 single aged people. Over 950 nursing hostels run by the civil affairs departments housed some 70,000 single aged and disabled people as well as orphans and persons with mental disorders who were incapable of living by themselves. 40,600 blind, deaf and mute students had entered 380 special schools.

In November 1985 further steps were taken for people with disabilities, so that they could have the same chance to participate in social activities as other people. The Municipal Government of Beijing made a decision to eliminate architectural barriers in Wangfujing Street and three other main streets. Wangfujing is a famous shopping street in Beijing. Along its 800 meter front are more than 80 shops, restaurants and theaters with a maximum daily customer flow of 600,000. Before renovation, however, most of the shops could not be used by people with disabilities. Even the sidewalks were cluttered with insurmountable obstructions.

A sample investigation among people with disabilities in Beijing Municipality showed that 75% of them could not enter exhibition halls, 56% could not get into shops and book stores, 46% could not enter cinemas and 44% could not use parks. Obstructions are manifold: 47% of people with disabilities are blocked by entrance steps, 45% by narrow corridors, 40% by impassable sidewalks and 39% by staircases. A disabled girl felt very sad when she could not select her favorite dresses in stores by herself. Another disabled person said that he had never seen Wangfujing Street which is a must for every foreign visitor.

After considering their needs, the following steps were taken with consideration of China’s practical conditions to make Wangfujing street barrier-free for people with disabilities.

The objects selected for renovation were Beijing Department Store, Xinhua Bookstore, Beijing Arts and Crafts Service Center, Lantian Clothing Store and Jixiang Theater, etc. Ramps were installed in the entrances of these key commercial and recreational buildings. The ramps have a 1:12 slope and a width of 1.4 - 2 meters. Different types of ramps were designed to suit the site conditions. In addition, lowered handrails were mounted on both sides, and surfaces of the ramps were paved with durable and non-skid materials. At the same time, toilets equipped with handrails were installed in one of the public toilets. These enable people with disabilities to go to some places on Wangfujing Street as they want.

Along the full length of the street, sidewalk curbs were remodeled into ramps, which have the same width as the sidewalks and a gradient of 3%. This creates an unobstructed passage for wheelchair and crutch users as well as ordinary pedestrians. On the busiest intersection at the south end of the street, audio instruction boards were installed to help the visually impaired find their way. Braille signs were put up at bus stops.

During the renovation of this street special attention was paid to the particular means of traveling of people with disabilities in China today which is mostly by hand-maneuvered or sometimes motor-driven tricycles. They can be driven on the same street lanes used by bikers. But unlike wheelchairs, tricycles hardly fit into buildings due to their extra length and insufficient room for turning. Therefore transfer stations are required. On Wangfujing Street disabled drivers can park their tricycles in bicycle parking lots and change to wheelchairs with which they can continue their journey. These wheelchairs were donated by China Welfare Fund for the Disabled.

Through joint efforts, the project has been completed and put into service in May 1986. After control and approval, more than 20 stores, shops and theaters were found to have met the international barrier-free standard, and were bestowed the universal symbol of accessibility, attached to the front entrance. The renovation work was highly appreciated by people with disabilities. When they visited the renovated street, they were unable to hide their feelings of excitement at finally having the opportunity of taking part in some of the same social activities as other people.

Encouraged by the work in Wangfujing and the other three streets, many new projects in Beijing, including big department stores, hotels and cultural centers, are designed barrier-free. Meanwhile, in Shanghai, an investigation on how to satisfy the needs of people with disabilities has started. In Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, pilot projects of housing and neighborhood environment are under way to meet the particular requirements of old persons. In Shenzhen, the Special Economic Zone, regulations on barrier-free design have been applied. A new library, an indoor stadium, neighborhoods, parks and streets were designed for the convenience of people with disabilities. Existing arterial road intersections, public squares and some neighborhoods and housing units have been renovated as an experiment. We are confident that an extensive concern for the needs of people with disabilities and old persons will be created in our country hereafter.

As a result of this experimental work, some experiences have been gained concerning the primary steps of improving existing conditions of the inner city to meet the basic needs of people with disabilities:

Site Selection

In selecting the site of renovation, the main commercial centers in an older city should be under prior consideration. Commercial centers are usually located for easy access of residents. These are also the places where people with disabilities need to go. Then the targets of renovation are to be determined. Since it is impractical to make all the buildings barrier-free, the factors of necessity as well as possibility should be considered simultaneously. We focus our targets on remodeling the permanent department stores, Xinhua book stores and retail shops which are broad in scale and have a large assortment of commercial goods to meet diversified necessities of life. These stores and shops have spacious halls where business areas will not be affected after remodeling. Besides, there is enough room to add ramps in front of the entrances without hindering regular pedestrian traffic.

Items Consideration

A barrier-free environment is created by considering the whole street as an entity. First, roads and sidewalks should be renovated along with buildings to make destinations accessible. Second, buildings such as shops, theaters as well as public toilets, should be remodeled at the same time to satisfy different needs in one trip. Third, considerations should be given both to people with impaired mobility and sight impairments, since they have different requirements. For instance, on sidewalks, curbs are remodeled into ramps for the benefit of the former, and special tactile paving strips with embossed surface are provided for the latter.

Citizen Participation

It is of prime importance to invite people with disabilities to participate in renovation design, solicit their opinions and satisfy their needs, and, at the same time, explain what cannot be done at present and attempt to come to an understanding.

Fund Acquisition

In the light of the specific conditions in a developing country, joint efforts have been undertaken in our society’s welfare work. The renovation of Wangfujing and the other three main shopping streets in Beijing were implemented smoothly and effectively by acquiring funds from three sources, i.e. the municipal government, authorized departments and grass-roots organizations.

Specification Drafting

Barrier-free design specifications for buildings and streets are being drafted based on the experiences gained from our experimental work. The requirements for new, extended renovation projects are specified so that people with disabilities and old persons can have an equal right guaranteed by regulations to take part in social activities.

Social Services

In creating an unobstructed environment all social factors are considered. People are mobilized to help old and disabled persons in overcoming obstacles in a fraternal spirit in case of inadequate material conditions. The Jixiang Theater is a good example. Since hand-driven tricycles cannot enter the auditorium and wheelchairs have not yet been provided for disabled visitors, the theater workers willingly help them and sometimes even carry them on their backs to their seats.

Under our restricted conditions the barrier-free environment of Wangfujing Street has not yet achieved perfection. Further improvement is needed for additional accommodations for leisure and recreation as well as the enjoyment of nature.

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