Christchurch: Accessible city of the future

Luke Parker
Christchurch: Accessible city of the future

Ben Lucas is on a mission.

Since breaking his lower back in a motorcycle accident at 24, he’s been paralysed from the waist down and has lived his life from a wheelchair for over 25 years.

Now as CEO of the New Zealand Spinal Trust, he believes the Garden City has a rare opportunity to become a global example of what a completely accessible city looks like, and is doing all he can to make that happen.

A ‘once’ opportunity

“With a lot of the older building stock demolished in the quakes, to me this is a ‘once’ opportunity. It’s not a once in a lifetime, because the rebuild is going to last generations. This is a once opportunity to start from scratch and build an accessible city the rest of the world goes, ‘Wow, look at what Christchurch has done,’ and hold us up as an example of universal design.”

Ben has been working with the Canterbury District Health Board and various Councils, as well as speaking to property developers around Christchurch, to make sure the universal design message is on the forefront of people’s minds.
Example of universal design standards around disabled accessibility.

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“I believe it’s important as a basic human right to be able to go wherever you want, when you want to go there without having barriers.

“This includes everything from the home environment, to the journey to places of work and play, and ensures they are developed and built to a standard where people have no issues or challenges getting to where they want to go and home again.”

And it’s not just people in wheelchairs. Ben says people with prams, mobility scooter riders, those on crutches, the visually impaired, and older people in general are often forgotten about when considering building design.

Future proofing our homes

The paraplegic says having a house with universal design standards should not be seen as just for those in wheelchairs or with spinal impairments.

“I’m often asked, ‘But if none of my family are disabled, then why would I build a new house with those measures in place?’”

Example of a bathroom with universal design standards.His answer is twofold – he never expected he’d be paralysed at 24 and, secondly, the reality that we have an aging population in New Zealand – the ‘silver tsunami’ – coming on as the baby boomers all hit retirement age.

“As people get older, there accessibility needs get a lot greater,” he says. “I’m around 50 now and if I was able-bodied and going to build again, I would seriously be thinking about the fact that in 15 or 20 years I might be starting to slow down, in which case my house is easily modified because it was already built to universal design standards.

“It’s a future-proofing thing. You may not need it now but you’re future-proofing your house and you’re future-proofing New Zealand stock.”

What are universal design standards?

A house with universal design standards:

  • Level access to get in and out of the house.

  • A bathroom that can be easily modified without any major structural work to become assessable.

  • Wider internal doorways – 8by6 doors rather than the standard 7by6.

  • Lower light switches.

  • Kitchen that can be easily modified to accommodate someone in a wheelchair.


The average extra cost to building a house with universal design:

  • $700 on top of normal building cost of a new build*

  • $14,000 – retrofitting an existing house*

* Building Research Association of New Zealand research for a house between 150 and 200m2 (2014) 

 More accessibility leads to more money

No one really knows the exact figure, but it’s estimated around 5,000 New Zealanders have some sort of spinal cord impairment.

A Canadian study by The Martin Prosperity Institute, 2010, estimated that reducing the unemployment rate amongst disabled people could increase GDP per capita by up to $600 Canadian per year. They also found that increasing the education achievement rate of disabled people would generate an
additional boost to GDP per capita of $200 Canadian per year.*

Example of universal design standards around an accessible entrance.Ben says more access will open up potential jobs as well as entry to restaurants and other business establishments.

“It’s also important because disabled tourism is really taking off. Organisations and companies are specialising in bringing people with disabilities to New Zealand and conducting tours. The tourism dollar is going to be a help to the city as well.”

He says it’s hugely disappointing when new buildings or restaurants open without taking universal design into account.

“There’s a really nice restaurant that’s got beautiful frontage in town and they have a veranda out the front but no access. You have to go round the back, through the car park, and up some old ramp past the kitchen toilets to get into the restaurant this way. So there is access, but you’re just treated as second class whereas they could easily have put a ramp out the front.”

* CCS Disability Action – Government Proposal around Housing (November 14, 2014)

Universal design standard for businesses:

  • Ramps

  • Sliding doors

  • Easy accessibility in and out

  • The reception desk not sitting at 1.2 or 1.3 meters off the ground

  • Eftpos cords long enough to reach down

  • Elevators for accessing different floors

  • Good lighting for those with visual impairment

Ben says escalators are not a viable option as you’ve got to have good hand and arm function and the confidence if you are to tackle going up or down an escalator. 

The challenges

One of the biggest challenges is if you’ve had nothing to do with disability or the need to have a universally designed building, or you don’t know anyone in that space, then it doesn’t cross your mind.
“So it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind,” Ben says. “I think a lot of this is about continued education which is being done. But then it also comes down to the legislation and if it’s not strong enough then it isn’t going to happen.”

He says accessibility is part of the Building Code (4121) which has legislation wrapped around it, but it’s weak legislation which means private property developers can get around it relatively easily.

“Unfortunately, being isolated, it is slightly more expensive to build a place that is universally designed, so the developers go down the path that of least resistance.”

He understands Scandinavia and the US, which has implemented a powerful piece of legislation titled the American Disabilities Act, has done a great job in creating accessible cities.
Europe is more difficult simply because of the age of the buildings.

The reality as to whether people in the Garden City are hearing and heeding the message is hard to measure.

“Some are, some aren’t,” Ben says. “Anything that central and local government is going to build is done really well. It’s the private developments that I think need to take a step back and have a think about it.

“If they do build it with universal design, they’ll have more people in their door spending more money.”

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