Blog - New thinking in old places

Cobbled street, Stockholm

I’ve recently been lucky enough to go on holiday to Sweden, a country I’ve never visited before. While the history there is not as old as many other European countries – about 300 years in total as a nation – there are still many cobbled streets (such as the one seen here in Gamla Stan, Stockholm) and old buildings with winding stone staircases, which in former days were used as warehouses for the Swedish East India Company, or as government buildings, which are now used as museums and galleries.

Small dots on a stair at the top of a narrow stone staircaseWith an increased focus on accessibility for everyone, the challenge with these older buildings is retaining the beautiful stone or marble staircase without covering the front of steps with rubber nosing or putting bright yellow tactile strips on top to help anyone with low vision to safely use the stairs. Stone and marble, in particular, offers little variation in colour, so unless there is a band or change in colour to alert the person using the stairs, it can be easy to trip on.

I am aware that here in New Zealand, where the few older buildings are precious from a heritage perspective, there is a reluctance to use any type of warning strip on marble or stone stairs. But there are increasing numbers of people who are not blind, but who do through cataracts, macular degeneration, or depth perception issues, have low vision, and who still need to be able to use the stairs.

So, I was very excited to see what is happening in Sweden, where accessibility is very much top of mind and I am keen to see how we can use some of their techniques here in the buildings currently being repaired in Christchurch, and to increase access to older buildings around the country.

These techniques include having tactile strips that cover only half the stair, and are positioned nearest the banister rail, helping to guide people down.

Another technique I liked was the use of dots, which was helpful for anyone using the stairs, particularly when they were going around a corner. As you can see from the images, the stair colour, particularly with the marble stairs, does not change much.

These dots were also used outside and were equally effective, without affecting the look of the stairs.

The other interesting addition I noticed was the solution to accessing an old church which had been built on a most inaccessible small knoll. There were only steps to get up to the church, so a modern small tower has been built in front, which houses a lift! There is innovation for you!

Small church on a cobbled street with an elevator shaft on the outsideAnd, just in case you are wondering… no I didn’t spend my entire holiday looking for accessibility solutions, but when you find some really helpful ideas that we can incorporate into our own environment, it’s good to take note and pass this information on to anyone doing major building renovations in public spaces. Sweden is definitely up there in terms of taking action and making their country much for accessible for everyone. I enjoyed seeing these ideas in place and look forward to seeing more like them implemented here in New Zealand.