Settle in folks, this one's a bit long….
We have a large amount of waterfront here in Toronto, nestled as we are along the shores of Lake Ontario. For a very long time, there's been talk of revitalizing the waterfront and not too long ago, the three levels of government (municipal, provincial and federal) got together and threw money at it. This means that all kinds of really interesting multiuse projects are being planned and built along the waterfront.
Christopher Hume who writes about urban issues and architecture for The Toronto Star has been writing enthusiastically about it in a way that has helped to generate a lot of excitement and there's a video on the Star’s website where he interviews the developer and a landscape architect about the vision of Sugar Beach, one of the projects in the revitalization project. The vision includes that projects should "make people feel welcome." This philosophy is also emphasized on the waterfront website which includes quotes such as "the public is an integral, valued part of the planning and design process," "ensure that the entire waterfront is accessible to the public" and "creating vital and inclusive waterfront neighbourhoods."
Why am I writing about this? The new Sugar Beach mentioned in the video is an urban beach located in my neck of the woods. It opened last August, but since I was in a world of pain at the time, I haven't had a chance to see it yet. Last week, spring sprung a bit (as opposed to today where it's -11C and snowing) and I grabbed my camera to go check out the beach and take pictures of the water. Today's post is a tour of the path to Sugar Beach. How accessible is it?
We’ll start at the north corner of Front and Jarvis Sts (map of the route is here) and move south on Jarvis. Curb cuts are wide and almost level to the street, making them easy for wheelchairs to navigate not just for power chairs, but for those who use manual chairs, as well. The sidewalk is wide and fairly level, making for pretty much as comfortable ride as one can get (click pics to embiggen).
Down by Jarvis and The Esplanade, the curb cuts are also comfortable, especially on the east side of the street. On the southwest corner, irregular asphalt created by the beginnings of a pothole make the route a bit difficult, but most people use the east side anyway. The sidewalk is still fairly comfortable, although the scaffolding around Crombie Park narrows the path, but it's doable.
On the way, I can't help but notice the big step from the sidewalk to the path along the storefronts and the gray-on-gray tone. That's a major tripping hazard for people coming out of the stores that I wonder why the edge of the step has not been painted yellow to warn people who are visually impaired, as well as the able-bodied public that there is a change in level.
Moving down the sidewalk under the bridge, we come to the first curb cut along Lakeshore Boulevard. There are four to navigate to fully cross this major artery and they're not as comfortable or as new as the Jarvis/front and Jarvis/the Esplanade intersections. My power chair can do it, but someone in a manual chair might have trouble. And then we come to the fourth in the series (bottom right photo) on the south-east and south-west side of lower Jarvis, where we come upon brand-new curb cuts. I expect much of brand-new curb cuts - my experience is that they, as the ones at Front Street, tend to be almost completely level with the street with a low grade from street to sidewalk, making it easy and comfortable to get from the street to sidewalk when you're in a wheelchair. Not so much here. The cut in the curb has a significant bump to get onto the street and this grade of the cut itself is quite steep. Going down from sidewalk to street is especially nerve-racking, even in my power chair and I don't want to think about what it would be like if you're in a manual chair - I'm not sure it would be possible to get up to the sidewalk without tipping back on the rear wheels. This is something that many people with disabilities cannot do, but it's yet another example of how accessibility standards seem to assume that people who use wheelchairs are just like an able-bodied people, but sitting down. Oh, and I'd also like to thank the dog owner who let their pooch have a poop right in the middle of the curb cut.
As I move down the East sidewalk of Lower Jarvis, I notice a rather alarming state of disrepair between sidewalk and the area next to it and wonder how many people have tripped off the sidewalk into that. It also makes me nervous thinking about what would happen if one of my wheels should accidentally go out to the edge of the sidewalk.
Nevermind, I'm almost there, can see parts of Sugar Beach and am getting excited. I haven't been close to the lake since last summer and you know how I feel about water. I get to the northeast corner and am not too thrilled with the curb cut, so cross the street – both sides onlu marginally qualifying as curb cuts - and discover an even worse curb cut, one that I dare not try.
Nevermind again, I plan to retrace my steps (east side curb cut not being very conducive to get up on the sidewalk), go back to the light by Lakeshore Boulevard, cross the street and go down the East sidewalk. Before I get going, I look across to the sidewalk on the other side of Queens Quay Boulevard and blink. Then I look again, dumbfounded, look to the left to where the light at the crossing from the East sidewalk leads and blink some more.
And then I decide to investigate a little further, crossing the street to the East, and get up on the sidewalk (neither of these curb cuts are very comfortable or accessible) and go down the sidewalk a little until I'm opposite the path into Sugar Beach.
Surely this can't be it? This new and wonderful area has this as an entrance? No paved area, no concern for grade - that entrance used to be to a parking lot, is not made for chairs and you have to risk life and limb traveling along a busy road to get to it - and the dirt/gravel between the sidewalk and Sugar Beach itself is not easily traveled by wheels.
As I stood there, on the north sidewalk of Queen’s Quay Boulevard, I could feel the sting of tears in my eyes. This beach is part of the waterfront revitalization, it's a brand-new development, one that has received rave reviews and it did not occur to me that something so wonderful and so new would not include considerations of accessibility for people with disabilities. Let me rephrase that: Sugar Beach itself may be accessible to members of the public who have disabilities - obviously, I couldn't get there to assess it or, as I'd intended, enjoy it. However, if the path to Sugar Beach is not, we are not welcome. And for that to happen, for that level of purposeful exclusion to occur in this day and age was a shock so profound I felt as if I'd been slapped. Some may say that it's a goof, a mistake, an oversight, but we're back to $1.5 billion of seed money to the revitalization from three levels of government, years worth of consultation and planning and brilliant design resulting in a project that has no wheelchair access. It is inexcusable.
I will be writing a letter to Mr. Hume, inviting him to check out this particular part of the waterfront revitalization from the seated point of view. Should this result in better access, I'll take you on a trip to Sugar Beach at a later date.