How can Melbourne be made more accessible?

Rebecca Russo
Written by
Rebecca Russo
Editor of Time Out Melbourne
Tram outside of H&M Melbourne
Photograph: Graham Denholm

How does Melbourne rate compared to other cities, and whose responsibility is it to bring it up to scratch when it comes to making it livable for everyone?

Ever heard of the city of Breda in southern Netherlands? The tiny municipality of just over 180,000 people is one of the most accessible places in the world, winning the 2019 Access City Award, which is handed out to European cities for exceptional work in the sector.

Breda’s historical centre is wheelchair accessible; multiple municipal websites meet international standards for web accessibility; and the majority of museums, theatres and sporting facilities are fully adapted to accommodate disabled people. The city has an accessibility fund to help improve accessible communication in organisations and pay for physical improvements. It also checks the accessibility of over 800 shops and restaurants and speaks to business owners about how to make their premises more accessible. The city also engages with people with disabilities about how to continually improve the city.

How does Melbourne compare? Over the last 20 years tactile footpath indicators have been installed at every corner in the grid, and Braille street signage is used in a limited capacity within the CBD. Melbourne City Council has checklists on its website for making events and venues accessible for all Melburnians. Auslan-interpreted performances and relaxed performances for those on the spectrum are popping up at major Melbourne theatres, too. But there’s still a long way to go until we’re at Breda-level accessible. 

Metro says all metropolitan train stations are wheelchair accessible, but steep ramps can pose problems. Then there’s the multitude of stairs and rough tiles that cover one of Melbourne’s biggest attractions, Federation Square.

Making Melbourne a more ‘liveable’ city is a policy objective of the Victorian state government. According to Melbourne councillor Beverley Pinder, “There is a huge variation in individual abilities of each person with a disability, and this presents many challenges that we endeavour to address.” 

Recently, Yarra Trams has invested in making public transport more accessible and convenient for those with disabilities, including making the route 96 the first fully accessible tram line in Melbourne. Pinder says Melbourne city council is also working on making public transport even better for those with disabilities. “We advocate and engage with transport providers and have organised on-site meetings with our Disability Advisory Committee members to demonstrate the challenges people with disabilities face when accessing public transport,” says Pinder. 

When it comes to the built environment, many urban planners, architects and engineers can measure their work against access legislation, notably the Discrimination Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA). But according to Dr John Stone, senior lecturer in transport planning at the University of Melbourne, the consequences of not meeting DDA legislation aren’t strict enough. “[We need] more consequences for people who don’t do the right thing,” he says.

Making a building more accessible is the responsibility of developers and designers, plus the building’s owner, council or whoever is responsible for the building. Amy Muir, Victorian president of the Australian Institute of Architects, says, “The barriers associated with accessibility are generally defined by a willingness by developers and designers to openly address the requirements.

“On occasion, access is not seen as a high priority and some even see the access requirements as a barrier to the way a project will look. However, if implemented at an early stage into the design thinking the solutions should be relatively seamless.” You’ve also got to take into account cost – a shorter and steeper ramp is cheaper than a long, gradual incline.

Currently there’s a push for more research in designing for a broader range of disabilities. “Melbourne architects are at the forefront of designing public spaces for people with dementia,” says Muir. “The intent is to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.” 

Stone suggests that building codes and the legislation of the future “has to be shaped by the people who need these changes”. Melbourne certainly has the tools to increase accessibility across the board, but it’s going to take more than a few ramps to make our city ‘liveable’ for everybody.

From a design perspective, Muir says, “We need to reinforce that universal design principles should be second nature... Heritage and access sometimes bump heads but a willingness to find the best outcome will generally allow for a good solution to evolve.”

Have a read about how Melbourne's arts scene is tackling accessibility.

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