Accessibility and the ‘Public’ in Yokohama

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Elderly Japanese. Matt Garcia, 29 May 2013.

Date: 29 May 2013
Author: Matt Garcia – City and Regional Planning

Today, while wandering around the Yokohama International Passenger Terminal, a project by Foreign Office Architects, Jeanette Frisk (Arki_Lab) talked about how the site, with its sloping walkways and leading wooden planks, was like an invitation to explore. While the design features of the site were definitely intriguing and motivated me to investigate the space, I encountered small obstacles to fully enjoying the area. The green grass was completely off limits and there were other areas that were chained off. While one might argue that these restrictions only affected a small part of the enjoyment of the space, I found myself reflecting on this idea of restricted access from the point of view of a disabled person trying to enjoy public space in general. Small restrictions to some subsectors of the public may translate into large barriers to others. A dichotomy of access and restriction began to pop up in my perspective of the Yokohama International Passenger Terminal that seemed to serve as an allegory for being disabled in everyday life.

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Yokohama Passenger Terminal, fenced-off lawn and Yokohama skyline. Matt Garcia, 29 May 2013.

From an access perspective, the sloped surfaces of the space lets those in wheelchairs move relatively freely through the space, while the handrails and highlighted steps gives the visually impaired more autonomy in their movement. The curving, gentle slopes in the design of Yokohama International Passenger Terminal naturally serve the disabled without making access something additional, slapped-on, or peripheral. In addition, the lighting, seating, and elevator access make it, in many ways, a model for how other public spaces could improve their accessibility. In much the same way, Japan’s increased attention and regulations around accessibility have given disabled people more options than ever before to interact with spaces that would previously have been off limits.

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Yokohama Passenger Terminal, pedestrian ramp. Matt Garcia, 29 May 2013.

At the same time, the restrictions of the site present specific impediments to the public space user, disabled or able-bodied. While to many, usable green space is the most desirable piece of a public space, at the Yokohama Terminal access is denied. Also, smaller chained-off areas restrict users from going into other parts of the Terminal that they wanted to explore. In effect, park-goers are restricted to specific uses without the ability to make choices based on their own desires (unless they want to break the rules). In a similar way, disabled people are forced into specific uses of spaces and establishments based on the infrastructure (or lack thereof) to accommodate people with differing levels of mobility in everyday life. If a space is set up on stairs without a ramp or elevator (like many of the shrines we have seen so far in Japan), the wheelchair user has no choice but to find another space to enjoy or pay their respects from afar. If the space lacks paths for the visually impaired, a blind person may avoid the space completely as something she cannot fully take advantage of. The approved paths of the Yokohama Terminal mirrored the available paths that disabled people are forced to take everyday in all aspects of their lives.

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Rules of the Yokohama Passenger Terminal. James Lloyd, 29 May 2013.

Yes, public spaces all around the world have restricted and unrestricted areas. The two sides of ‘backstage’ and ‘on stage’ play important roles in the use and upkeep of a space. That being said, I would find it fascinating to use Japan’s public space to explore how different users’ experiences with what is on- or off-limits changes the ‘public-ness’ of that space. When lines are drawn that restrict some people and not others, what ‘public’ is the space actually serving? Is the role of public space individual-minded, to aspire to some completely universal area where any type of user can find enjoyment or is it group-minded, creating a space that addresses the needs of the community at large (e.g. open space, disaster refuge, etc.)? All of these questions float through my head as I walk around the small, winding streets of Tokyo.

Looking at Japan through a lens of accessibility means realizing that places that seemed welcoming and pleasant can be downright discouraging if you are not completely able-bodied. Yokohama International Passenger Terminal presents an interesting example of public space in Japan in this way. In my head today, it served as a microcosm for accessibility issues in Japan (and the world) in general and a way to think through how disabled users might tackle their use of public space. From a distance, the space seems fully accessible and exploration is encouraged, but drawing closer, restrictions force a specific use of the space and prohibit others. So that in a way, it welcomes some people and restricts others. As I seek to better understand how Japan supports its disabled population especially through infrastructure in public spaces throughout the area, the tour of Yokohama Terminal today gave me a fresh perspective on whether or not a seemingly ‘accessible’ space was indeed open to the entire public.

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