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Since its virtual destruction in WWII, Warsaw has been entirely rebuilt. Today’s bustling metropolis of over 2 million people maps out a ‘historic’ city centre that preserves the style of yesteryear, while itself being much younger, and stands in stark contrast to the brutalist architecture that was the result of the immediate post-war boom. The grand urban planning of the 1970s is also much in evidence in the wide boulevards that span the city – a design created for, and around, the car.

But Warsaw’s modern story is much more than this.

The city administration is focussed on people and creating the best possible environment for all.

At a difficult time for social rights in the country, mayor Rafał Trzaskowski has stood up for LGBT rights and has teemed up with the ‘Visegrad Four’ mayors in a display of unity in direct defiance to their national governments.

And, more recently, Warsaw won the Access City Award 2020, given by the European Commission to a city that can, ‘raise awareness of the challenges faced by disabled persons, and promote accessibility initiatives.’

“For me it’s important because it shows that accessibility matters,” says Donata Kończyk, plenipotentiary of the mayor of Warsaw for accessibility. But, much more than that alone, she continues, it’s important because it shows how many more people are now thinking “about mainstreaming accessibility in the city.”

Revisualising the city through language

Over the past 10 years, and through two different mayors from the same party, Warsaw’s city council has been actively working on inclusion measures, to ensure the city is as accessible as possible for all residents.

According to Kończyk, however, over the last three years, the city has been “more in a hurry to try to do things.”

This has included activities as diverse as running education workshops with children to raise awareness about the challenges faced by people with all types of disabilities, providing sign language interpretation at over 90 access points around the city, including one in each of the 18 main district council buildings, as well as ensuring that documents on city websites are available in different formats.

Going forwards, Kończyk reckons Warsaw might even manage to have all the official speeches of the mayor supported with sign language – this happened already for the first time at a conference last week.

Take the airport as an example of Warsaw’s commitment to be an accessible city. It is now 100% barrier free, and according to Kończyk, “the road between the station and the airport has tactile signs, and also there are tactile maps that show the whole airport.”

Active Warsaw, which is city run and describes itself on its website as ‘the largest non-commercial promoter of a healthy lifestyle, through sport and recreation among the inhabitants of Warsaw and the surrounding area,’ is also readily engaging in projects aimed at delivering on accessibility challenges. For example, it recently supported a programme to encourage the social and occupational reintegration of 100 visually impaired family members. It also runs swimming lessons for people with movement barriers, such as in the musculoskeletal system.

​Similarly, Warsaw’s ‘Start to Work’ scheme is focussed on increasing the social competences, skills and qualifications of people with disabilities for active inclusion into labour markets.

Culture and activity without barriers

Last year, Warsaw once again hosted the ‘Culture Without Barriers’ festival, which saw cinemas, theatres, galleries and other cultural venues opening their doors specifically for people with all types of disabilities.

“We are very proud as a city,” says Kończyk of the festival which started in Warsaw and has now expanded to other Polish cities. “Last year, 82 institutions took part, and more than 6,000 people.” Taking place over two to three weeks, the festival hosted 299 events, and is now a mainstay of the city’s cultural agenda.

The city administration has also made access to culture a lot more straightforward through financial investments in cultural institutions to make them more physically accessible and by working with them to provide better offers for all residents.

According to Kończyk, the first steps in this process were to train staff employed in the theatres, museums and other cultural institutes, as well as investing in the necessary infrastructure upgrades, such as rebuilding toilets or adding ramps. But this also includes many other features, such as making sure the theatre, “gets the equipment for audio description,” says Kończyk. “Now we have about seventy shows per year which are accessible in this way.”

“In the museums it works in a different way,” explains Kończyk, “because one point is to prepare the exhibition in a particular way, another is to design a programme in a way for persons with special needs. Some have classes for children with disabilities, and some museums have special events, e.g. for children with autism or Asperger’s who need silence or lower light.”

Accessibility standards

City-wide legislation, introduced in 2017, has meant that all new roads, public spaces, building investments or renovations in Warsaw now have to comply with accessibility standards.

This has also been the case for the city as it updates its rolling stock of vehicles in its public transport network and constructs new, or repairs existing bus, tram and metro stops. Now 100% of the city busses and metro trains as well as all metro stations are deemed accessible, and fully 87% of bus stops across the network meet the grade. With more still to do, the city has ensured that its recent purchase of 273 trams will help bring the tramway more up to speed, and construction of a further six metro stops this year are all designed with accessibility in mind.

In fact, the city has invested vast time, energy and resources into this pursuit to ensure its physical infrastructure gets the requisite attention to ensure more people are comfortable using its services. This has included repairing 156,000 square meters of pavements, constructing 40km of cycle paths, raising 50 pedestrian crossings at busy intersections, installing 64 traffic lights with sounds devices and installing 435 lights at crossings.

“For me it’s very important that these standards are obligatory for all investments, and all things should be done the same in the whole city,” explains Kończyk. She continues, “it’s very important for a blind person in the north of the city who visits any place in the south of the city that all crossings etc. are the same. If they find this thing for the first time, they know how it works.”

Leading by example

According to a survey carried out by the city in 2018, roughly 1 in 5 households, or 12% of the population in Warsaw are living with disabilities.

​And it’s not just in the physical world that these considerations are made. Five Polish cities, of which Warsaw is one, have set up an online database to share information on the accessibility of different public facilities.

The city will also launch a new online platform later this year, gathering together around 50 existing city websites to improve the accessibility of ICT. And accessibility measures for online services include ensuring that all reading software is supported, that any videos are subtitled and that all websites can be used via only the keyboard if necessary.

Moreover, the city has reshaped its own hiring policies. Over the last three years, the ‘work for us’ scheme has focussed on working with people with disabilities to understand the barriers they face to working within the administration. Now 268 staff with various disabilities are represented in the city administration and the labour office provides direct service for jobseekers in its new barrier-free building, using a range of accessibility services and assistance, such as matchmaking between people with disabilities and potential employers.

“I think it’s something special because Warsaw is quite a big city,” says Kończyk, and in the labour office, “individual people get support and job training.”

Moreover, the office “offers money to prepare a work station for persons with disabilities to buy the equipment that they need,” says Kończyk, referring to a scheme that uses national government funding, but which is run through the local administration. This money can also be used for other purposes, such as space adaptation if necessary.

For the last several years, the mayor has also been working closely with an advisory body, the Social Council for Persons with Disabilities in Warsaw, which has both advised on and evaluated services, policies and programmes in relation to how they impact upon people with disabilities and can be improved.

Long-term impact

The city’s commitment to improve accessibility is also embedded into its strategy for the spatial and social development of the city until 2030.

And the city is working with others, through the EUROCITIES network of major cities. Last year, Warsaw hosted participants from 11 different cities at the networks’ working group on ‘barrier free cities,’ to discuss developing inclusive cultural events, such as the Culture Without Barriers festival mentioned above, as well as the administrative and organisational structures needed for the implementation of accessibility in urban areas, including how different city departments can work together towards this goal.

As Kończyk concludes, now, in every aspect of public life, “everything we prepare should take into account accessibility issues or universal design concepts.”

There is evidently always more to build.

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer