Beyond the accessibility limits of an ancient city

Porto, a historical city located on the very steep valley of the River Douro and dating to 275 BC, is tackling a particularly challenging goal: barriers-free mobility.

As luck would have it, the Portuguese city was never affected by a natural disaster – contrary to neighbouring Lisbon suffering serious damage from the earthquake – or by war bombardments – like several cities in Europe. This means that Porto’s original medieval structure has survived up to today and is still the present-day centre. The archaic roads that meander through the metropolis are small, narrow and full of twists and turns, which stand in the way of accessible public spaces.

An old city of geographical challenges

Pedro Baganha, Councilman for Public Spaces of Porto
Pedro Baganha, Councilman for Public Spaces of Porto

Nevertheless, the municipality commits to “bypass the natural and morphological conditions of the ancient city.” With these words, Ricardo Valente, Councillor for Finance, Economic, Employment, Tourism and Commerce of Porto spoke at the EU Access City Awards 2022. In the ceremony, a special mention went to the city for improving the accessibility of its train stations.

No matter what, using the street is a citizen's right. You are entitled to use all the city, not only where you can easily walk on.
— Pedro Baganha

Pedro Baganha, Councilman for Urbanism, Public Spaces and Housing of Porto, states the urban landscape is changing because “no matter what, using the street is a citizen’s right. You are entitled to use all the city, not only where you can easily walk on.”

The accessibility of the medieval public streets starts by levelling the sidewalks and the roads. “That means reducing the speed of cars,” adds Baganha, “because when several modes of transportation, including pedestrians, share a public space, the problem is the different velocities.”

Sustainability, a social commitment

Mitigating the step down from the kerb of pavements and placing speed bumps contribute to a more friendly city for pedestrians and cyclists. However, in a hilly town doomed by the overuse of private cars, democratising the urban space will require a more significant public intervention.

Hill close to the river with many houses
Hill in Porto. Photo by Nashsegato

The city’s sustainability, which is one of the goals of Porto’s political programme, is linked to the environment and, explains Baganha, to the economy and the social aspect. Social sustainability implies the integration of those excluded from everyday urban life and, therefore, the social fabric of the city due to economic, social or physical barriers.

I hope to see a much more public transportation dependent city, a more accessible public space and a more social cohesion
— Pedro Baganha

With social sustainability as the goal in a morphologically challenging metropolis, investing in accessible public transportation becomes both the means and the solution. Porto’s citizens with physical difficulties can find a variety of transportation and mechanised systems to circumvent geography or long distances.

Public transport for all

Porto’s metro construction dates back to 1997 and lasted until 2007. “At the turn of the century, accessibility was already an issue, so it was designed from scratch to be a 100% accessible system,” explains Baganha. Today, the light rail system includes visual and audible warnings and adapted equipment.

The busses in the fleet are built with lower floors levelled with the stops and can accommodate one open stroller, and 66% of the fleet also has a ramp and wheelchair space. Colour blind drivers can navigate the municipal parking thanks to symbols that are assigned to each colour that identifies specific parking spaces on each floor. The project, named Color ADD, has been developed by a local graphic designer.

A parking with indications for colourblind drivers
Colour ADD project in Porto. Photo by Filipa Brito/CMP

The main intermodal stations, São Bento and Campanhã, are built to be as accessible as possible: they offer parking with direct access to the stations, a surveillance service with prepared agents and an integrated mobility service to support customers with difficulties. The stations’ information system is adapted with visual and audible media, tactile floors, adapted public sanitary facilities, accessible counters and platforms without vertical access or gaps.

Defiant obsolete homes

Porto’s transportation system doesn’t only rely on busses, trams and metro, its many public cable cars connecting the river bank with the upper area —ironically named downtown— are an essential part of how people move in the city. A new escalator was recently inaugurated in the old Jewish Quarter of the medieval part of the city, and inspired by Victoria Gasteiz in the Basque Country.

Mechanic stairs in Porto
Mechanic stairs in Porto. Photo by Miguel Nogueira/CMP

Whether people with disabilities or seniors want to move around or access public services, the municipality welcomes them. Porto leads construction works to eliminate the architectural barriers in the buildings open for public use and in their housing stock.

“Nearly 30,000 of our population lives in social housing neighbourhoods. The social housing neighbourhoods represents roughly 13% of the population of the city,” says Baganha. The majority of the housing stock was built in the 60s and the 70s when these questions weren’t as high on the political agenda as now. Today, it’s essential that seniors get accessible social flats, starting, for example, with a lift.

It's not where you are. It is what you did so far and where you want to be
— Pedro Baganha

“We have an ongoing investment programme in our public housing stock to implement the accessibility measures either by removing architectural barriers, physical barriers, or by implementing mechanised ways of lifting,” maintains Baganha.

A city of the future

Baganha hopes to see a city much less dependent on private cars in the future. With Porto’s population ageing, like many other cities in Europe, it is all the more essential that the city can offer a much denser and more reliable public transportation network that is accessible to all to encourage people to rely less on their private cars.

Currently, the council works on the Accessible Routing System (SIA in Portuguese) drawing major itineraries and creating the skeleton of a truly 100% accessible city. The council works with technicians on one side, to understand the problems, and with the civil society on the other, to validate the solutions on the table.

Physical cohesion triggers social cohesion. Inhabitants excluded from urban life do not feel a sense of belonging as those who can fully make the most of the city. In addition to making Porto more accessible, social programmes can encourage civil cohesion. For instance, the council set aside sports competitions for persons with disabilities and encourage them to participate.

Watching our fellow applicants has inspired us in deeply working for turning Porto into a more accessible city in its different dimensions
— Council of Porto statement

Porto also works in the online world by implementing the ‘digital municipality’ concept with text to speech tools to amplify the range of communication channels. Those that suffer from hearing impairments can find services in sign language at the municipal office.

The future is brightly accessible for Baganha, who summarises the ideal as follows, “a much more public transportation dependent city, a more accessible public space and a more social cohesion in the city.”

A special mention

At the EU Access City Awards 2022, a special mention went to Porto for improving the accessibility of its train stations.

The streaming of the Access City Awards 2022 ceremony
Streaming of the Access City Awards 2022 ceremony

“It’s not where you are. It is what you did so far and where you want to be,” says Baganha, who sees this recognition as the validation of an ongoing process. “We will probably never be a 100% accessible city because of our geographical condition and urban structure. But we interpreted the price as the recognition of the effort that we have continually made to improve the accessibility.”

Porto has the ambition to set an example in accessibility for others and, at the same time, learn from the rest of the medium-sized European cities. “Watching our fellow applicants has inspired us to deeply work for turning Porto into a more accessible city in its different dimensions,” the council told Eurocities.

Eurocities published a report on cities’ work on the inclusion of people with disabilities last year.

The inclusion of people with disabilities is one of the 20 principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights. So far, four cities have signed pledges on principle 17 Inclusion of people with disabilities as part of the Eurocities campaign ‘InclusiveCities4All’ and committed to taking concrete municipal actions backed by public municipal investments to improve accessibility.

Lyon is dedicating €2.8 million in 2021-2024 to support projects to develop inclusive housing to prevent isolation of elderly and people with disabilities.

Stuttgart is investing over €3 million a year into measures to include persons with disabilities, including new accessible jobs. The city council also appointed an officer for people with disabilities.

Brno and Ljubljana also pledged to this pillar, showcasing the challenges and addressing them.

Marta Buces Eurocities Writer