Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

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Brazil: Accessibility Progress in the "Rio City Project"

By Verônica de Lima Camisão Costa (vcamisao@openlink.com.br)

Brazil, like other Latin America countries, only recently began giving serious attention to the process of accessibility to the environment and transportation aimed at the needs of the population as a whole, of which the elderly, children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities or reduced mobility are a part. Brazil's urban population has grown rapidly in the last five decades and now comprises some 75% of the country's 170 million inhabitants.

The country passed a new, modern Constitution in 1988, legally mandating unrestricted access to the physical environment for all citizens.

However, lack of awareness by the population in general and professionals in particular still hinders pro-access activities.

Rio City Project begun in 1994
In 1994, the City of Rio de Janeiro had the opportunity to change a common scenario in Brazil through the Rio City Project, implemented by the City Government and aimed at urban revitalization.

Brazilian cities have undergone massive change over the last 40 years, especially due to heavy automobile traffic. Streets have become unpleasant, dirty, unsafe, hostile to pedestrians, in short, mere thoroughfares between home and work.

As a government program, the Rio City Project soon grew into an ambitious master plan for reconstruction of public areas, including regulation of their usage and activities and improvement of urban standards. The main structural axes in the city were chosen, including the most important thoroughfares in 14 districts, totaling 261 acres of the revitalized area.

A public tender was held for architectural projects aimed at solving common neighborhood problems: chaotic traffic and parking; indiscriminate occupation of sidewalks by street vendors; poor street lighting; pothole-ridden streets causing frequent accidents; run-down public fixtures; and visual pollution. Each stretch or neighborhood was studied by a different architectural firm, with its own autonomous urban renewal proposals.

Accessibility needs added due to disability advocacy
At the time, the Brazilian Institute of Architects and the Rio de Janeiro City Government, pressured by disabled people's organizations, realized that the master plan contained no mention of accessibility, and this demand was subsequently incorporated. Since the City had no previous experience with accessibility, a consultancy relationship was established with the Independent Living Center of Rio de Janeiro (CVI-Rio), a nongovernmental organization whose Accessibility Department has accumulated expertise in this field.

This partnership launched a rich experience of transforming a previously inaccessible city. The initial stage of this process lasted three years, from drawing board to construction. During this period the CVI supervised the accessibility projects and advised the architecture firms in their execution through weekly meetings with the teams working on each stretch of the city, daily visits to construction sites, and drafting reports to the City Government.

Process based on Universal Design principles
When the accessibility process was launched in the Rio City Project, the goal was the Universal Design principle: to design with all users in mind, regardless of their physical abilities, based on estimates that over half of the population does not fit the standard stereotyped individual for whom we are accustomed to designing.

It was based on this concept of a broader and less restrictive architecture that we oriented the accessibility project, including some universal solutions like ramps at crosswalks, which serve the purpose for both baby carriages, grocery carts, people carrying weights, and people with difficulty in locomotion, and some special solutions, like texture-coded footways to guide the visually impaired.

International expertise gathered on ramps & footpaths
The goal was to guarantee accessible routes around 560 km2 of repaved footways. We implemented the requirements for curb ramps at all pedestrian crosswalks, with adequate dimensions and locations. All street fixtures, such as light posts, signposts, litter baskets, benches, and so on were repositioned out of line of pedestrian travel, adjacent to the footways. The equipment was also resized to meet accessibility standards.

From the very beginning, emphasis was placed on signaling for people with visual disabilities using different textures on the footpaths. A CVI paper was drafted to standardize these adjustments to be included in the projects, based on successful experiences in England and Spain, through an information exchange between us and the Royal National Institute for the Blind and Fundación Once, as well as by analysis of international accessibility standards and priorities recommended by members of the Benjamin Constant Institute for visually impaired people in Brazil.

The proposal was to lay paving with a two-texture code:

ALERT PAVING - placed around ramps and around the suspended equipment on sidewalks, like mail boxes and litter baskets.

DIRECTIONAL GUIDANCE PAVING - as a guiding and orienting strip placed from the frontage of buildings to the ramps, on city squares, and around gasoline stations to guide visually impaired pedestrians through large open spaces.

The idea behind this set of adjustments was to provide greater autonomy and safety for visually impaired people.

The projects that were already farther along did not adopt any guidance code, but the other stretches included alert paving around the ramps. Adoption of the directional guidance paving was more difficult. Firms building some stretches argued about the designs that had already been implemented thus far, that the layout of paving on the sidewalks would be crisscrossed by the directional guidance paving.

In many cases there was also some resistance to adopting color contrast on the strips. It is very important to differentiate the colors of these strips, since most visually impaired people can distinguish strong colors and shapes. Most of the participating architects wanted such interference to go virtually unnoticed by the majority of the population. We thus had to accept strips that were almost always similar in color to the new sidewalks, sacrificing their efficiency as a concession to get them accepted.

At any rate, alert paving and directional guidance paving was placed in over half of the stretches. The most difficult part was the width. A minimum width of 60 cm was recommended (traditionally considered the length of a human step) to guarantee that the visually impaired individual not simply step over it. But because of the late stage at which the partnership with CVI-Rio was started, in addition to the novelty of this issue for most architects, most of the firms attempted to minimize the interference of guidance paving in their projects by limiting its application as much as possible in the areas they were building. In many stretches the width was narrowed down to 40 cm, as the only possible compromise solution to keep them from being eliminated entirely from the projects.

Search for appropriate paving materials
Starting with the project phase, we were faced with a lack of appropriate guidance paving materials from Brazilian industry. We thus began sixteen-month search for alternatives using existing materials.

CVI sent each sample material that it considered appropriate to the Benjamin Constant Institute, the largest Brazilian institution for the blind, where the paving materials underwent two weeks of tests. Numerous materials were tested, and one after the other was rejected.

In June 1995, a sample alert paving was hand-crafted. A prototype was made with small granite cubes around a ramp and tested by representatives from the visually impaired institutions.

The consensus was that although the alert paving did not provide a clear contrast with the sidewalk paving, even the subtle difference would be useful for sensing the ramps, much better than if there was no such warning at all.

We kept searching for more adequate material until we found a kind of ceramic tile made in southern Brazil, considered the most efficient material identified thus far.

This material was adopted subsequently, even though it did not meet the exact CVI-RJ relief specifications. Due to ease of purchase and placement, it was used in the other stretches. Two other solutions were adopted: concrete slabs with relief identical to CVI specifications for alert and guidance paving, made by hand molds, and another using small domes cemented onto the granite strip around the ramps, which turned out to be an excellent aesthetic and efficient solution for alert paving.

Enhancing use of tactile pavement for visually impaired people
Some basic care should be taken to facilitate and enhance use of tactile pavement for the visually impaired:
  • Demarcation of the differentiated pavement should be studied from the initial project design phases onward.
  • The layout and designs in sidewalk paving should take guidance paving into consideration beginning with the original concept.
  • Alert and guidance paving should be 1 (one) meter wide.
  • The strips should be color-contrasted with the background sidewalk paving.
  • Care should be taken with the guidance paving in order to orient the visually impaired, whenever possible from the building frontage line to the ramp.
  • Detailed study and surveys should be performed to avoid any kind of urban fixtures (posts, mail boxes, litter baskets, trees, newsstands, etc.) interrupting the strips or located too close to them.
Teams should coordinate with the designers in order for street fixtures to be adequately sized and located.

Observations on the overall process
Brazil is a huge and still-developing country immersed in major economic and social problems. In such a context it is often difficult to focus attention on what may sound like sophisticated ideas, like environmental comfort and removal of architectural barriers.

During the Rio City Project we had to deal with the fact that accessibility, a concept and practice widely disseminated in developed countries, is still a recent issue in Brazil, even in large cities. Most Brazilian professionals in civil construction, architecture, and industrial design received no information on this subject during their academic training. Although this tends to seriously hamper assimilation of the concept, in many cases their initial resistance turned into understanding and cooperation.

Hundreds of architects and engineers were dealing for the first time with the issue of eliminating barriers, yet they took a serious and open-minded approach. We had to accept the limitations of adapting an existing city, which is very different from working accessibility into a city's original design. Even so, the project became a benchmark for accessibility in Brazil, visited by professionals from other areas of the country. The success was proven through the post-construction assessment we performed. Disabled people began moving to the city's remodeled areas to live. Everyone prefers the ramps.

Phase 2 of the Rio City Project
Once the entire Rio City Project 1 was completed, in 1997, City Hall initiated Rio City Project 2, for the re-urbanization of 14 more districts, and again CVI was invited to supervise accessibility. This project is still being implemented, but we are already seeing that the work will be easier compared to the first project, beginning with better options for tactile pavements that have started to be fabricated in the country, due to our demand. In Rio City Project 2, the principles of accessibility were much better incorporated, especially by the teams that had participated in the first project.

Accessibility is subject to unceasing dynamics and modifications. No place that has been accessibly remodeled can be considered permanently accessible. External factors interfere constantly and must be monitored. On-going maintenance is necessary to ensure that adaptations and equipment remain whole and efficient. To facilitate such conservation, the community must be encouraged to cooperate. This can only happen through awareness-raising and education.

The success of pro-accessibility efforts thus depends directly on investment in maintenance, publicity, and monitoring.

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