The Robson Square Steps are Beautiful but are They Safe?

Accessibility advocates in Vancouver call for upgrades to wheelchair ramp and steps Jesse Johnston · CBC News · Posted: Aug 22, 2019

The path at Robson Square in Vancouver, which zigzags across the stairwell like a switchback trail on a mountainside, is a crown jewel in the late architect Arthur Erickson’s portfolio.

Arnold Cheng doesn’t like it.

“There are two competing camps people who think it’s beautiful and wonderful and people who don’t think it’s beautiful and wonderful,” Cheng said.

“Quite often, one [camp] is people without disabilities and the other is people with disabilities.”

Cheng, who works as an accessibility consultant, says it’s dangerous to travel down the steep ramp in his wheelchair.

Conversely, anyone pushing a stroller uphill would have a hard time making it to the top of the steps.

“You need stamina,” he said. “Muscles, too.”

Is it dangerous?

It’s not just the ramp Cheng takes issue with.

The stairs are all the same colour, which he says can make it difficult for a visually impaired person to tell where one step begins and the next one ends.

“That’s how people start tripping,” he said. “It’s quite a hazard.”

Cheng has a list of suggestions to make the space more accessible: make the ramp less steep; add more handrails and place coloured strips on each step to increase visibility.

A third-party property management company looks after the complicated land share agreement between the province and the City of Vancouver, which both own portions of Robson Square.

Any alterations to the steps would fall under the province’s jurisdiction. The B.C. government didn’t respond to CBC’s request for comment before deadline.

Arthur Erickson Foundation director Simon Scott says accessibility was an issue that was close to Erickson’s heart.

Erickson’s father lost both of his legs in the First World War, which deeply impacted his son’s designs.

“He wanted to make public spaces accessible and enjoyable,” Scott said.

“The steps here, which are part of this wonderful public space, have stairs and ramps so that everybody can enjoy it.”

Scott says Robson Square was built to code when it opened between 1979 and 1983 and entrances to all buildings on site are equipped with elevators.

Working for Erickson

Architect Jim Cheng worked on the Robson Square project shortly after he graduated from university.

He remembers working under Erickson’s leadership with a team to incorporate an accessibility ramp into the stairway, which was a brand new idea at the time.

He says similar designs are now used all over the world, including a recent project along the river walk in Chicago.

“It’s identical to the same solution we had,” he said. “This is 40 years later.”

Jim Cheng is open to making minor alterations to the Robson Square ramp and stairwell but says it’s also important to preserve Erickson’s vision.

“I’m of the opinion that as long as there are other options, like elevators, that if you aren’t comfortable taking those ramps, take the elevator,” he said.

“Everybody has got choices.”

Arnold Cheng hopes speaking publicly about his concerns will persuade the government to take action.

“Just because something is old doesn’t mean it can’t be improved,” he said.

“The Great Wall of China is actually accessible right now because somebody had the vision to actually make it accessible.”

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