Mikiko goes to Japan in search of accessible public spaces

Japan is a faraway country, and it is somewhat mysterious for many Canadians. Oftentimes Canadian (or western) planners seem to dismiss Japan as too different from their own experience, and therefore, think that many planning endeavors are not easily comparable or relevant. Consequently, we may miss opportunities to explore what is happening in Japan as a source of inspiration for solutions to planning problems, or co-develop strategies that work for both contexts.

This perspective is understandable. Most cities in Japan are ultra-compact, with people living on top of each other in tiny spaces in a way that is unfathomable for many Canadians who are used to having a lot of space inside and outside of their homes. Some design solutions that are seen in Japanese cities may not be preferred by Canadians—e.g., building tiny-footprint high-rise apartments right next to busy train lines to enhance densification and infrastructure efficiency may never get through municipal council meetings. The natural resources used to support the lifestyle of ultimate convenience and comfort in Japan—heated toilet seats, rental office cubicles in train stations, or AI operated cash registers that scan your purchases all at once—seem unnecessary or even wasteful to Canadians.

A starker difference is the population size and density. The sheer number of people versus the size of the land in Japan makes development cost-efficient in a way that is not possible in sparsely populated Canadian cities. The return of investment is a near guarantee with high margins—whatever expensive infrastructure they build, people will use it and gladly pay the fees if required. Canadian cities—with some exception of large cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal—the tax dollars can stretch only so far to make expensive investments for something new and innovative. The number of users may not be sufficient to glean substantial profit. Yes, Canada and Japan are different in many ways. 

As a Japanese-born scholar who has lived in North America for the last 30 years, I notice that the field of planning has missed out a lot by not sufficiently learning from one culture to another that are seemingly very different. The social relationships in which modern day (or post-post-modern day) planning issues take place in different parts of the worlds are, indeed, quite different. But people are people are people, really. The day-to-day challenges in navigating social and (often) political relations, tackling the pandemic of isolation and mental health problems, and creating solutions for aging populations for our sustainable future are, at a fundamental level, very much the same. There is a thing or two that Canadian planners can ponder through a quick peak of a place like Japan.

I will be writing blog posts to showcase some things I found on my trip.

Life Design Hacks from Tokyo

Many people think of Tokyo as this uber high-tech, Blade Runner-like futuristic city. But once you peel away the surface of that image, Tokyo is really just a conglomerate of living and breathing neighbourhoods occupied by everyday people, living everyday lives—all 14 million of them co-existing in a tightly packed space. Such life in Tokyo comes with some neat life design hacks seen in public spaces. Here are some that I found. 

1. Bicycle escalator

Japan is proud of its public transportation system, especially trains, which have a large web of comprehensive geographical networks that take you anywhere, quickly and cheaply.  The so-called ‘last mile problems’ are addressed by providing ample bicycle parking spaces around train stations. Because this is Japan – where land comes with a premium price tag – spaces can only stretch vertically, not horizontally. Many bicycle parking spaces are above the ground-level. To support bike commuters, this station installed power assisted bicycle escalators. You will walk up the staircases while the little conveyer pushes your bicycle along. 

2. Cooling mist while you shop

Summer in Japan is extremely humid and hot. Many traditional shopping areas have arcade-type roofs installed (so that you can shop in scorching summer or on a rainy day) over multiple buildings. The day I walked through this arcade, the temperature went over 30 degrees, and the cooling mist was coming down from the roof all day to cool down the shoppers.

3. Coin-operated office rentals

For about $3 an hour, you can rent this cubicle at Akabane Station to do some super urgent work—from sending urgent email messages, having a conference call before you get to your real office, to negotiating multi-million dollar deals. The climate-controlled booth is equipped with high-speed internet, a monitor, HDMI cable, and power outlets.        

4. Don’t splash

This rain splash guard is set up in front of the building entrance, to prevent you from getting people around you wet by shaking your umbrella after going through heavy rain.  This reflects a quintessentially Japanese sensibility—being respectful for others who exist around you and share the same spaces. Rain hooks next to the hand-wash basins in public washrooms are partly for the people who carry umbrellas, but they are also there so that people do not put wet umbrellas on the shelf where others need to put their purses.  

5. Drug vending machine

You can purchase non-prescription drugs at Shinjuku Station. Japan has all sorts of vending machines—selling different things from coffee/tea, toys, comic books, to beers and cigarettes, and even home appliances and electronics. This was the first time I saw medicine sold in a vending machine. Turned out, this medicine vending machine is set in the station as a pilot project to assess the usefulness simulating the pandemic scenario where pharmacies are closed.

Many brains are certainly better than one, and there are an awful lot of brains in Tokyo to come up with ways to improve the use of public spaces, and ultimately their quality of life. These life design hacks are manifested in public spaces, demonstrating a blend of uniquely Japanese sensibility that—for better or for worse—they are part of the collective whole.

Accessibility and Tokyo’s Transportation System

Japan enacted its first Barrier-Free Act in 2006, which was updated twice in recent years (2018 and 2020). All tiers of government (federal, prefectural and municipal) in Japan have been pretty serious about making trains and train stations accessible. But the efforts made in Tokyo in the last decade are beyond compare.

DPI Japan, one of the largest and most influential advocacy organizations for the rights of persons with disability, has been monitoring the progress on accessibility in public infrastructures including train stations. According to DPI Japan, there were 476 stations in Tokyo in 1990. Back then, there was no station where wheelchair users could freely get on and off the trains. Merely 16 stations had elevators to go up to the platforms, about a half had any staff to assist persons with disability, and two had an assistive escalator. In 2019, a year before Tokyo Olympic/Paralympic Games 701 (about 92%) of the then total of 760 existing stations met the national accessibility standards, and 97% of the stations had sections where wheelchair users can roll through and get on and off the trains without encountering steps. All have accessible bathrooms. 

All 12 railways companies in Tokyo are privately owned. Of those, Japan Railway (JR) used to be a public entity, which was privatized in the 1980s. Coordinating the daily operations of this super complex train system involving 12 companies sounds like a logistical nightmare, yet they seem to have all figured it out. Likewise, the coordinated efforts by all companies to make trains and train stations accessible are impressive.

One of the challenges faced by these train stations was the gaps between the trains and the platforms. Recommended maximum gap between the door and platform is 7cm (2 ¾ inches). Commuter trains typically run with 10 to 16 cars. To accommodate them, many stations take up a long stretch of land to create the platforms, part of which may create wider gaps than other parts when the platforms are ever slightly curved.    

Because land in Tokyo is already built up to the ying-yang—never mind the enormous costs of renovating the platforms to be entirely straight—they cannot move the stations to a nearby, undeveloped open space (there is none). Making the slightly curved platforms completely straight is cost prohibitive. As a solution, they designated a few spots in the platforms with the narrowest gap as an accessible doorways to incoming trains. Of course, these designated spots need to be exactly the same across all the stations the trains stop at. It is not a simple thing to do. Waiting areas of some spots are less roomy, but they seem to do the job. They do take the phrase ‘reasonable accommodation’ in the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disability and the American Disability Act to heart. Some reasonable accommodations come with hefty price tags. With the firm political backing, trains in Tokyo are becoming more and more accessible every year.  

Talking about train stations…

Tokyo gives a whole new meaning to “transit-oriented development (TOD)”—the now popular concept in both economically developed and developing nations. Japanese cities are so over-populated, they simply cannot function without people’s collective use of public transportation. If everyone drove a car to go to places in the same way North Americans do, the cities would simply freeze up and no one will get anywhere.

Indeed, it has been a national obsession to keep the flow of people as efficient as possible in Japan. It also means that major cities are designed for all the daily destinations to be within close proximities from everyone’s residences. North Americans also often speak of “complete neighbourhoods,” which are hard to achieve in North America given the historic development of urban forms in most cities centered around the use of automobiles. In Tokyo, it is almost impossible not to encounter services that cater to your everyday needs within a few blocks. In fact, neighbourhoods in Tokyo are formed around train stations, which are more than a place to catch a train. They have shopping malls, grocery stores, multiple pharmacies, pubs, schools, daycares, bookstores, restaurants, doctors’ offices, flower shops, pubs, bakeries (they ALWAYS have bakeries). They even have electronics stores and game centres. Train stations ARE the neighbourhood centres. 

Public Washrooms in Tokyo

It has been an eye-opening experience when it comes to finding accessible public washrooms in Japan. Tokyo, in particular, has been making giant strides in making many public washrooms accessible over the past couple of decades. The Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021 also boosted the accessibility of the city.  It seems that train stations, shopping malls, and tourist destinations have a healthy number of well-equipped accessible washrooms. It is currently mandated that there must be at least one accessible washroom unit in public facilities of 50 square meters (about 550 square feet) and larger. 

Accessible washrooms in public spaces

The photos below show a washroom on one of the Toyo University campuses—where the Department of Life Design is located (yes, they research how to design accessible washrooms). Many of the public washrooms located in large buildings have a sink for ostomy (left) and an adult change table (right).

Washrooms in train stations, shopping malls, and major tourist destinations (e.g., famous shrines and temples) are often equipped with voice instructions which walk you through the process of using them: from which button to push to open the door, to locking the door, and even how to flush the toilet. Some even alert you to watch for slippery floors. Most of all, public washrooms are CLEAN! Apparently, some users spend time in them to eat lunch, read, and nap on the adult change table.

There seems to be a debate around able-bodied users ‘hogging’ accessible washrooms. However, Professor Yoshihiko Kawauchi, the author of the book, “Barrier-Free without Dignity” cautions judging persons who may have an invisible disability or have a particular privacy need. These accessible public washrooms have become a safe haven for many people. Professor Kawauchi posits that it is about having more washrooms that serve different functions for different needs, and not about making rules for who gets to use them. 

Washroom signs

What is also striking is the signage. Signs for washrooms are large, clear, and detailed, and they are EVERYWHERE. These signs have become part of the aesthetics for busy public spaces, boldly telling you where to go and they are hard to miss. Many of the washrooms also tell you the layout of the washroom complex (often with tactile maps and braille), so that you can anticipate how you might need to navigate the space. Perhaps most important, these location maps almost always show where YOU are so that you can orient yourself before you make your move.  

The caveat

To be careful not to paint the picture of Tokyo as this super futuristic city with anything and everything tech-savvy and new, here is an example of ordinary public washrooms in places like neighbourhood parks and smaller shopping centres. There are more of these than what we see as ‘best practice’ examples on magazines and websites. There are still traditional ‘squatting’ style toilets all over the place, too, and they are a bit… well, shabby.  These are likely to disappear as the places are renovated and new toilets are installed. 

Attention to detail

Somebody must take great pride in designing public washrooms in Japan. Yes, there are some award-winning, fabulous looking washrooms designed by famous architects and designers in Tokyo.

But more mundane, everyday washrooms in busy train stations and shopping malls are also well thought-out. So far, I have yet to encounter a (non-squatting style) washroom without a heated seat and self-washing devices. Many functions are touch-less and with automated voice instructions. Some come with a place to hang your umbrella, shopping bags, and a little baby seat in bathroom stalls for moms (I wonder if the baby seats are installed in men’s washrooms?).  Some come with fake toilet flushing sound to mask the ‘bathroom’ noise—this, I believe, was an invention to prevent people wasting water by flushing the toilet multiple times.

What is adequate?

Can we do it in Canada? Of course, we can. Would it be expensive? Absolutely. The question of feasibility is a tricky one. Governments must gauge the cost of making accessible public washrooms against other competing priorities that the public funds must stretch to meet. Like many other jurisdictions, Japan has also struggled with the question. It seems a tad easier in Japan because there is a ‘market’—if you build it, they will come (by hundreds of thousands every day). To the eyes of an outsider, there seem to be a lot of accessible washrooms wherever you go in Tokyo. On the other hand, Tokyo has 14 million people. How many is adequate for Tokyo? How many is adequate for smaller Canadian cities like Halifax? Who decides what is adequate? Can an optimal washroom-to-population ratio be established? At what population size would such a ratio become unfeasible due to economy of scale? These are the questions that may keep planners awake at night in Japan, Canada, and elsewhere.          

New Video by Accessibility Leaders in Halifax

This recent video by long-time advocate, Vicky Levack, and AMI (Accessible Media Inc.), was released on YouTube on August 26, 2022. It highlights the ongoing need for, and value of, small option housing and other meaningful accessible housing models in Nova Scotia.

This is not a PEACH product. Instead, we are eager to share this valuable production by local accessibility leaders with audiences in planning and other fields whose work influences our shared built environment. Vicky’s Fight For Freedom is a must-see to inform how we build inclusive, livable communities.

Video entitled “Vicky’s Fight for Freedom” embedded from the AMI YouTube channel.

A Campaign to Improve Restaurant Accessibility

During the pandemic, many of us had our first taste of being denied a night out with friends or a quick bite at a local restaurant. But for many Canadians who experience physical, sensory, cognitive, and other impairments, not being able to enter a popular bar, coffee shop, or restaurant has long been a part of their dining experience. Something as simple as the door into a food establishment can be a significant barrier, denying people from not only enjoying these services but also from equitably participating in our communities.  

Orso restaurant's front entrance in Downtown Halifax. Four colourful Cheers! To Access badges are stuck to the glass of the restaurant's front door.
Orso restaurant’s front entrance in Downtown Halifax. Four colourful Cheers! To Access badges are stuck to the glass of the restaurant’s front door.

Since the enactment of the Accessibility Act in 2017, Nova Scotia has been tackling accessibility in public spaces head-on—slowly but surely. Both government and grass-root efforts to prevent and remove barriers in public spaces are emerging. Municipalities are developing their accessibility plans, disability advocacy organizations and community groups are raising public awareness, and accessibility standards are in the process of being developed. But the accessibility of privately owned spaces like food and drink establishments is lagging behind—a missing piece to realising equitable access to social life. Until these places become more accessible, the vision of a fully accessible Nova Scotia by 2030 will not be a reality. 

In the summer of 2021, when restaurants in Nova Scotia began to reopen, we introduced Cheers! To Access to engage with the restaurants of Halifax Regional Municipality on accessibility considerations. The initiative began when PEACH partnered with the creators of The Coast’s Patio Map to document and share key accessibility information about the outdoor patios of HRM restaurants online, as reported by restaurant operators. Since then, the team has begun visiting restaurants and conversing with owners and managers on accessibility indoors. 

A screenshot of The Coast's online patio map.
A screenshot of The Coast’s online patio map.

Cheers! To Access is a badge system that is displayed online and on storefronts via colourful window clings. PEACH members visit participating restaurants to check their eligibility for each badge. The idea is to celebrate accessibility successes in restaurants while talking about what more they could do.  

Cheers! To Access badges for 2021 included a pilot set of accessibility criteria (Image of badges included) covering six basic considerations. For example, challenges experienced by persons with disabilities can begin at getting through the door of a restaurant, where a stepped entrance or narrow doorway may not accommodate persons using a wheelchair or another mobility device. Therefore, an orange badge is given to a restaurant with an entrance that is step-free, unobstructed, and at least 85 cm wide. Once inside, finding a wheelchair-accessible washroom (blue badge), a table of appropriate height for comfortable use with knee clearance (dark green badge), or enough clear space to move about the restaurant freely (light green badge), are important for persons using mobility devices, with service animals, or assisted by caregivers. 

A wheelchair user enters an outdoor single-stall accessible washroom at Stillwell Beergarden.
A wheelchair user enters an outdoor single-stall accessible washroom at Stillwell Beergarden.

Participating restaurant owners have demonstrated a genuine eagerness to learn and improve their businesses to be more inclusive spaces. Even without making changes to its floorplan, there are many things that restaurants can do. Here are some examples: 

Installing light fixtures with brightness levels that can be adjusted higher or lower for each table (or for different sections of your restaurant). This can help customers see their food or companions better, read the menu, or communicate nonverbally. Excess noise can be reduced by introducing soft surfaces and other sound-dampening materials, making the restaurant atmosphere less overwhelming for diners with a variety of sensory and cognitive conditions.  

Offering menus in multiple formats, such as large print, digital, or braille, will be helpful for persons with low or no vision. However, JPEG or PNG files are generally not compatible with read-aloud software. Digital menus are better if uploaded as PDF files. And including pictures of menu items and using icons to communicate information about dishes is helpful for everyone. 

Savvy restaurants are now using pay machines with automated voices to relay audible instructions. Sometimes customers have to use pay machines with physical buttons, and buttons with tactile numbering or lettering or both are very helpful. Silicone overlays may be available as add-ons to adapt touchscreen products and could make all the difference for a customer with limited dexterity or visual impairment.  

The interior of Easy Street Diner where tables are spaced far apart and there is lots of room to maneouvre the aisles.
The interior of Easy Street Diner where tables are spaced far apart and there is lots of room to maneouvre the aisles.

Cheers! To Access is merely a first step to cataloguing the accessibility efforts in the food and drink establishments of HRM and having open conversation about how to make restaurants more inclusive venues for everyone.   

A recent video collaboration between PEACH and Planifax on this initiative interviewed three accessibility experts and advocates in Halifax Regional Municipality, Nova Scotia, about basic elements and considerations to enhance accessibility of food establishments for all. You can watch the video below:

If you’re a restaurant owner and would like to receive Cheers! To Access badges, join us with Cheers! To Access 2022. Email PEACH at peach@dal.ca. You are also invited to email PEACH if you are a diner who experiences disability and would like to see a particular barrier addressed through the Cheers! To Access system. Keep an eye out for these badges in the windows of your favourite local food joints and spread the word using #cheerstoaccess. 

Acknowledgement: PEACH Research Unit would like to thank Michelle Mahoney, RHFAC Professional, for her valuable input into the criteria for the first set of Cheers! To Access badges. 

PEACH at Open Street Sunday

A young woman leans over to write on a poster board asking for community feedback on public play spaces
A young woman leans over to write on a poster board asking for community feedback on public play spaces.

The Dalhousie PEACH Research Unit was part of Dartmouth’s Open Street Sunday, an event that opens the street up for pedestrians, cyclists, food trucks and much more! PEACH Research Unit created an accessible, inclusive and vibrant space, for kids and adults with varied abilities to enjoy. The PEACH on the Street: Access Alderney installation was located on the Alderney Plaza and contributed to PEACH’s ongoing research project; A Tactical Urbanism Approach to Assessing the Value of Public Spaces. Onsite surveys were conducted at the event to gauge public interest around accessibility and assess public opinion on the installations and accessible furnishings. Survey responses are still being collected from anyone who wants to participate, here: PEACH on the Street survey.

The event occurred on September 19th at 12pm. Despite heavy winds at times, the sun was shining and PEACH on the Street was soon crowded with hundreds of cheerful and excited community members. PEACH on the Street welcomed people of all ages, many of whom came with strollers, bikes and dogs. Dog treats and water bowls were included in the space as well as granola bars and other sweet treats which were a big hit among the kids.

A crowded plaza is filled with pedestrians walking dogs, talking to one another, holding beverages, pushing strollers and participating in event activities such as pavement painting.
A crowded plaza is filled with pedestrians walking dogs, talking to one another, holding beverages, pushing strollers and participating in event activities such as pavement painting.

Visitors had the opportunity to learn about the importance of vibrant, inclusive spaces as well as explore the accessible installations set up by PEACH staff and volunteers. PEACH on the Street included a quiet space, giving people the opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle of the event. The quiet space combined plants, comfy seating and lights to help people feel relaxed. Plants were a wonderful addition to the quiet space as they helped to create shade and a more enclosed feel. Many visitors also seemed to love the lounge chairs that were included in the space! PEACH on the Street also included a play space filled with toys for children. Children stayed in the play space for hours on end playing with foam blocks that were loaned from the Alderney Public Library. Accessible seating options such as a wheelchair-friendly picnic table was also found in the space, thus accommodating wheelchair users. Furthermore, clear and legible directional signages were placed along Alderney to help guide event goers in the right direction. Outdoor washrooms (porta potties) were decorated with greenery and plants to enhance the site. Many passersby mentioned how lovely the outdoor washrooms looked with the added greenery.

A temporary blue tent canopy is set up with inflatable seating and soft tile flooring underneath, surrounded by potted plants.
A temporary blue tent canopy is set up with inflatable seating and soft tile flooring underneath, surrounded by potted plants.
Two portable washrooms are enclosed by a wooden structure with vines wrapped all around it and potted plants placed at the entrance.
Two portable washrooms are enclosed by a wooden structure with vines wrapped all around it and potted plants placed at the entrance.

PEACH staff and volunteers worked diligently throughout the day setting up for the event and engaging with attendees. Communicating the importance of accessible, inclusive spaces with the community was a very rewarding experience! Many visitors were also curious about other PEACH projects and were excited about the strides PEACH is taking to create inclusive environments. Overall, the event was successful in engaging with fellow Haligonians, and by collecting survey data, we can demonstrate what more is needed in public spaces to improve accessibility. Working collaboratively as a team and having an excited, uplifting attitude produced a successful event and showed just how much can get done by working together!

A young man wearing an orange PEACH Research T-shirt smiles and poses with his arms wide to show off colourful crate seats built for the event
A young man wearing an orange PEACH Research T-shirt smiles and poses with his arms wide to show off colourful crate seats built for the event. Photo credit: Nick Pearce.

Hitting folks over the head with quick fixes for accessibility

A woman stands on a sidewalk giving the finger to a diamond shaped construction sign strapped to a telephone pole at head level, with her guide dog sitting next to her.
Milena Khazanavicius stands on a sidewalk giving the finger to a diamond shaped construction sign strapped to a telephone pole at head level. Her guide dog sits at her side.

Our friend Milena Khazanavicius runs into things like this on the street. Every. Single. Day.  These obstacles are impossible to avoid for persons who use canes or guide dogs because they do not detect obstacles way above the ground.

About 7% of Nova Scotians have some type of visual impairment, which adds up to be about 65,000 people. If that does not sound like a significant number, it may help to think that this number is roughly the same as the population of all elementary school children in Nova Scotia. If this many elementary school children were at risk of injuring themselves on the streets, policy makers would already be moving to eradicate these hazards at construction sites, wouldn’t they?

Whether you have vision challenges or not, people often get distracted while they are walking. For example, their eyes may be glued to their mobile phones while walking (true, they should not be doing that), or they may be talking with a friend and not paying attention, or they may have some big bags to carry. Spots like this are accidents waiting to happen for all pedestrians. 

Design standards, regulations, policies are all important.  But they are not enough. More importantly, something like this can be mitigated without regulations telling us, if we are all aware. It is a quick fix. 

Construction companies and their staff with good awareness are already working hard to prevent these kinds of barriers. Let us all be aware and ask construction folks, planning folks, and politicians to be aware. Someday, any of us could be scraping our faces with the corner of a construction sign and flipping the finger at it—or worse, suffering serious injuries (and flipping the finger at the world).

Photovoice with Older Adults

In 2020, PEACH Research Unit’s Katie Vaughan partnered with Community Links Nova Scotia to engage with older adults living in Nova Scotia about the accessibility of public spaces in their communities. We are now excited to announce that this project will be extended into Phase Two as soon as May 2021!

This project is performed using a research method called photovoice, where participants take photos, and elaborate on their photos using their own words, to answer a research question. For this project, older adults are asked to take photos of public spaces that are either helpful or harmful to their ability to perform daily activities in the public spaces of their communities. In other words, this project asked to learn from older adults about the places they feel are accessible or inaccessible for their needs.

The photos and narratives provided by participating older adults during the pilot study have been very valuable for understanding aging-in-place design.

Katie has produced two videos to share the initial findings:

The Testimonial Video (appearing above) showcases some of the photos and comments that were collected from participants in first-person voice.

The Result Video presents key findings of the study, describing the priority design features for improvement from the perspective of older adults from the pilot study.

We are really proud of what has been accomplished so far, and are excited to begin the extension of the project. It is our goal to learn more about accessible and inaccessible public space design in not only urban but also rural communities. If you are 65 years of age or older, live in Nova Scotia, and are interested in contributing to this project, please email Katie at kvaughan@dal.ca.