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Accessibility and Ancient Cities


The ancient, sacred city of Jerusalem is located on the Judean Mountains. The City of David, a part of Jerusalem, was built by King David and dates 4,000 years BCE. Enclosed by ancient walls, the “Old City” is dated “only” 1,000 years BCE. The streets, walls and houses are built homogeneously in Judean stones. The cream color glows in the natural light and the street paving has been slowly rounded and polished through the centuries. In such a setting, nothing can be removed, and very little can be added. Accessibility used to be the erasing of physical barriers, through design that follows the codes. And for a few of us, it was to think and design beyond the codes. However, in the Holy City of Jerusalem, where the streets do go up and down, with steep slopes and stairs, accessibility is far more complicated and a delicate matter: it mixes with politics, religions and cultures.

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Dr. Ramot suggested that we should start our conversation by exploring the Old City Christian Quarters. We went through the Mamilla Mall to reach the Jaffa Gate, in order to enter the Old City. Built in the 1990s, surprisingly, no efforts were made towards accessibility.

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At the end of the mall, I was confronted with a steep set of stairs, not deep enough for my orthopedic cast. There is a ramp, but much further, and I did not want to waste time.

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Limping up the stairs, we arrived at the Jaffa Gate, and walked through the Christian Quarters where handrails have been installed along the sloping streets. They must be very helpful when the rain makes the already dangerous paving slippery.

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Ramps appear between the stairs. Depending on the streets, some can be used by cars or wheelchairs. The other ones, too far apart for wheelchairs, are sets of small parallel ramps built with the original paving to accommodate the carts pulled by donkeys.

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Metal grates do have wide openings, and my cane went straight into it. Scary!

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Some streets have small canals for the rain, which sometimes double as an improvised groove for non-sighted travelers.


Dr. Ramot shared an unusual anecdote.
When he discussed a plan to improve the accessibility of the Muslim Quarters with ramps, handrails and other means, the acting “mayor” asked him to present drawings. He happily complied. The plan was approved with enthusiasm, and he was asked to start the work the following day. That same day, a complaint was filed with the UNESCO. Alarmed, he went back to see the “mayor” who instructed, “Do not worry, just continue the work, I do what I have to do!”

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Some links of handrail and other elements are presently missing due to delays related to elections and other politics. They should be installed early 2020, and the residents are happy—as long as no one dares to ask for cultural change! Seeing chairs moved back against the walls, interrupting access to the railing, Dr. Ramot asked the residents if the chairs could stay across the street. The answer was no: to change the spot of daily friend gatherings was out of the question!


Excerpts from my conversation with Dr. Avi Ramot

CR: When making decisions regarding design, aesthetic and technology, what prevails? What are the main challenges?

Dr. Ramot: The main challenges are to make an accessible environment in a very old city and holy city, keeping in mind the people who do live there, the tourists, and reaching an understanding with all the political parties involved. To make it possible for everyone to walk and enjoy the city. To design a new standard of accessibility for old cities.

CR: Funding?

Dr. Ramot: There are two ways: either we ask funds from agencies that will give money but have no responsibility in the projects, or work for the government. For instance, for the work achieved on public transportation, I was a consultant to the Ministry of Transportation. Two billion Shekels, or US $600 million, were allocated over five years. Started in 2009, the project was implemented in 2010 and completed in 2014.

The work achieved with the Public Transportation system is remarkable; there is now no difference of level between the doors and the platforms! And in Jerusalem, the trolleys transport 160,000 passengers per day. There is a wide gap between technology and laws. The technology keeps evolving, while the law moves slowly. Happily, there is no technology written into the regulations.

CR: What is more difficult to deal with: The religious communities, or the city agencies?

Dr. Ramot: In the Old City, it is more complicated to deal with the various religious organizations.


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On Saturday, I went to the small Italian Synagogue, not too far from the hotel. Not daring to take the elevator, I observed the custom of not pushing electrical buttons on Shabbat, and painfully climbed two sets of flights to reach the women’s balcony. When leaving, I was directed to the elevator, which was automatically set to go up and down every 3 minutes. When technology goes around traditions…

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The Russian Orthodox Church of Sainte Mary Magdalena was too beautiful to miss: I dragged myself through the stairs.

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The Mount of Olives Cemetery, where it is said that the resurrection will take place, is definitely not manageable for someone with an orthopedic cast, a wheelchair, or even able visitors: it is for angels…

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At the City of David, I was not able to visit the fascinating excavations. The stairs were too treacherous, therefore I went down only to the first “terrace”.


Then on to the beautiful Israel Museum,
where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept, among other precious documents and art.

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Accessibility is inconsistent: no elevator to go down to the crypt where the rolls are displayed, and slippery ramps without railings.

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Outdoor ramps have been installed, but the angle and the transition paving are treacherous. Electric carts are available to go to the main building, which has elevators for wheelchairs between the half floors.

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There are raised dot markings before the Museum stairs, which I did not understand: why only on half the length?


Some sites do
have exterior elevators for wheelchairs.

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Outside the walled city, the street corners have these markings for blind pedestrians.

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However, the contemporary hotel where I stayed did not have one bead of Braille anywhere: room numbers are elegantly marked on the floor, but are only for sighted guests.


Petra was a different adventure.
The Nabataean city, built between 3rd century BCE and the 1st century AD, is a huge archaeological site, which can be reached by foot, camels, horses, horse carts, or electrical carts. I choose the latest, not wanting to break my other leg on the treacherous paving and stones. Again, technology—and a hefty fee—solved the situation.

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The only provision made for handicapped visitors, was to remove some of the original Roman paving, when too bumpy. It was replaced by hard sand. The site should not be touched. However, as a gesture towards fragile visitors, the electrical carts could be either less costly or free.


Looking back at this journey
, there is a very delicate balance that must be respected between authenticity and full accessibility. It takes the dedicated work of experts like Dr. Ramot, to understand that full accessibility cannot always happen because it would destroy the authenticity of these cities, which—beyond the local politics—are first Patrimony of Humanity.

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Coco Raynes,
born and educated in France, studied interior architecture and graphic design at the prominent École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. In 1969, she founded Coco Raynes Associates, Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts. A leader in the field of experiential graphics, the firm has received worldwide recognition for its contribution to universal design. Ms. Raynes’ philosophy to work beyond minimum requirements—with regard to quality, aesthetics, and client expectations—has resulted in many innovative designs in North and South America, Europe, and the Middle East.

She has worked with some of the most prominent architects in the U.S. and received prestigious awards including the Gold Award from the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) in 1994, Honor Awards from the Society of Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD) in 1994 and 2002, the CLIO Award in 2003, and the Women in Design Award of Excellence from the Boston Society of Architects.