Making cities more accessible, a competitive approach

access city awards 2020
Nicholas Clark

Author: Nicholas Clark

What has always been the best way to increase awareness, while increasing standards all at the same time? Competition! It releases an inner pride, which coats the other benefits of winning and being recognized as being ta role model. Who hasn’t been inspired by a competition? The Paralympic Games and Special Olympics inspire us to not only realise the pure potential of people with disabilities; but also, to develop and patent new technologies that can help people with disabilities access the same opportunities as everybody else.

European  Day  of  Persons  with  Disabilities  conference

Well, its it not only individuals who can benefit from competition. Entire cities can be inspired, learn from each other and improve technological, built capital, accessibility and inclusive governance through a competition known as the Access City Awards, and on the 1st of December 2020 we were treated to the winners in an inspiring conference called the “annual  European  Day  of  Persons  with  Disabilities  conference,” – This event, delivered by the EU Commission and the European Disability Forum (an umbrella organisation of persons with disabilities that defends the interests of over 100 million persons with disabilities in Europe). This event is part of the EU’s wider efforts to promote the mainstreaming of disability issues and to raise awareness of the everyday challenges faced by persons with disabilities.  

This was the 11th edition of the Access City Award and Helena Dalli, European Commissioner for Equality announced the winners, together with representatives of the European Commission, the President of the European Disability Forum and of the EU ACA jury. This year’s shortlisted cities were:

Bremerhaven (Germany), Firenze (Italy), Gdynia (Poland), Komotini (Greece), Jönköping (Sweden) and Poznan (Poland). More than 50 applied this year, more than last year and importantly more than ever before, demonstrating the dedication of EU cities to improve accessibility.

The awards ceremony was organised in true inclusive fashion, where firstly the instructions of how to enter the webinar were exceptionally clear and during the event live subtitles, sign language and interpretation into a multitude of languages were offered. My only point for concern here would be that connection issues meant that some of the video and therefore sign language was slowed for the audience. This simply demonstrates the need for increased focus on digitalisation in EU policy, which would enable this kind of webinar to run without a hitch, helping to reduce inequalities. Even so, a very well organised event in my view!

The top six cities mentioned presented their efforts to increase accessibility and wonderfully creative, ambitious investment and projects included increasing access to information, though braille, sign language, easy reading and read aloud options. Massive improvements in these cities to public transportation, through redesigning busses, transport routs, access to public buildings, and important cultural centres like libraries, museums etc. Creatively, telephone helplines to reduce the feeling of isolation during COVID really hit the mark as well as volunteer shopping groups to help those in isolation. A huge difference was made by coordinating policies for wide ranging accessibility for multiple types of disabilities and the winners in particular demonstrated true inclusion principles by highlighting the input in all projects of people with disabilities or organisations representing them. This is what inclusion really means and denotes the important hashtag in social media #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs.

The Social Economy in Action

A quick mention here of the social economy in action as a means to achieve accessibility and inclusion for all as an economic model. Social economy is truly a powerful tool that can contribute to the empowerment of people with disabilities, creating meaningful jobs and promoting inclusive working conditions. Indeed, social economy organisations (cooperatives, mutuals,

associations, foundations and social enterprises, among other specific legal forms), represent now more than 2.8 million of enterprises in Europe and employ 13.6 million people in the EU, and they are traditionally more committed to the labour  integration of people with disabilities (in some countries they employ up to three times more workers with disabilities than traditional enterprises). Social economy organisations are people-centred enterprises applying internal flexibility to save jobs and maintain the socio-economic activity. This differentiator makes our companies particularly relevant to minimise the negative impact that the COVID crisis could have on people with disabilities and to help them seize the opportunities that the different recovery funds could generate.

The Results!

So, without further ado, lets meet the finalists. Written to the right are just a taste of some of the achievements they made. The benefit of these awards is that other cities can learn from these good practices and be inspired to invest in accessibility and inclusion for all.

Special mention for accessibility in public services in times of pandemic


Poznan – Poland

Poznan Poland

Improved public services

Targeted those in high risk groups

Volunteers going shopping for the those unable to do so themselves

Telephone helpline was set up to ensuring those in isolation maintain social contact

Digital advice service was set up whereby ICT consultants explained how to send emails, install apps and upload pictures

Information on COVID and other matters was prepared in sign language

Special mention to the city that has adopted the motto accessibility as an opportunity for the whole city


Komotini – Greece

This difficult to access fortress city had a multi phase accessibility programme

Major improvements to accessibility of open spaces and public buildings

A new community centre, run by people with disabilities and one for people with learning disabilities

90% schools and 75% public institutions had investment and improved accessibility projects

20 KM walkways are accessible

Sport facilities were hugely improved in the city

as a community we are all really proud of this award” – Spyridon Ntantanidis

Special mention for the built environment


Florence – Italy “World Heritage City”

Extraordinary progress to ensure physical access of people with different kinds of disabilities

Busses and trams are now accessible in the narrow streets (which enables touristic access which was previously inaccessible)

All taxis can transport wheelchairs

Disables parking spaces have multiplied, now with the highest number of spaces in Italy

Coordinated policies for widespread accessibility

One stop shop provides information for access to people with disabilities

A working group of removing architectural barriers was set up

3rd Place


Gdynia, Poland

Office for people with disabilities and a council for people with disabilities were set up

Universal access design for all public spaces and areas – ensuring access to all

Park with gym equipment for the elderly and people with disabilities was created

Busses had lowered floors

Tactile paving systems were set up on public transport routes

Social campaigns elucidated the need and awareness for accessibility

2nd place


Bremerhaven – Germany

A comprehensive approach addressing all kinds of accessibility

Website adapted with easy read and read aloud

Passenger ships were also made accessible

Cobble stones were sanded down flatten them to add accessibility

Public transport – 70% fitted with tactile and mobility device compatible technology

Videos with sign language

Ombudsman provides advice on all matters accessible and inclusion



Jönköping – Sweden

This city is on the shore of a lake making it geographically beautiful, but accessibility challenging

Great dedication for accessibility in new and old areas of the city

Cultural buildings include tactile maps and signs which are easy to read and access

Public playgrounds updated and the two largest are now fully accessible

Dialogues – disability organisations were involved in all disability projects – ensures all encompassing approach

Local access city award – for specific businesses. Here the ideas of competition once again enhances innovation and improvement

The city hopes to serve as an inspiration for other cities – key success factor is that it originates from people’s first-hand experience


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