Why Vancouver Is Banning the Doorknob

A not-so-ridiculous idea.

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In a thousand small ways, our communities will have to adapt in the coming years to accommodate an aging population. Seniors cross the street more slowly. As they get older, they're less likely to drive. Little things the rest of us seldom notice start to matter more, like a crack in the sidewalk, or that gap between the subway platform and the train car, or the miniscule font on a public sign.

I've spent some time scratching my head trying to anticipate what it will feel like to navigate the cities we've already built with the aging population we're going to have. And this is an admittedly strenuous thought exercise for any thirty-something. How do you envision what it's like to fish out your transit smart card with arthritic fingers when you still bike to work every day?

An aging population poses so many design questions that most of us don't even know how to ask. Which is why I'm startled every time I hear another thoughtful answer, as with the latest news that the city of Vancouver is about to phase out the doorknob.

New housing in the city, as of early next year, will from now on be required to install levers instead of knobs on things like doors and kitchen sinks (no, existing housing doesn't need a massive doorknob retrofit). The idea sounds weird – a city... outlawing doorknobs? – but this is the kind of small, forward-looking adjustment that will slowly help communities prepare for a massive demographic shift. And a little doorknob code here or there is the kind of preparation that will separate cities that see this shift coming, and those that will be caught off guard when it lands.

PopSci being PopSci rounds up some good technical background further explaining why this mandate makes sense:

The idea behind Vancouver's decision is that, despite being of a more vintage grade than levers, doorknobs kind of suck. Ergonomics studies investigating different types of water-dispersing mechanisms have shown that lever-style faucets are far preferable to their knob counterparts. (Yes, there are studies for everything.) Knobs, you see, involve pronating and supinating your wrist, (stretching it, basically) which is less fun for everyone, but probably won't make you run out and immediately and switch to levers. Maybe you like your nice art deco knobs. 

Unless, that is, you're elderly. You get older, maybe you get arthritis, and this doorknob-to-lever issue stops being academic. Other studies have shown that the type of handle a door has is important to the elderly, and that lever-style knobs function better.

Think this is radical government meddling in private construction or the status quo? The Vancouver Sun's Jeff Lee reminds us that new norms of all kinds creep up on us slowly:

Remember the regular toilet? Try to find one. Low-flush is all there is to be had. The incandescent light bulb? Sorry, just energy-saving fluorescent or LED now in most stores.

Top image: FooTToo/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.