Inclusive greenspace - making parks accessible to people of all ages and disabilities

Jane Stoneham, Sensory Trust

Weston Park in Sheffield.  Picture shows people gathering on lawn, and children playing football.In October 2004 the Disability Discrimination Act came into force, and six years later the Equality Act 2010 which brought together the different anti-discrimination legislation. This has placed a responsibility on service providers to make reasonable adjustments to the delivery of services in order to provide access for people with disabilities. This brings significant implications for the design and management of public open space. The full implications of the legislation relies on ongoing testing in the Courts, but already it has sparked a gear change in awareness of the importance of accessibility issues.

The Sensory Trust is a national organisation opening up opportunities for greater access and enjoyment of greenspace for the wider public, regardless of age, disability or background. Our work combines issues of accessibility with quality of experience, and increases awareness of the diversity of the people we are designing for in the public arena.

Making a place accessible is not always about major changes in infrastructure. Some of the most effective improvements come from inexpensive changes and thoughtful planning. Retrofitting can be costly and ugly, and can be avoided by considering accessibility at the earliest stages of planning and design.

In order to optimise use for people greenspace must be both accessible and worth visiting. Good accessibility is fundamental although there has, in the past, been a tendency towards an exclusive focus on one or two forms of disability (for example wheelchair users) and the physical aspects of site design (ramps and paths). However, accessibility is also to do with other factors (such as distance from home) and sociocultural factors (do people want to go there and do they feel safe/comfortable there?). Social factors are sometimes overlooked but are often very significant in making people with disabilities feel excluded from landscape.

Making places accessible

The main barriers in using greenspace include:
• Physical e.g steps, slopes, lack of toilet facilities, inaccessible private transport, lack of accessible car parking (some cities have developed car free zones in a bid to become more sustainable, but this overlooks those people who soley rely on their own transport to be able to get to places).
• Psychological e.g lack of confidence, fear over personal safety, lack of motivation, unfamiliarity
• Organisational e.g lack of information and interpretation, guide dog facilities, site guides.

A diverse mix of people enjoying a picnic in the park.A wheelchair user enjoying a visit to Heligan gardens.

Information is crucial. Lack of accessible pre-visit and on-site information is a major barrier to disabled people. Generally there is a lack of pre visit materials for people to use, in order for them to make a decision to visit a park or greenspace. People need to know in advance whether a place is going to be accessible to them, what experience they can expect, and how they can get to and around it. Information can be provided in a variety of formats such as audio, pictorial symbols such as Widgits for people with learning difficulties, large print, Braille, tactile materials, guides, and websites (providing they adhere to WAI accessibility guidelines).

Similarly, physical accessibility does not always equate with motivation to visit. The ‘if we build it, they will come’ method does not always succeed if the greenspace itself has previously been underused, or if the access works destroy the character of the place. Consulting with users and non-users of the space is key in finding out what people want to see there (engaging with stakeholders, the key people who may live or work near/around the park, local hospitals, schools, libraries, services, etc.) and is fundamental to be able to develop a sustainable solution. To make a space accessible it is vital that the policy adopted is one of integration not segregation. Sometimes well intentioned spaces are designed/redesigned with the subtext of ‘design for disability’.

Inclusive greenspace strategies are best planned with all people in mind, not to reinforce feelings of difference, but instead to ensure that as many people as possible can enjoy the space, regardless of ability.