Ideas + Perspectives
This is our first blog post. Please stay tuned for forthcoming musings and insights.
Making the Grade: Increasing Access to Parks for All Ages and Abilities
May 6, 2020
As we all adjust to the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of our parks and trails for health and wellbeing is abundantly clear. While many park amenities are shuttered, trails and open spaces allow for access to outdoor recreation while social distancing. However, not all trails and open spaces are readily accessible to all. Parking lots in many parks are blocked off, making it challenging for people with disabilities to access trails. For those who can access trails, it is likely that some will face challenges, as many trails do not meet current ADA regulations.
It has been 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. While this 30th anniversary celebrates countless life-changing improvements toward equity and inclusion, the challenge to keep parks, trails, and open spaces in compliance is ongoing. Issues of cost, maintenance, or site constraints often hinder a good faith effort to furnish inclusive recreational facilities. As every design professional knows, site design must address trade-offs due to differing priorities. However, accessibility challenges can often be solved with creative, low-budget solutions. Here are three projects that identify accessibility issues and provide cost-effective solutions for all ages and abilities.
Emiquon Preserve Visitor Use Site, IL
As a first step, parks and public spaces need to find out whether a facility is accessible to all ages and abilities. In 2018, The Nature Conservancy in Illinois retained L/KLA to provide an accessibility assessment for existing and proposed infrastructure at the Emiquon Visitor Use Site on the shore of Thompson Lake. The Nature Conservancy’s primary mission is conservation and stewardship, but in recent years they have made efforts to increase public access to their natural areas in a way that is sensitive to their primary mission. After reviewing guidance from Illinois and Federal standards, as well as on-site assessments, L/KLA evaluated the Nature Conservancy’s ongoing maintenance practices and opportunities for small-scale new construction or renovation that could increase access for all ages and abilities. The final 2019 report is being used by TNC’s to guide their ongoig efforts and investments needed to meet their goal of increasing public access and outreach for visitors of all ages and abilities at Emiquon, helping to tell the story of their work and multi-faceted benefits of Emiquon’s restored wetlands.
Abrupt transitions from adjoining surface conditions are common compliance challenges.
An example provided in the Emiquon accessibility report: While a standard handrail is provided, the ramp at Neabsco Creek Boardwalk requires an additional handrail for ADA compliance. L/KLA designed this 3,000+ ft ADA accessible boardwalk in Prince William County, VA.
Fort Ward Park, Alexandria, VA
Like many jurisdictions, The City of Alexandria is striving to upgrade existing facilities to increase access and mobility for all. An historic city, Alexandria is also faced with infrastructure improvements and limitations arising from existing land use patterns and historic and archaeological resources. L/KLA was selected as the lead consultant for improvements to Fort Ward Park—the location of an historic Civil War Fort and contemporaneous African American neighborhood. Once the City’s arboretum, it is also home to treasured, mature trees, with wooded paths and trails throughout. Improvements include accessible parking and paths to the existing picnic shelter, and relocation/design of a more inclusive playground. Balancing the pros and cons between providing access and preserving mature trees and historic resources, L/KLA is working with the City to design and construct these improvements with minimal impact on resources and high impact on the City’s ability to provide access to residents of all ages and abilities.
An accessible route will link new ADA parking spaces to the picnic shelter and sidewalk, as shown above. In addition to providing access, protection of existing archaeological resources and existing trees is paramount in this effort.
View toward the picnic shelter from the parking lot, looking in the general location of the future accessible route.
Prince William County, Woodbridge, VA
After an accessibility compliance report was conducted, evaluating over 70 parks in Prince William County’s Parks and Recreation system, the department retained L/KLA through an open-end services contract to design accessibility improvements for several of their aging parks. John D. Jenkins Park, serving a neighborhood park in Woodbridge, includes wooded open space, a basketball court, and a playground. Immediately adjacent to the park are the offices of The ARC of Prince William County and a care center for children with developmental disabilities. Prince William County took the opportunity to replace a timber retaining wall to create an accessible pathway from the parking area to the basketball courts below.
Before and after photos of ramp designed with pickets, connecting parking with the basketball courts below. A maximum of 20 percent of handrail length may be obstructed on the bottom (505.6 Gripping Surface. ADAAG.). The railings in this design meet this requirement.
With site constraints such as steep slopes and shallow underground utilities, coupled with budget constraints, the final design needed to be low-impact and cost effective. L/KLA designed a series of concrete ramps with railing and a lower (<3’ tall) segmental retaining wall to provide a simple, direct route that provides ADA accessibility, aesthetic improvements, and limited site disturbance. The ramp has a standard rail with pickets and incorporates a retaining wall and surface drainage as part of the ramp system, addressing all site requirements in a cost effective, but attractive manner.
As landscape architects, we approach ADA as a minimum standard, while striving to do more than “check off the boxes” to meet requirements. We seek a comprehensive solution to inclusivity, encompassing ease of access, aesthetics, and ecological stewardship. With ingenuity and rigorous site analysis, accessibility improvements for aging park facilities can be implemented as part of a holistic approach, often with minimal modifications, constructed as part of ongoing maintenance projects, using small-scale design interventions. At some point, the backlog of accessibility needs will disappear as all new park projects incorporate universal design as an integral design and budget component right from the start.