Park Accessibility: Limited Resources, Unlimited Imagination

By Maureen Hannan | Posted on August 19, 2011

Blind men and elephantRemember the famous Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant? A group of blind men is assembled and asked to describe an elephant. Each blind man touches a different part of the elephant—a tusk, a side, the trunk, a foot—and then, as the group begins to compare notes, they are shocked to hear the different descriptions that their varying perspectives have produced. As with the elephant parable, a mention of “park accessibility” to 10 different experts will likely produce 10 different definitions of the term. An urban planner might refer to the thoroughfares and pathways by which a driver or pedestrian arrives at a park. An ADA compliance auditor might examine the park’s entry points, as well as obstacles to playground equipment and park amenities. A public health specialist might consider whether the park offers the activities that will induce people of all ages and ethnicities to want to access the site. And a marketing expert would instantly set out to determine the percentage of targeted “customers” who are aware the park exists. And of course the list of experts could go on….

Earlier this month, NRPA gathered a panel of accessibility experts from many fields for a roundtable on access to parks. Panelists included Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) health equity specialist Carolyn Brooks (who showed a presentation on the trending of the national obesity epidemic that drew gasps from panelists and attendees alike); University of Georgia professor and researcher Gary Green, accessibility consultant John McGovern, Virginia Tech researcher and rural communities expert Shelley Mastran, landscape architect and Miami-Dade park planner John Bowers, and CDC community planner Dee Merriam. The event was part of a series of roundtables--an outreach effort made possible by the Department of Health and Human Services' Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant funds. Those participating in the Atlanta policy roundtable came ready to expand their thinking about the vital, timely, and hard-to-define issue of park accessibility. Getting to parks, moving freely and safely within them, taking advantage of their health-enhancing features—and yes, even being aware of their existence.

NRPA senior program manager Erika Terl. Terl said the roundtable had opened her eyes to how much creative, resourceful work is being done to improve accessibility with limited resources. For example, efforts to effectively survey the people living in communities, she says, allow park planners and programmers to learn what the obstacles (or perceived obstacles) confront park users—and, just as importantly, what people want from their parks. Once areas of improvement have been identified, parks can channel resources and enhance facilities and programs to meet those needs.

Another great lesson from the roundtable presentations was the level of compassion, imagination, and commitment many communities are investing in accessibility—efforts that often go far beyond compliance checklists, Terl explained. She refers to a slide featured in one of the panelist presentations depicting a hospital-grade bed with raising and lowering controls in the changing room of an aquatics center. The equipment, she says, was more than an accessibility investment—though it was certainly that. It was a gesture to the community as well. A way of saying that people with disabilities and those caring for them were welcome there—and that the dignity and privacy of those patrons mattered just as much as wheelchair ramps and other ADA-mandated features.

Zarnaaz Bashir, another of NRPA’s public health specialists, said she was struck by the diversity of the group attending the roundtable. Planners, transportation administrators, architectural and engineering consultants—even an epidemiologist. She wondered aloud how many communities across the country are forging creative and untraditional kinds of relationships in order to make their parks as accessible as possible.

The next—and final—conference in this series of free policy roundtables will focus on joint-use agreements. It will take place September 20 in San Antonio, Texas. If it is anything like the others in this series, it will stimulate both panelists and participants to see, in Bashir’s words, “unlimited creative opportunities for untraditional relationships.”

Contact Kellie May at for any questions about the policy roundtables held in 2011.

Maureen Hannan is the Senior Editor for Parks & Recreation magazine.