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#bioPGH Blog: Outdoors for All!
Jun 17

#bioPGH Blog: Outdoors for All!

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Research and Science Education Outreach Manager

Biophilia NetworkA resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer. 

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At Phipps, we love encouraging folks to enjoy the outdoors and soak up the benefits of spending time in nature — after all, time outdoors is associated with decreased stress, lowered blood pressure, and increased attention among many other things! However, we know that access to the outdoors is not necessarily equally available to everyone, especially for individuals with mobility differences who perhaps use a wheelchair or walker. This week on the blog, we wanted to explore some of the different features of accessible outdoor facilities and note some of Pittsburgh’s accessible parks and natural areas — let’s be sure we can all enjoy public green spaces, no matter what.

First, I chatted with Stephanie Brink, Lead Physical Therapist for The Day School at the Children’s Institute, to learn more about what to look for in parks that are accessible. Many of us take it for granted that accessibility considerations need to begin the moment we arrive at a destination.

“First, some things to think about would be access to parking spaces — close access to a picnic area, trails, or playgrounds,” Notes Stephanie. “Then we want to look at how that parking access is connected to the facility — whether the ground is sloped or flat, and what the surface is like.” Stephanie explained for an individual using a wheelchair, for example, rough, uneven surfaces can make movement difficult for either the person using the wheelchair or a caregiver who may be assisting but having trouble with footing. Then we discussed the amenities of a park themselves.

“Once you’re in the space, if there are picnic tables, there may not be tables accessible for someone using a wheelchair, for example. Traditional picnic tables have bolts and braces that can prevent someone from comfortably reaching the table, but an accessible table would be one with an edge that comes out.”

We also talked about what inclusive playgrounds might look like, including ramps, interactive features (like “pirate ship helms”) that are at multiple heights for children either standing or sitting, and even swings that can support a child using a wheelchair without requiring a transfer.

And we can’t leave out an opportunity for hiking! Stephanie explained that for trails, the most accessible paths are paved surfaces or crushed limestone or some packed gravel that isn’t loose and that won’t get caught underfoot or underwheel.

“And a firm surface is important to maintain balance,” Stephanie emphasized. “That goes for caregivers too!”

The last thing we discussed was something we can all instantly connect to — bathroom accessibility.

“That’s huge,” said Stephanie. “Not even just in green spaces but in the general public as well. The distance from restrooms from other points in the park, and then once you’re [in the bathroom], how are you going to manage the personal care that you need to? Adult-sized changing tables in public spaces would be huge. Our kids turn into adults, and baby changing tables are not feasible for all populations. And we understand that the space can limited, but it’s something to think about.”

“And Pittsburgh does a really nice job with planning for all of this,” Stephanie added, which made my black-and-gold heart happy.

Next, I wanted to learn where around the city one could find accessible public green spaces. I reached out to Andrea L. Ketzel, Senior Project Landscape Architect for City of Pittsburgh, and asked her about some of the most accessible park areas within the city itself and some upcoming projects.

“We recently completed a renovation of Wightman Park,” she shared. “Which includes newly installed ADA parking, entrance ramps and walkways throughout. The park also gives special consideration to incorporating more inclusive play equipment for children with mobility and sensory differences.  In addition, the park includes a new family restroom facility with an adult changing table. The inclusion of an adult changing table was an important request from the community. We heard from parents and caretakers of children with differing physical abilities. They communicated the struggles that they face in a public setting when caring for their children who have outgrown a standard baby changing table. The table will allow parents and caretakers to provide for their grown children or adult family members in a safe, sanitary and private location.”

This sounded like a fantastic start, and she also noted that Homewood Park, South Side Park and Highland Park Super Playground are all future projects which will provide special consideration to inclusive access.

“In the upcoming year or two we will be working to inventory our playgrounds and trails city-wide to ensure accessibility and also communicate accessible features to the public,” she noted.

If someone is looking to get out of the city for a change of scenery, I also spoke to Shane Miller, Environmental Education Specialist at Raccoon Creek State Park to identify some of the most accessible points in the park.

“All picnic areas are easily accessible and have accessible parking,” Shane began, “And of the whole park, the beach area has accessible parking, all of the trails are paved in that area, and the ground is flat and level. Plus it’s a nice, spacious area.”

Shane also noted that adjacent to the wildflower reserve, there is a small, native plant garden surrounded by wide, mowed level trails in a meadow.

“And I have to say,” he added. “The best time to visit the native plant garden is July thru September for the flowers and butterflies and other pollinators.”

I also looked up Moraine State Park’s accessible features and locations, and noted that boat launches, marinas, and several picnics were marked as ADA friendly (full details on their website.)

This exploration even more firmly cemented in my mind that the outdoors are for everyone. I am eager to keep learning how we can ensure equitable access for all, and that starts with including everyone in the discussion and planning process, learning from past mistakes, and continuing to move forward. Hope to see you in the outdoors soon!

For more information on accessibility in green and outdoor spaces, City of Pittsburgh residents can contact CitiParks for questions about specific park amenities

Also, check out this presentation from Phipps’ 2021 Nature of Place Virtual Symposium, and hear more about the Naples Botanical Garden’s journey towards inclusion and accessibility in their own garden.



Children’s Institute

Venture Outdoors