Every park, every playground, every time: Gary Warner on inclusive park design

Every park, every playground, every time: Gary Warner on inclusive park design

When a community unveils a new inclusive park or renovated playground with accessibility features, it is often celebrated as a victory of progress—and rightfully so. Inclusive parks and recreation facilities enable local governments to better serve the needs of a wider variety of people. But part of why these groundbreaking and ribbon cutting ceremonies are such big news is because inclusive park design is the exception and not the rule.

Gary Warner, WithersRavenel’s Senior Director of Design + Planning, is working to create a world that normalizes inclusive park design—a world where communities can celebrate every park, every playground, every time.

Why inclusive park design?

According to the National Recreation and Park Association, “Americans almost unanimously agree that their communities benefit from their local public parks, even if they are not regular park users.” But only two out of five park and recreation agencies have formal inclusion policies. Inclusive park design is focused on bridging the gap so that all members of the public have the opportunity to reap the benefits of public parks and recreation offerings.

Accessibility is a key component of inclusive design, and it starts with location: can users get to a facility that meets their needs? Lack of access to a personal vehicle or public transportation already limits some families from seeking outdoor spaces; families with special needs may find it even more difficult to go out of their way to visit the one or two locations with the appropriate features.

Gary believes that families should not have to travel to specific park or playground to play. Incorporating inclusive design principles into park and recreation master planning and design will allow communities to provide a greater level of service to all people.

Expanding the definition of accessibility

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990. Since then, planners, designers, and architects have spent a lot of time designing parks and playgrounds for ADA compliance. The ADA has specific requirements to make sure that public spaces are physically accessible to people with limited mobility or who use mobility aids.

But although mobility issues are the most visible and easily recognized, they are not the most common type of disability. In fact, orthopedic impairments account for only a small fraction of disabilities in American children and young adults—about one percent.

Among U.S. students aged 3–21 who received special education services during the 2019–2020 school year, one in three had a specific learning disability and one in five had a speech or language impairment. Autism, developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, and emotional disturbances made up the other largest categories, ranging from 5 percent to 11 percent of students.

These statistics, Gary stresses, highlight the need to design parks and playgrounds for wider variety of disabilities. ADA compliance should be the minimum design standard, not the ultimate goal.

How to design for different abilities

Gary says that to develop more accessible and inclusive park designs, we must first understand how disability and play intersect. Below he shares, in a very broad sense, six types of disability designers should be aware of and how they can affect play.

  • Physical/Mobility
    • Restricted movements
    • Difficulty moving body or moving items
    • May affect communication
  • Cognitive
    • Difficulty with high levels of dramatic play
    • May need to learn or imitate skills
    • May explore more than participate in direct play
  • Communication
    • Difficulty initiating or entering into play
    • Trouble being understood limits expression of desire
  • Social/Emotional
    • Interferes with engagement play
    • Potential withdrawal
    • Aggressiveness limits invitations or destroys items
    • Fear of new people/things
    • Unwilling to risk exploration
  • Sensory
    • Limits to orientation and imitative skills
    • Hearing affects language and speech skills
    • May not respond to initiation by others
    • May not invite others
  • Acquired
    • May limit time or ways to play

As an example, Gary describes a child with a speech impairment. She is fully able to hear, understand, and physically engage with her peers, but she has trouble being understood by them. Their inability to understand her may stymie play and frustrate or upset both her and the peer group. As a result, they may be less inclined to invite her into their activities, and she may avoid initiating play with them.

Can this challenge be solved by design? Gary believes that it can. He points to equipment that encourage parallel play, such as sandboxes and water tables; magnetic boards with repositionable letters, numbers, or figures; and building blocks and other construction toys. These solutions allow children to play side-by-side without verbal communication while leaving open the opportunity for social play if desired.

At the same time, designers should also consider options for solitary play or areas to rest. These features are particularly helpful for children with cognitive or sensory disabilities, who benefit from the ability to disengage when they feel overstimulated.

Choosing the right equipment and features

Designing for different abilities often does not require special equipment. While there are some specialty items like swings and ramps, most inclusive playground designs can be achieved using the same or similar equipment as a typical playground. The trick is knowing how to use this equipment differently and effectively and being open to familiar designs being used in new ways.

Gary points to a butterfly-themed playground, Common Ground in Lakeland, Florida, as one example of serendipitous design. He and his fellow designers used low walls to create the shape of the butterfly’s spiraling antennae. The walls were intended to be largely decorative, with the understanding that adventurous children would probably use them like balance beams. What they had not expected—and were pleasantly surprised to learn—was that children with autism walked the path created by the wall sort of like a labyrinth and used the space at the center to isolate and de-stimulate. This insight into how children play and rest has helped broaden Gary’s ideas about how to meet different needs.

When and where to get help

Trying to understand and accommodate the full range of abilities can feel overwhelming. While in school, designers are not typically taught about disabilities and their effects unless they also pursue voluntary courses in psychology or sociology.

Fortunately, disability advocacy is not new, and while the causes of specific disabilities may change over time, the underlying nature and challenges posed by each disability are likely to stay the same. As new research deepens our understanding of the effects of disability on play, and as new strategies for accommodating disabilities emerge, advocates work to provide resources to playground equipment manufacturers, surface material providers, and facility designers.

Gary recommends bringing in a consultant who specializes in special needs if you are new to the field or if you are interested in exploring the latest ideas in accommodation and inclusion. A quick internet search for “inclusive design specialists” yields a long list of a wide variety of agencies with information and staff who are willing to assist.

Moving from inclusive park design to universal design

If there is one takeaway from this discussion, it is that inclusive design requires a shift in mindset more than anything else. Designers do not need specialized advanced degrees to create inclusive spaces, and park owners and operators do not need huge budgets for specialty equipment. Instead, clients and consultants must work together with families and disability advocates to understand and creatively meet the needs of children of all ages and abilities.

Gary believes that as we work toward a world where every park and every playground is an inclusive one, we will open the door for discussing disability and design through all areas and phases of life. For instance, how can we extend our ideas about inclusivity beyond parks and playgrounds and apply them to other public places like urban plazas and special event venues? How do needs change as we age, and how can designs adapt?

Answering these questions is part of a growing movement toward universal design, the idea of designing objects and spaces to be accessible to all people regardless of age, ability, or other factors. Gary and his design team are proud of their every park, every playground, every time approach to inclusive park design contributes to this larger design movement, and they look forward to bringing their experiences to wider array of projects.

Gary Warner has a passion for design in the realms of public parks, playgrounds, gardens, and urban spaces, particularly in North Carolina communities. He has received recognition as a specialist in the design of inclusive play areas for children of various abilities. Additionally, he holds expertise in master planning, developments in inclusive design and play, public facilitation and workshops, open space design, construction details and urban landscapes.

To engage Gary on your next park or playground project, contact him at (919) 535-5238 or gwarner@withersravenel.com.