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Accessibility and Inclusivity in the Parks

A woman in a wheelchair in front of a playground.
A woman in a wheelchair in front of a playground.

Accessibility and Inclusivity in the Parks

California has the most parks in the United States. The city of Alameda, which is the third oldest park system in the state, has 24 alone. But what the US, California, and Alameda County do not have enough of is accessible playgrounds. Two of Alameda’s 24 parks, Littlejohn and Estuary Park, are 100% accessible and inclusive for people with and without disabilities.

Built-in 2014, Littlejohn Park is suitable for all sorts of disabilities. The Park and Recreation Department constructed it with the help of an outside architect, a handful of local disability organizations, and the Alameda County community as a whole.

Spearheading the project was Amy Woodridge, Alameda Parks, and Recreation Director. “We focused not only on the inclusivity but also including components where people could connect between generations,” Woodridge said.

People can access every aspect of the structure with a walker or wheelchair.

“In other playgrounds that only follow the minimum ADA requirements, usually you can only access components from the ground,” Woodridge said. “But in this one, you can access them from all locations.”

“Rather than having your standard set of stairs as the main entry point, Littlejohn has one – it’s a wide, wave-like structure with a low, gradual grade. It has a lot of different handholds. It’s intended for someone with a wheelchair to pull themselves up or down on it.”

It’s not only the ramp that’s accessible – so are the slides.

“Those also work, with the help of a caregiver. If a child in a wheelchair wants to roll up to the top, the city intended the slides to work well for kids with physical disabilities so the caregiver can meet them at the bottom.”

Littlejohn doesn’t just work for people with physical disabilities either – folks with developmental disabilities can also have a great time. The playground has sensory toys that are tactile for touch and sound stimulation. There is a hypnotic spinner, rollerballs, and a piano built into the side of a slide that invites interaction.

“Many of these are also for people with varying types of sensory disabilities to provide appropriate stimulation, such as colors created from the sunlight coming through, spinning motions, rain sounds, or the tactile sensations given by the rollerballs,” explained Woodridge.

Inclusive and accessible playgrounds like this are rare and more expensive than the average playground. According to Woodridge, the standard play structure of the same size as Littlejohn’s cost $200,000, whereas this one was $296,000. To cover the extra cost, Alameda received a grant from the California Parks and Recreation Society and the remainder of the City’s General Fund, which allocates $250,000 per year to replace a different playground each year.

But for Woodridge, money is not everything when it comes to the park. “The park provides a community space for children of all abilities to interact and play. Play is a powerful thing, and it builds understanding and connection between people.”

“Cities are beginning to understand the critical importance of inclusive playgrounds. And even the playground industry is now providing inclusive products rather than adaptive. These inclusive playground designs have woven the pieces for people with disabilities throughout the design and created exciting interactive features for all children. They create a space where kids of all abilities want to play together.”

Although some activities are on hold at the park due to COVID-19, the city did not close the park entirely. “Parks are a way for people to take a break from regular life, and sit next to a tree, and have that solace and relaxation. And we’ve seen that even more so through this pandemic.” Woodridge said. “The level of people using parks has skyrocketed. It has become a refuge for people to be outside and in the parks. Both for their physical health and their mental health.”

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