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Designing Inclusive Green Spaces

As green spaces are some of our most celebrated urban spaces, it’s important that people of all ages and abilities are given the opportunity to relax, play, and enjoy.

By Erinn McKinney


October 1, 2018

Public green spaces are some of the most cherished areas of our cities and are often where people seek refuge from chaotic urban life. While parks offer many city dwellers a space to relax and play, this opportunity is not given to everyone. For the millions of people with disabilities, urban parks can be challenging and inaccessible spaces.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, “the number of Canadians living with a physical disability that impairs their mobility, vision, or hearing will rise from 2.9 million to 3.6 million over the next 13 years.” This rate of growth is over double the pace of the population for the country as a whole. For this reason, urban designers and landscape architects need to design areas where Canada’s current—and future—disabled populations cannot only enjoy, but thrive.

Landscape Design Principles that Focus on Safety and Movement

Safety, comfort, and flexibility are important factors to consider when designing public green space as people with physical disabilities often rely on their hands or feet to interact with the outside world. By tweaking certain design principles to accommodate those needs, we can construct outside areas that facilitate user movement and overall safety.

Texture: Varying ground textures can be used to help physically challenged individuals orient themselves more easily. Ground surface changes, like the use of cobbles, can indicate whether or not a space may be unsafe and indicate if a roadway lies ahead for example. Furthermore, special textures can signal upcoming landmarks, like public art, or warn of upcoming infrastructure like bicycle stands or planters.

Plant choice: Beautification choices can double as a way to enhance the experience of visually impaired users. Rather than focusing solely on looks, plants can be chosen for their scents and the animals they attract; both of which can make spaces feel more attractive to people with disabilities. Certain smells can help users navigate their environment and make spaces more enjoyable for people who are more attuned to smell. For those with hearing sensitivities, plants that attract certain animals such as specific birds can provide audible comfort. For visual enhancement, bright colored flora can offer a more distinct contrast against a traditionally dark, green environment.

Besides adding to the overall look and feel of green space, plants can also act as critical reference points that allow users to experience the area in their own way.

Barriers: A barrier-free environment is a safe one, though not all curbs can be avoided. Providing curb ramps is essential to making spaces that are the most inclusive if a physical barrier is needed. Ramp slopes should be designed in accordance to local guidelines, so as to not create unsafe access routes. Green space should encourage physically challenged individuals to enjoy urban nature and should be accessible by means of ramps and pathways.

Public parks and urban green spaces should ideally be free of restrictions, however, many existing design choices discourage use by certain groups. Through inclusive design, landscape architects and designers can enhance park experience and usership by both disabled and non-disabled people. As green spaces are some of our most celebrated urban spaces, it’s important that people of all ages and abilities are given the opportunity to relax, play, and enjoy.


Photo by Yomex Owo on Unsplash

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