Universal design and gardens

A public garden with brightly coloured flowers and plants set around a water feature. Universal design and gardens. COVID has shown us how important gardens are to everyday life. Whether it’s a home garden or a park garden, they are good for our wellbeing. But not all botanical and park gardens are accessible to all. Applying the principles of universal design in gardens in the planning process is a good way to go. 

The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has a guide to applying the principles universal design in gardens. Including people with disability in the planning process is, of course, essential. Gardens can be beneficial to people with disability especially if there is good visual and tactile information. 

The ASLA Guide lists some design aspects to consider:

    • Choose a seasonal plant palette that emphasises seasonal change 
    • Circular or figure-eight paths, which are good for people with dementia who are likely to wander
    • Frequent, flexible seating with arm and back rests throughout the garden. Seating that is light enough to be moved encourages social engagement.
    • An obvious inclusion is to limit the level changes, but where they are necessary they should be well signed with multi-sensory wayfinding.
    • Toilets are a must and should be located within easy line of sight, not hidden. Clear signage throughout the garden is also a must.
    • Secluded areas are also helpful, not just for people with autism or other cognitive conditions, but for private contemplation. 

There’s more detail on the ASLA website on this topic with some useful case studies.  

Community and botanical gardens are a place of relaxation and enjoyment. They provide an opportunity to experience nature. There are many physical and mental health benefits to experience nature. Applying universal design principles in the planning a design process allows many more people to enjoy the benefits of a public garden.

1000 Play Streets Toolkit

A man is drawing chalk lines on the roadway. In the background children are gathered. 1000 Play Streets Toolkit.The play street movement is taking off and councils across Australia are starting to take an interest. Play streets are run by residents for a few hours at quiet times of day. They can be weekly, fortnightly or monthly, or even one-off events. Regular times bring the best results for creating connection, and it’s all explained in the 1000 Play Streets Toolkit

The aim of the 1000 Play Streets project is to reclaim quiet residential streets as places for neighbours of all ages to connect. Older Australians will remember playing in the street as they were growing up and this is a way to recapture some of that value. But now neighbours need help to make it happen and this is where local councils come in. 

The Toolkit is specifically designed to provide planning advice to local governments that want to build local communities. It requires the approval of temporary street closures and support for neighbourhood groups.

The overall aim is to create a play street movement that develops organically through citizen action. The Toolkit is for local government to help them on their Play Street journey. 

There are several supporting documents to the Toolkit including case studies.

Blue and white logo for the 1000 Play Streets Toolkit. The online Toolkit links to online case studies, templates and other resources. It includes issues such as traffic, public liability and a risk benefit assessment.

There is a video of the national launch of the Toolkit and the Play Street movement. There is also a slideshow with the key elements of how and why the project is important. 

Frequently Asked Questions provides answers to the typical questions councils would ask. This document provides similar information to the Toolkit, but in a different format. 


Universal Design for Yellowstone

Mammoth Hot Springs. Rocky terraces formed by yellow sulphur stand in front of a bright blue sky. Universal Design for Yellowstone.
Yellowstone National Park

Similarly to museums, a visit to a national park is an experience. So, applying universal design principles is more than just being accessible. It it has to offer enrichment, be multi-sensory, and engage participation. An in depth study by landscape architect Rachel Cross showcases the application universal design in Yellowstone National Park. 

Mammoth Hot Springs at Yellowstone National Park is a great place for a case study. Rachel Cross includes international examples and illustrations of national parks. They show how universal design strategies were applied using the four elements: accessibility, enrichment, engagement and multi-sensory experiences. 

The report features the planning and thinking behind the Yellowstone project and includes design drawings. The last part of the report has the universal design guide for national parks. 

Page from the report showing the four pillars of universal design for Yellowstone National Park.
4 Pillars of Universal Design: accessibility, enrichment, multi-sensory, engagement.

Each of the four pillars are explained in further detail for designers, an lists what is required and what is recommended. The final part of the report has concept drawings with design objectives. 

The title of the report is, Yellowstone For All: Creating an immersive, universal design experience at Mammoth Hot Springs. It is a great resource for experienced landscape architects and students alike. The reference list at the end adds value. You can also download the full PDF document. 

Project summary

“Universal design is an important, emerging practice that strives to create inclusive experiences for every person who visits a place, no matter their abilities. This report examined acts and guidelines currently used to inform the design of inclusive spaces, finding key gaps. The new guidelines were then applied to the projective design for Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park.

The projective design illustrated new possibilities for amenities to support accessibility, enrichment, engagement, and multi-sensory elements, thus creating a more inclusive and immersive site experience. Although many aspects of universal design can be achieved in a site design, there are unique challenges that designers must address for each project.”

Cross makes an important point about incorporating universal design features into the concept design and not leaving to a later stage. The value of universal design is better understood when it is part of the whole design process.   

Inclusion in Motion Playspace

Overview of the Inclusion in Motion Playspace.
Inclusion in Motion Playspace

The Inclusion in Motion Playspace is a great example of a local community project. Similarly to the Touched by Olivia founders in Australia, a family decided to do something when they encountered the “don’t stare” moment. Their son’s limited opportunities for play with other children was the driving force behind their decision that this had to change. It all began with a small local committee.

Fundraising efforts made the playspace possible together with volunteer effort to help with the build. According to Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDEA) the build is about to begin.  

Danise Levine from IDEA played an integral part in this collaboration as a designer. Universal design strategies are built into every aspect of the project. The Inclusion in Motion founders have a short story to tell on their Dream Big website.

The website includes an excellent video (below) of what the playspace will look like. It’s a good example of how a small community can come together for a common purpose and it showcases some of the best universally designed equipment available

The universally designed Everyone Can Play guidelines take a similar approach to designing playspaces. More resources are in the Parks and Playspaces section of this website. 


Kindergartens: Inclusive spaces for all children

Five small children stand in a line with their backs facing the camera. Kindergartens inclusive spaces for all children.
Kindergartens: Inclusive spaces for all children?

What do children think of the play spaces designed by adults? Why not ask them? That’s what a two Norwegian researchers did, and what an interesting result they found. They asked kindergarten children what they liked best and made them comfortable. Children with and without disability mostly wanted the same things, but there were a few differences. The researchers found the answer to what makes kindergartens inclusive spaces for all children.

Asking small children what they want and what they like is not a common research method. Within a qualitative framework, children collaborated with researchers. They identified the places and spaces that made them feel comfortable and included. Small places equipped with different types of construction materials were a favourite. 

Although the context is a supervised kindergarten, there are some interesting findings for unsupervised playspaces. These relate to both group play and parallel play. Fixed small places with non-organised materials were found to be group inclusive. Building blocks were attractive to all children. 

The children guided the researchers through their outdoor spaces where they found many activities in parallel. Children formed their own groups for games. Some children with socio-emotional issues, were less at home in these games. However, the ability to move to an area to be alone might have been a positive response. 

From the Conclusion

Small places with materials such as cushions and building blocks appear to be socially inclusive spaces for all children. We have to question our adult values in designing playspaces and the involvement of children with disability. Children have their own ideas of what is safe and fun. 

“Our study has shown that there is still a discrepancy between
ideology, children’s preferences and pedagogical practices. Children’s voices told that (dis)ability is a spatial phenomenon and guides the inclusive pedagogy closer to the dynamic between children, place and space.”

The title of the paper is, Kindergartens: Inclusive spaces for all children? It is an open access article. It’s worth noting that 97 per cent of children aged four to five years attend a kindergarten and that includes children with disability.

See the Parks, Open Spaces and Playspaces section of this website for more resources. 

Landscape architects lead the way

Image from the Arcadia report showing seating decorated with a shape of the shoreline.
Sandstone seating and Turpentine Ironbark timber. Corian detail shaped to reflect the shoreline of Sydney Harbour,

It’s fitting that a landscape architecture firm should tackle the topic of connection to Country. After all, they are the ones designing our outdoor spaces. NSW legislation dictates that Aboriginal heritage must be protected. Consequently, the responsibility falls to design professionals. It’s a means of enriching the built environment, and not just a legal necessity. So, it falls to landscape architects to lead the way. 

A report by Arcadia Landscape Architects aims to show that engagement with First Nations people is not difficult. They are concerned that designers will unwittingly perpetuate the colonisation of space if they continue with established practice. As they say, it has to go beyond token responses of “ornamental recognition”. They add that engaging with First Nations people continues after the life of the design project. 

The report aims to encourage the wider built environment industry to engage with First Nations people. The concept of Country is more than just land, water and sky. Country is language, family culture and identity, and is loved, needed and cared for.   

“Arcadia emphatically rejects the softening of language when referring to British invasion and processes of colonisation. It is a trend for these processes to be referred to as “arrival” and “settlement”, however the softening of language perpetuates myths of terra nullius and denies First Nations people their history and suffering endured.”

Front cover of Arcadia report. Landscape architecture leads the way.The report covers:

      • Approach and a note on language
      • How to engaging with Knowledge holders
      • Engaging with Country, which has 5 steps and examples
      • Engaging with Industry 
      • What to do when you can’t engage 
      • Where to next? includes conducting cultural training

There is a list of references and further reading at the end. The title of the report is, Shaping Country: Cultural Engagement in Australia’s Built Environment.  

Arcadia collaborated with Budawang/Yuin researcher and spatial and cultural designer Dr Danièle Hromek and Yuin woman Kaylie Salvatori, Arcadia’s Indigenous Landscape Strategist, to develop this research report.

 The NSW Government Architect’s Better Placed document has a section on Connection with Country

There are more articles on landscape architecture in the parks, open space and playspaces section of this website. 


Bamboo playspace wins award

Four people are crouched down working on the bamboo structure.
Image from the Design, Build, Play report.

Dhaka, Bangladesh has an award-winning bamboo playspace. The collaboratively designed playspace is a venue for theatre and dance and a local gathering place for families. Bamboo artisans, children from the Peace Home and architecture students worked together throughout the project. The bamboo playspace brings together vulnerable children with local neighbourhood children. The International Union of Architects judged this project to be worthy of the Friendly and Inclusive Spaces Award.

An aerial view of the playspace showing how the bamboo was constructed.
Aerial view of the award-winning Bamboo Playspace

The inclusive playspace was designed and built by bamboo artisans, children from the Peace Home and architecture students. It is part of  Paraa’s Critical Architecture, Design and Sustainable Environments course. A fundamental part of the course is for students to work with a community to resolve spatial challenges.  Hands-on projects such as this are challenging established educational practice at university level. 

The playspace has a central open space where children can play or organise festivals and performances. The structure can accommodate around 200 people at three different levels. Specific features were designed to include therapeutic exercises for children. There are play features for younger children where adults can supervise. Older children gravitate to the more adventurous zone. The semi-shaded decks offer flexible space for workshops and places to hang out. 

There is a magazine article that has more information and a series of pictures.  The action research and community engagement report provides the methodology and more pictures. The Paraabd Instagram account has many photos and videos too. 

Paraa is a design and architecture studio in Bangladesh that takes a multi-disciplinary approach to design. Their vision is to create a commercially-sustainable architectural, design and planning practice.


Inclusive Playspaces: An evaluation tool

A small boy sits in a basket swing. He is smiling as a woman is pushing the swing.Inclusive playspaces for all the family often means moving away from a “design by the catalogue” approach.  Some manufacturers of ready-made “plonk-down” equipment are recognising this change. But an inclusive playspace is much more than the equipment. So, how will you know if the design is inclusive and accessible? An evaluation tool for inclusive playspace designers is therefore welcome.

From the UK comes the Play Parks Evaluation Tool. Accessibility is often evaluated independently from the play experience. The tool is designed to overcome this as It integrates inclusive design and the value of play. The following factors underpin the tool:

Accessibility: non-play aspects (parking, pathways, seating); through the objective evaluation of provision.
Usability: play equipment design supporting use by individuals with differing levels of ability, encompassing Universal Design and focusing on an individual’s subjective evaluation of their experience.
Inclusion: environments that can be used by as many individuals as possible on as many occasions as possible.
Play types: physical, imaginative, or cognitive play, plus sensations including speed, rotation, and tactile experiences.

The article about the development of the tool covers the issues in depth. The tool consists of an infographic depicting a wheel with 16 spokes, one for each aspect of play. The aim is to fill in as many spokes as possible on any given site. It’s about moving from a position of viewing ‘general’ and ‘special’ features separately to a holistic approach. The tool is useful for developing new and existing sites. 

Graphic for the Playspace Evaluation Tool.
The Evaluation Tool wheel

The title of the article is, Developing an integrated approach to the evaluation of outdoor play settings: rethinking the position of play value. 


Local play parks are key spaces within children’s geographies providing opportunities for physical activity, socialisation and a connection with their local community. The design of these key neighbourhood facilities influences their use; extending beyond accessibility and installation of equipment when seeking to create a location with usability for all. This paper reports on the development of an evaluation tool, which supports the review and development processes linked to play parks. The Play Park Evaluation Tool (PPET), which is evidence-based in content and developed with a multi-disciplinary approach drawing on disciplines from the Built Environment and Health Sciences (occupational therapy), considers key areas contributing to the accessibility and usability of play parks. Aspects evaluated include non-play features such as surface finish and seating, recognising the relevance of these in creating accessible, usable spaces for play. This alongside assessment of installed play equipment to evaluate the breadth of play options available and how these meet the needs of children and young people with varying abilities or needs. The paper describes PPET’s creation, the revision process undertaken, and its subsequent use across three stages of a play park’s development. Key to achieving facilities with high play value is the provision of a varied play experience. To support this the evaluation of play types offered is integrated within the tool. This in-depth appraisal is supported by the creation of an infographic illustrating the resulting data and provides a method by which this information is presented in an accessible form. This visual representation contributing to the decision-making process undertaken by those responsible for the provision of play parks.

Quick tour of inclusive, creative and adventure play:

Two small children crouch down in a sandy area with large stones. Good to see creative and inclusive play.
Slide from Jeavons Landscape Architects presentation.

It’s not often a conference presentation slide deck becomes a mini training course. But Mary and Sally Jeavons achieved this at the inaugural Australian Universal Design Conference. The slides show lots of different examples of inclusive, creative and adventure play. It’s a quick tour of inclusive, creative and adventure play.

The title of the Jeavons presentation is, Designing Play Spaces for Inclusion: Devilish details that make a difference. This presentation focused on the design of parks and play spaces and their potential for intergenerational play, social interaction and community building. And, of course, for interaction with the natural world. As Mary Jeavons said, play equipment in a neatly fenced rubber space, cannot meet all of the play needs of today’s children and families. A very useful presentation using images that tell the story.

Two children, one in a wheelchair, enter a cubby area.
Photo courtesy Jeavons Landscape Architecture.

It is not easy to successfully include “un-designed” elements into playspaces. Plantings, sand, and large river pebbles need maintenance and resistance to local residents complaining about “mess”. There are also budget considerations. With increased urban density the need for adventure play becomes more important. All children have a right to use parks and open spaces. Time to move beyond the “plonk down” catalogue swing set and slide. 

The voices of children are rarely heard, but they did some listening in Launcestion. Have a look at their report.

See previous post with more practical information and research on adventure play. 


Canadian City Parks and Inclusion

A path wanders through a dense woodland. It has a fence of heavy timbers on each side of the path. Canadian city parks go for inclusion.The amount of space required for physical distancing due to COVID-19 highlights how valuable our public space is. An important point raised in the 2020 Canadian City Parks Report. Parks form a critical backbone of community infrastructure particularly in times of stress. However, not everyone feels welcome and respected in public space. There are systemic inequities related to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. So more parks and open streets aren’t the answer to these issues, particularly at this time of a pandemic. 

The City Park Report can also be read as a guide with sections with five themes:

Each theme has an Overview, Data, and Stories. The report is based on 25,000 responses to the Park People‘s 2019 report.  

The Inclusion section begins with the issue of homelessness and displacement. Not something usually thought of under this heading. However, they have some interesting responses to this issue from a parks perspective. People with disability get a separate sub-section. And, of course, as usual, this topic appears at the end of the report. 

Nicely presented, but fiddly to access, back and forth for the different sections. The Executive Summary provides an overview of the report.

A separate study, Participatory planning for the future of accessible nature, extends the thinking in this report. Available from Tanfonline or request a copy of the paper on ResearchGate