Are Canada’s parks really accessible?

juillet 22, 2019
Jillian Glover

When designing parks for the 1 in 7 Canadians who have a disability, the first thing that comes to mind is wheelchair-accessibility, but Brad McCannell, Vice President of Access and Inclusion at the Rick Hansen Foundation, wants city planners to get beyond this mindset.

While cities are making more wheelchair-accessible park facilities and trails, according to McCannel, more work needs to be done to create universal access for people with all forms of disability, such as hearing impairments, vision loss, and developmental disabilities. He makes a point of noting that 70% of people with disabilities do not use a wheelchair.

“There are seniors who can’t run as far or reach as far, but are not viewed as ‘disabled.’ We need more than wheelchair-accessible paths, we need to take a holistic look at what it means to have a disability and still enjoy parks and recreation.”

The Government of Canada states that because of its complexity, there is no single “operational” definition of disability. The most widely accepted definition is provided by the World Health Organization:

Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.

Like the rest of us, people with a broad range of disabilities choose to live in cities for easy access to services and amenities such as parks, which are critical to their health and well-being. But, are Canadian cities doing enough to make parks accessible? 

According to Mike Prescott, PhD Candidate and Researcher on active mobility for people with disabilities, the state of accessibility in Canadian parks is a “mixed bag.”

“What is accessible differs from one person to the next. Someone using a scooter is going to have different accessibility requirements than someone with a visual impairment.”

Both Prescott and McCannel agree that cities can do more to make parks truly accessible for all. 

Better accessibility information and wayfinding


Mike Prescott with his dog, Gabby.

“There are many parks that offer accessible and interesting experiences, but we just don’t know about them. This dovetails with a critical element that is missing – accessibility information or wayfinding to help people navigate parks and trails such as maps, signage, and design elements,” said Mr. Prescott.

Accessibility information has improved through a proliferation of digital accessibility maps and mobile apps that help people with disabilities navigate cities and parks (AXS Map, Be My Eyes, AccessNow, and Wheelmap.), but many are crowdsourced by their potential users and if the data is not reliable, these apps risk making wayfinding harder, rather than easier.

Cities can address this by creating their own accessibility maps of parks and recreational facilities. The City of Burnaby recently completed an accessibility audit of its facilities, which resulted in the creation of an Accessibility Guidebook (available online and in PDF form). It includes detailed information for all civic buildings and parks on wheelchair accessible routes, bathrooms, parking and bus stops, as well as audible traffic signals. 

While providing accessibility information helps people with disabilities plan their trips to city parks and trails, they also benefit from wayfinding assistance once there.

“It is nice to have parks with trails, but older adults, or those with sensory impairments, can get disoriented and then they stop going. Reliable wayfinding can go a long way in helping people feel like they are not lost, “ said Mr. McCannel.

Some of the best and most reliable wayfinding examples are actually simple low-tech, low-cost solutions that go beyond basic signage, such as: including posts ever 15 – 100m on walking trails that show one side red and one side blue; high contrast imagery and markers for those who have lost depth perception; connecting posts with a tapping rail so that a cane can hit it; and adopting sensory solutions – a lavender garden, sounds, colours – that make wayfinding more intuitive.

For example, the City of Toronto’s Accessibility Design Guidelines specifies that where planting beds are provided in parks, designers should consider using raised beds and fragrant planting materials. 


Universal design is subtle


According to Lisa Derencinovic, a Rick Hansen Foundation Ambassador who was diagnosed with genetic eye disease at age four, “accessibility is a practice and attitude of inclusion, and most importantly, is about creating opportunities to focus on the capabilities, rather than limitations of people with disabilities.” 

When I asked Mr. McCannel to show me examples of accessible parks, he responded that it can’t easily be photographed, because it should not be obvious.

“We don’t want special entrances. We just want to get there like everyone else. Why is there always a wheelchair symbol on the door? People do not want things labelled ‘disabled,’” said Mr. McCannel. “Really good universal design is not obvious. It should be as normal as possible.”

According to McCannel, the best thing urban parks can do is get a rating or audit from an accessibility organization, such as the Rick Hansen Foundation’s Accessibility Certification Program. The program, featured in Park People’s Canadian City Parks Report, offers trained professionals to evaluate the meaningful access of public spaces and commercial and residential buildings. So far, it has provided over 1100 ratings for parks, waterparks, playgrounds, and trails.

It also measures the level of meaningful access beyond building code and is based upon the holistic user experience of people with varying disabilities affecting their mobility, vision, and hearing, including people with developmental disabilities and autism.

Universal accessibility was something that Glenys SnowDymond, Spinal Cord Injury BC Accessibility Specialist, set out to achieve when working on upgrades to Naikoon Provincial Park, located in the pristine remote islands of Haida Gwaii:

“While planning we agreed that access is more than providing accessible picnic sites, benches, outhouses, and parking. To meet Universal Access standards would require accommodating a diverse range of accessible features, for vision, hearing, mobility-impaired individuals, persons with literacy considerations and the multicultural community.”

Naikoon Park interactive map

The resulting design includes extended wooden boardwalks, high-contrast interpretive panels that can be read in braille, a talking welcome sign that speaks aloud, and, those who can’t make the trip out can now explore the area virtually, via a fully-accessible interactive online website that features sound effects, animation and information posts.


Changing the culture of planning and design


“Often, public spaces are considered ‘accessible’ if they have one ramp, and ‘fully accessible’ if they have two,” said McConnel. “Parks are outside building codes, so planners tend to fall back on building codes when trying to make them accessible. For example, certain wheelchair ramps that meet code requirements and are safe indoors can be treacherous in the outdoors when wet.”

Many cities are expanding their view of accessibility in public spaces and parks by creating new design guidelines that go beyond minimum building code requirements. For example, the City of Calgary created a Universal Design Handbook that encourages design professionals – from architects, developers, planners to the interior and web designers – to provide equal access, social inclusion and a level playing field for all citizens. Other Canadian cities, like the City of Burnaby, are doing accessibility audits. According to Prescott:

“The Cities of Burnaby and Vancouver have made a concerted effort to incorporate accessibility into their parks over the last few years. Burnaby completed an accessibility audit of all their parks and recreation facilities and are taking a strategic approach to improving access for all. The key for cities is to not focus on individual parks, but how the network of parks can meet the needs of people with disabilities.”

Prescott said that parks departments tend to do a better job than most other departments in city government at creating accessibility, but one aspect of engagement that is missing is hiring planners and landscape architects with disabilities. This would help park planners and designers truly understand and see the challenges and barriers to accessibility in city parks. 

Jacques Courteau, co-chair of the City of Vancouver Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee, in a new water wheelchair offered by the Vancouver Parks Board. Photo Vancouver Park Board.

In the absence of this, cities should at least have an advisory committee to provide ongoing advocacy for persons with disabilities. In 2018, the City of Vancouver’s Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee advocated for improved access to the city’s spectacular beaches. As a result, Mobi-Mats, a non-slip beach access path, and 10 new water wheelchairs are now available at various beaches and pools across the city (pictured above).

The smallest thing can prevent access for people with disabilities and you just need to see it. Once you start seeing it, you can’t stop,” said McCannel. “That is the beauty of it. We can change the culture, once we start to see.”



Jillian Glover is a communications professional who specializes in urban issues and transportation. She is a former Vancouver City Planning Commissioner and holds a Master of Urban Studies degree from Simon Fraser University. She was born and raised in Vancouver and writes about urban issues at her blog, This City Life.