With a vast collection of public property – about 29,000 acres! – New York City’s Parks Department is the major provider of recreational space throughout the five boroughs.
Given that, it’s extremely important that everyone who wants to can use the parks, gardens, gyms, beaches, playgrounds and other venues – not to mention enjoy the free concerts, sporting events and cultural festivals – that the department is in charge of. And, of course, public facilities such as parks are required to be accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as state and local laws.
This week, New Yorkers with disabilities and organizational advocates joined NYC Parks employees at the department’s ADA Advisory Committee meeting to learn about the many sports and recreational programs the department offers that accommodate people with disabilities, and to raise individual questions and concerns.
With a history going back 300 years, it’s not surprising that many NYC parks were built without a lot of thought given to accessibility for people with disabilities. Today, “universal design” – architecture that welcomes everyone, including older people who may be unsteady on their feet and people with mobility, cognitive or sensory disabilities – is an important watchword for new construction and renovation in our parks.
Universal design might include playground equipment that accommodates a mobility device, so a dad in a wheelchair can chase his toddler up onto a jungle gym runway. For a child with a sensory disability that makes the stimulation of a typical play area overwhelming, new and renovated playgrounds may include equipment set aside in a more tranquil area that is designed to encourage quiet imaginative play.
Mobility mats rolled out at city beaches can provide wheelchair users a pathway to enjoy the surf at the water’s edge, where floating beach wheelchairs allow some users to venture into the waves.
To make it possible for children and adults with reduced mobility to enjoy privately run skating rinks in New York City’s public parks – such as Brooklyn’s Lakeside rink in Prospect Park and Manhattan’s Bryant Park skating rink – the Parks Department purchased adult- and child-sized ice sleds for each site.
Have a problem? Speak up!
New York City’s parks – huge and tiny – as well as its many community gardens, more than 800 athletic fields, nearly 1,000 playgrounds, 550 tennis courts, 66 public pools, 48 recreational facilities, 23 historic house museums, 17 nature centers, 13 golf courses, and 14 miles of beaches – all managed by the Parks Department – belong to each one of us. And, while sincerely tipping our hats to all the progress underway, there are still probably as many problems as there are parks: steep stairs – some lacking handrails – long walls that separate sidewalks from parklands, narrow entryways, gates that are difficult to open, inaccessible bathrooms. This makes sense; the Parks Department is an enormous system that is perennially underfunded – and, of course, everything takes time as well as money.
One attendee at this week’s meeting described ramps at “accessible” bathrooms that are too steep for some wheelchair users to safely navigate. At ICS we’ve recently heard complaints about park comfort stations that are locked and being used for storage.
One need that became very clear at this week’s meeting is for better communication and signage. For example, no one seemed to know about the ice sleds available at city skating rinks, a problem that could be solved through a thoughtful combination of signage, skating rink staff education, and targeted outreach.
One woman described finding it impossible to use the wheelchair mats at a city beach because other members of the public, uninformed about their purpose, use them as a convenient place to sit. Again, signage could go a long way here.
So, yes, there are plenty of problems, BUT there are also pool lifts in every adult swim pool, adaptive weight lifting equipment in every recreational center and, in each borough, what the Parks Department calls an adaptive hub – fully accessible centers that lead their borough in offering programs for New Yorkers with disabilities. The hubs are also information centers where people with disabilities can learn about programs including adaptive swim, modified fitness classes, adaptive sports and art classes. Upcoming offerings include power soccer, wheelchair flag football, goalball, and accessible workshops in stargazing, birdwatching and abstract painting.
Perhaps most importantly, people with disabilities have an advocate at NYC Parks, in the form of Accessibility Coordinator Christopher Noel. As a wheelchair user Mr. Noel brings first-hand experience to his work. Leading this week’s meeting he made it abundantly clear that he welcomes hearing from New Yorkers with disabilities about their experiences, problems, suggestions and complaints.
“Call my office,” he said, “my role is to make our parks, recreational facilities and beaches more accommodating for people with disabilities and seniors so I don’t mind getting a phone call and calling someone within the borough to expedite a solution to a problem. It’s my job to help make sure people with disabilities can enjoy our parks, rather than going home and not being able to participate.”
So, if you are a person with a disability who has an access problem with a city park, don’t just complain to your neighbor; get in touch with Christopher Noel. Christopher.Noel@parks.nyc.gov or 212-360-3319.