Universal Access to Outdoor Recreation

Universal Access to Outdoor Recreation

Project Play and Learning in Adaptable Environments, Inc. (PLAE), a nonprofit, multi-disciplinary organization, published Universal Access to Outdoor Recreation: A Design Guide in 1993.This book was developed through a partnership between PLAE and the USDA Forest Service. It presents an approach for incorporating universal design into the outdoor recreation environment.

As a result of a Presidential Panel on Outdoor Recreation in the mid-1980s, the Forest Service challenged its Federal partners in public land stewardship, its customers, and corporate America to embark on a National Recreation Strategy to meet the overwhelming demand for recreation and leisure activities across America. This design guide is a direct outgrowth of the National Recreation Strategy.

The Forest Service has been instrumental in developing design guidelines, which integrate the principles of universal design across a wide range of recreation settings to address the needs of a variety of ages, abilities, and cultures. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed on July 26, 1990, has led the way for Americans with disabilities to enjoy basic human rights with dignity with the mandate to remove the physical and social barriers that have existed throughout the country.

The guidelines expressed in this book tackle the challenge for implementing universal design in outdoor recreation environments that vary from the recommendations given for the highly developed built environments in urban settings. Some specifications had been developed for outdoor facilities such as campgrounds, picnic areas, and trails, but they had been limited in scope and lacked consistency in methods for applying the specifications. A working partnership of designers, engineers, architects, and researchers with and without disabilities combined their expertise to develop this guide.

Universal Access to Outdoor Recreation is presented in four chapters:

  1. Introduction and General Concepts provides an overview of accessibility concepts and definitions that will help the reader understand and apply the information presented in Chapters II, III, and IV.
  2. The Outdoor Recreation Environment discusses the differences between the built environment and the outdoor recreation environment and introduces the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) as a land management tool for answering questions about when accessibility is expected, where it is expected, and at what level of accommodation it is expected.
  3. Applying the Guidelines discusses issues related to site planning and design, and illustrates the application of the design guidelines (presented in Chapter IV) in recreation settings with different ROS classifications.
  4. Design Guidelines presents technical specifications for the various components of outdoor recreation sites that should be applied to achieve the desired level of accessibility. These guidelines are based on the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) and empirical research related to access in outdoor environments.1

Chapter I describes a disability as the expression of a physical or mental limitation in a social context that is seen by the gap between a person’s capabilities and the demands of the environment. With the accessibility guidelines that have been implemented through the years, a facility or site has been deemed accessible if it complies with the standards given and can be approached, entered, and used by those with physical disabilities. Programs and facilities must offer the person with a disability an opportunity to achieve experiences similar to those offered to others to be truly accessible.

The history of the accessibility movement and the resulting standards that began in 1919 are detailed in Chapter I along with the resulting design approach for universal design that serves a larger portion of the population than just for those with ambulatory issues. Universal design attempts to consider all degrees of sensory awareness, all types of locomotion, and all levels of physical and intellectual function to result in a single, all-encompassing design to accommodate the broadest possible spectrum of people.

Chapter II addresses the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum, which is a classification system based on a continuum of possible combinations of recreation settings, activities, and experiential opportunities along with the possible benefits that can result for individuals and society. The ROS of the USDA Forest Service divides recreation settings into six very broad and sometimes overlapping categories: urban; rural; roaded natural; semi-primitive motorized; semi-primitive nonmotorized; and primitive. In the interest of simplicity, this book modifies the classifications to four basic categories: urban/rural; roaded natural; semi-primitive; and primitive. Recreation activities and experiences are then outlined in these categories. Expected levels of accessibility for each category range from easy to most difficult. The extent to which facilities can be accessible for all varies depending on the ROS classification.

Chapter III offers insights into properly applying the guidelines presented in Chapter IV to achieve the appropriate level of accessibility for the most common recreation activities. An overview of the site planning process and the use of universal design principles in all stages of project planning, development, and maintenance are offered. The difficulties of incorporating universal design into natural settings is discussed, and an objective and systematic approach is given for determining when it is appropriate and desirable to design to a higher or lower level of accessibility.

Examples for applying the guidelines to the most commonly encountered settings in outdoor recreation are given to aid in better understanding how to implement them. The areas that are addressed include paths, picnic areas and campgrounds, fishing areas, play areas, and signs as well as general recommendations given for boating and swimming areas and equestrian facilities. Areas of special concern related to historic structures, retrofitting existing facilities, and providing accessibility in semi-primitive and primitive settings are also discussed along with safety and risk management recommendations.

Chapter IV presents the design guidelines for various elements and spaces in outdoor recreation environments. The guidelines are presented in five sections:

  1. Space Allowances and Reach Ranges – addresses the basic spatial dimensions necessary to accommodate people using wheelchairs and other mobility aids.
  2. Parking Areas and Loading Zones in Recreation Environments – addresses the design, number, and location of accessible parking spaces as well as signs and lighting.
  3. Elements and Spaces in the Recreation Environment – addresses toilet rooms, telephones, trash receptacles, drinking fountains, hand pumps and hydrants, benches, picnic tables, fire rings and grills, tent pads, terraces, assembly areas, boat launching ramps and boarding docks, swimming areas, fishing facilities, and equestrian facilities.
  4. Access to Primary Elements and Spaces (Outdoor Recreation Access Routes) – addresses identifying outdoor recreation access routes; the number and location of outdoor recreation access routes; alternative routes; design of outdoor recreation access routes; curb ramps; maximum grade; gates, doors, and other entryways; stairs; guardrails, fences, and other safety barriers; and signs.
  5. Access to Other Recreation Elements and Spaces (Recreation Trails) – addresses identifying recreation trails; the number and location of accessible recreation trails; design of accessible recreation trails; maximum grade; gates and entry points; and signs.
  • 1. Universal Access to Outdoor Recreation: A Design Guide. Berkeley, CA: PLAE, Inc. 1993. pp. 4-5.