If you ask Arnold Cheng where his favourite park is, he’ll tell you about Centennial Beach, in Tsawwassen. At the edge of Boundary Bay, the park is a paradise of vast tidal flats popular with birds and beachgoers alike, and a great place for people to safely gather outdoors during the pandemic. It also provides a rare oasis of accessibility for wheelchair users like Cheng.
Built-in ramps provide easy access to nearby washrooms. A special mat allows wheelchairs to access the sandy beach without getting stuck. And there’s an accessible playground, where wheelchairs can be rolled directly onto a platform for a swaying glider — like a rocking chair, but less dangerous and more fun.
Unless a city has already developed their own guidelines — like Richmond and Surrey have — there are no consistent standards for creating accessible outdoor spaces across the Metro Vancouver region, so not every park is welcoming to people with mobility issues.
While the City of Vancouver has committed to auditing the physical accessibility of its parks, its limited options are why Cheng considers Centennial Beach worth the visit, even though it’s a 30-minute drive from where he works in South Vancouver.
“It’s one of my favourite accessible outdoor spaces in town,” says Cheng, who founded and owns the accessibility consulting firm Spectrum Ability.
Most of Vancouver’s legally enforceable standards for accessibility are embedded in building codes, with “very few unified guidelines” for outdoor spaces, Cheng says. The Canadian Standards Association and the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification program can provide recommendations for accessible design, but there are no policies specific to parks.
In Toronto, there are citywide guidelines for accessibility, including sections about park design for wheelchair-friendly picnic tables, drinking fountains and ramps at playgrounds. The guidelines are supported by the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which protects disability rights in provincial law.
There aren’t any official accessibility laws in British Columbia yet, but this may change soon. The Accessible British Columbia Act was introduced last month with the goal of requiring the development of formal regulations and standards to ensure accessibility for people with disabilities.
The bill is now being examined by a legislative committee, after completing its second reading last week.
Without any formal guidelines for designing accessible parks in Vancouver, knowing where to begin presents an important challenge. Disability advocates say that accessible park design needs to start with their experiences, which can vary greatly depending on their disabilities.
“My first question when I’m working with a client is, accessibility to whom?” says Heather McCain, founder and executive director of Creating Accessible Neighbourhoods, an organization led primarily by disabled people that consults on services like accessibility audits.
McCain described their role as a “crip doula” — or someone “who helps disabled people navigate our complex systems, find support, build community.” They emphasize there is a broad spectrum of disabled experiences and that understanding is key to developing accessible spaces like public parks.
“Often there’s a focus on physical disabilities and mobility devices, but not enough for older adults, people who are deaf or blind, partially sighted, people who have cognitive disabilities,” McCain says.
Other elements of accessibility often aren’t apparent to those unfamiliar with the differing needs of disabled people, McCain adds. Having proper signs for wayfinding, good washroom facilities and nearby parking at parks are necessary to meet access needs around vision, chronic health conditions and mobility.
Cities like Campbell River have created their own guidelines for parks, which specify, for example, appropriate dimensions for accessible signage, trails and parking.
The city also audited five of its major parks with these guidelines in mind, in order to improve park accessibility for users with physical, cognitive and sensory disabilities.
As the City of Vancouver works on auditing its own parks, McCain underlines the importance of involving disabled people in the planning, “where people with disabilities know that they were part of every process of the creation and planning of that space.”
In a statement to The Tyee, the Vancouver Park Board noted that “in advance of the completion of a full audit of the physical accessibility of all park amenities and feasibility study,” it will seek input from municipal groups like the Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee.
Recent upgrades to park pathways, playgrounds and washrooms have also been made to incorporate universal design, including at Charleson Park, Clinton Park, Falaise Park and Jonathan Rogers Park, the statement said.
Integrating universal design is a good starting point for creating accessible spaces, Cheng says. “The idea is to design something that is usable by as many people as possible.” Accessibility, he stresses, “is not just for people with disabilities.”
Parents with strollers or those with heart conditions may find a steep flight of stairs just as hard to navigate as many disabled people do, says Cheng. Over the past year, he adds, there are now more people with long-lasting COVID issues who also need accessible park spaces.
If the city is serious about designing accessible parks that more people can fully enjoy, it should employ or contract disabled people to conduct the work of auditing and upgrading the facilities, McCain says.
“They need to make sure that there’s a good representation of the broad range of disabled people,” they add. “It shows that this is not a one-off thing, but a commitment that they want to address for the entire park plan.”
The city’s audit, now in the inventory stage, is expected to take between one and three years, but during that time the park board says it will “also engage broadly to ensure all who would like to participate have the opportunity to do so.”
While Cheng continues to hope for better park accessibility in Vancouver, he appreciates the attempts thus far. This includes introducing mats for wheelchair access at its beaches, like the ones at Centennial Beach. It’s an example he hopes more cities will be inspired by.
“Tsawwassen has done a great job at Centennial Beach, to be honest, I don’t think they get enough credit for that,” he says, highlighting the playground. “It’s a gigantic playground that is completely accessible to kids with wheelchairs, and mobility issues.”
For now — before Vancouver catches on — Cheng says anyone wanting to understand what makes the accessibility of Centennial Park so great will need to go to Tsawwassen to experience it.