By Marit Parker
We usually think of accessibility in terms of adaptations and adjustments that have to be made because a particular person has a disability and needs access.
You can almost hear the sigh at the thought of the expense and inconvenience…
But what if we simply design places so they are already accessible to everyone?
In this article we are going to look at accessibility in a garden, but the principles and the process can be used in any space.
Even if your garden is a private space and you don’t think it needs to be accessible to anyone else, including accessibility in your design is part of planning for the future, and being prepared for changes and disasters. Don’t forget, if you are planning to live somewhere long term, that becoming less mobile and becoming disabled is often a part of growing older.
If you or someone in your family has to have a leg in plaster for 6 weeks, or develops a health issue, an accessible space can make all the difference.
It’s much easier to include accessibility in your design now, than to try to adapt the design when you are ill or in pain, and are unable to think straight or do heavy work.
Still not convinced? Think wheelbarrows!
Most garden paths need to be wide enough for a wheelbarrow, and it’s much easier to push a wheelbarrow if the path is level or gently sloping and step-free.
How to design for accessibility
The simplest way to start any design is with a base map. This can be on paper or on a computer, and simply shows where everything is that can’t be moved or changed. This article by Heather Jo Flores explains how to make a base map.
Once you have a base map you can add layers to it for different aspects of your design.
Start the accessibility part of your design by making a new layer in your maps. This can be a new layer of tracing paper or a new layer in an online programme. Either way, your base map is visible from below and doesn’t need to be re-drawn. Whew!
Mark observations about accessibility in your garden on this new layer.
At this stage simply notice things about the space. Don’t jump ahead and start planning changes or adaptations.
Try to imagine different types of needs, such as mobility difficulties, back pain, visual impairment and general weakness or fatigue. A medical diagnosis isn’t important here – it’s the accessibility needs an individual may have as a consequence of their health issue.
Note where accessibility is good as well as places that are currently difficult to access.
Image: Marit Parker
Things to include
Gradient of the garden. Is it on a slope?
Distance between key points in the garden.
What are the paths made of?
Are they slippery or uneven?
How wide are they?
Are they sloping?
Work out how steep paths going up or downhill are.
A spirit level is useful for measuring this.
- Are they steep or gentle?
- How many steps? Are they uneven?
- Is there an alternative step-free route?
- Are there handrails beside steps or slopes?
- Are they on one or both sides?
- What are they made of? Do they feel rough, smooth, cold, splintery?
- Do they need maintenance or repair?
- If you already have beds in the garden, make a note of their height, width and shape.
- Can you reach halfway or all the way across comfortably, without bending, stretching or balancing precariously?
- Make a note of the location of any outdoor taps and water butts.
- Do you have to carry water in watering cans or is there a hose?
- If there’s a hose, how far do you have to go from where you want water to turn the tap on?
Access to the garden
- Are there steps from the house to the garden?
- Gates – notice the weight and ease of opening as well as the width of the gateway. Does it open inwards or outwards?
- Parking – distance from garden, gradient, space to manoeuvre a wheelchair.
- Is the gateway always clear or are cars sometimes parked right in front of it?
- Distance from bus stop to the house and garden.
- Location of nearest toilet – is there a downstairs loo?
Next step: plan improvements
Having mapped out accessibility as it is at present, the next step is to make a plan for any changes you want to make to improve accessibility.
Include a plan of when changes could be made e.g. if you are making a new garden bed, that is a good time to think about the path beside it, as well as the shape, height and width of the bed.
Garden Bed Design
Think about creating a raised bed near the house so if you are incapacitated for any reason, e.g. back pain or an injury, you can still use these beds. Growing herbs and salad plants within easy reach of the kitchen is a good idea anyway for convenience, and a raised herb bed surrounded by a low sitting wall can be a relaxing spot to sit with a cuppa.
Be aware that the term raised beds is used in two different ways. It can either mean a no-dig bed where the soil is slightly higher than the path because it is mulched regularly. Or it can mean a bed that is built up anywhere from a foot to a metre or more to make it accessible. In this article I mean accessible beds.
A lot of accessible raised beds are simply the usual long straight bed made higher. But a long straight bed isn’t that easy to get around if you have mobility difficulties.
If you are making a raised bed, stop for a moment and think about what height and shape would be most useful and easily accessible.
Most raised beds are made of wood. But wood rots over time, and if it is holding a lot of soil, a rotting side to a high raised bed can be dangerous – and in wet climates they are also a haven for slugs!
Think about different materials you could use.
Re-use someone else’s waste: builder’s dumpy bags are often single use for deliveries of sand, for example, but are still strong and if used at full height may be an excellent height for someone who struggles to bend. The downside is that when the builder’s bag decays, it will shed bits of plastic into the soil.
Earth bags (like sand bags but filled with subsoil) can be used to create rounded shapes. Similarly tyres can also create interesting layouts, and have the advantage of keeping roots damp and well-insulated from frost, but the jury is still out on what chemicals may leach from them, and whether or not these are taken up by plants.
Think too about introducing some flexibility into the design by using pots and containers at least initially as this will give you a chance to try out different heights and layouts before making a more permanent raised bed.
Remember that raised beds will need to be half the width of a ground level bed if you need to be able to reach everything from one side.
A horseshoe shaped raised bed that someone can sit in the middle of means a lot less manoeuvring around than a long straight bed that has simply been made higher.
Don’t forget that not everything needs to be raised up!
Plants like raspberries, blackcurrants and cordon fruit trees usually fruit at an accessible height when planted at ground level.
- Whether someone is using a walking stick, crutches or a wheelchair, paths ideally need to be a minimum of 1000mm (3’ 3”) wide. A minimum of 1500mm (approx 5’) is better in public spaces.
- If space is tight and this seems like it’s taking up too much of the garden, can you design the garden so some beds are accessible directly from the path from the gate to the house door?
- Don’t forget you may need to get a wheelbarrow to some parts of the garden. Measure your wheelbarrow and then work out which parts of the garden need wider paths.
- A curb or the solid edge of a garden bed will stop feet or wheels going off the path and onto a ground-level bed.
- Remember working out the gradient?
- 1:12 is the magic number for gradient. Steeper than 1:12 is difficult for wheelchair users, and can also be difficult for someone with a heart condition, breathing difficulties or chronic fatigue.
- 1:12, or 1 in 12, means that for every 12 units (e.g. feet or metres) you go along horizontally, you travel up or down 1 unit.
- The handy thing about 1 in 12 is that if you use feet and inches, the slope goes down 1 inch for every foot (12 inches) it goes along.
- If your garden is steep, the solution may mean thinking creatively. An extra bench or low sitting wall along the way may help. And if a friend can’t get up to your house to visit you, perhaps create a sitting area or firepit just inside the garden gate.
- If it’s a long way across the garden, think about adding in some places to sit.
- Think about different heights and designs.
- A seat or bench without arms is better for someone transferring from a wheelchair, or for someone with a large body.
- With arms may be better for someone who needs the support of the arms as they stand up.
- Might a ramp be possible? Would this be instead of steps or a portable ramp to place there when needed?
- Could there be an alternative step-free route?
- Can handrails be added to the side of the steps?
- (Both sides is best in case someone has the use of only one arm.)
- Contrasting colours on the gate and gate posts, and the door and doorframe, as well as for latches and door handles can make it a lot easier for people to see where the gateway or doorway is, especially for those with a visual impairment.
- Use plants with different scents as landmarks. This can be useful for those with visual impairment, and can also help some people with memory difficulties, e.g. dementia.
Your overall design for the garden should include water anyway, as water is an essential component of any garden, and ideally will be designed so the garden rarely needs watering.
But think about water and those places that may need watering sometimes from an accessibility perspective too.
- Will you need to carry a hose or watering can? Or could there be a hose ready in place?
- Where is the water coming from?
- Is it possible to turn the water flow on and off on the hose near the plants needing watering, rather than having to go back and forth to the tap?
Well designed tools are better for everyone but can make a huge difference for someone with painful joints, muscle weakness or chronic fatigue. Thrive, the gardening for health charity, have a lot of advice about tools on their website.
Additional considerations for community gardens
In a community garden, visually impaired gardeners may appreciate having a post at one end of the bed to slip the harness or lead over so they know where to find their guide dog. Providing water for support dogs may be appreciated.
Consider distances between raised beds and the toilet, and how accessible the toilet is.
- Does the path lead straight to it or is there a tight corner to get round?
- Does the door open easily?
- Which way does it open?
- Are there any steps?
- Is there space for a wheelchair? To turn round?
- Are the sink and the bin easy to reach?
- Is the tap easy to turn on and off?
- Are there rails/handles to help people transfer from a wheelchair?
Check if paths that are a dead end have space for a wheelchair user to turn round. Remember also that people need to be able to get past each other without someone working at a bed always having to move out of the way.
It’s good to encourage cyclists but do be aware that many people with disabilities will avoid walking along paths shared by cyclists and pedestrians. Consider if this might be an issue on the path leading to the entrance to the garden, and what possible solutions there might be.
Accessible design and adaptations are important but they are only one half of the story. Including people with disabilities – i.e making the garden inclusive – is also about creating a welcoming space, which also benefits people without disabilities.
Notice how easy it is to get to communal areas where people can meet and chat over a cuppa. Are communal areas in a warm sunny spot, sheltered from the wind? Is there any shade from the sun?
Inclusion is also about attitudes.
For example, are people believed when they say they can’t walk that far? Women and people of colour are often less likely to be believed when they say they are in pain or have limitations. Women of colour, bearing the brunt of both prejudices, are even less likely to be believed. Those whose condition is variable also face disbelief when they can’t do today what they did easily yesterday.
It’s also important for community projects to be mindful that many people with disabilities are aware that they are particularly vulnerable to Covid and may still be taking precautions.
- Take a moment to think about the project’s attitude to those wearing a mask: do people seem to be awkward or embarrassed when they meet someone wearing a mask? Or is the atmosphere supportive and respectful?
- Are there masks available for others to put on too?
- If there is an indoor area, is it well-ventilated – without being cold and draughty?
- Is an air filter a possibility?
- Does the layout of communal areas make joining in while keeping a distance straightforward or difficult?
Finally, use the information from your initial observations to make an accessibility statement about your design.
This is simply a short list or a clear map that tells visitors the key points about accessibility in the garden as it is right now.
I recently visited a public building that had an accessibility statement that was several pages of small print. I couldn’t take it in, and most of it didn’t seem relevant to me anyway. I did notice that it said the ground floor was wheelchair accessible. And it was true – the layout made it very easy to get around inside. But only if you could first somehow get yourself and your wheelchair up a flight of 12 steps!
Include the Accessibility Statement in your design. Including it in the website for a community garden or public space is good practice too. Remember to update it as things change.