Recreation for Everyone: Creating Accessible Spaces Along the Riverfront - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Recreation for Everyone: Creating Accessible Spaces Along the Riverfront

Chicago Riverwalk in the Loop

At MPC, we believe everyone deserves full and equal access to the region’s open spaces, regardless of disability. That’s why—as we work to help realize the city’s vision for Our Great Rivers—planning for accessibility and inclusion is a priority.

But it’s not just the right thing to do, it’s smart planning.

Many times in school, I’ve heard my professors explain that we must plan for all physical abilities because at some point in our lives, we all will be disabled in some way. Even if we are not born with a disability or do not acquire one during our lifetimes, the normal process of human aging leaves us more vulnerable to physical obstacles. In addition, life events such as pregnancy, injury or serious illness can contribute to difficulty navigating the built environment; so, everyone benefits when we plan for all abilities.

Universal accessibility is central to riverfront plans

It is crucial that the City of Chicago makes planning for all abilities a top priority, especially as the city moves forward with its quest to revitalize the land along the Chicago, Calumet and Des Plaines Rivers.

In fact, the topic of accessibility was a concern voiced by many community members during our public outreach meetings.  The disability advocacy group, Access Living, raised that “recreation spots and [boat] launches are legally required to be accessible to everyone, but this is not well regulated.”

That’s why MPC is addressing this issue by making accessibility for all abilities one of their goals to be reached by 2030 in their riverfront revitalization plan. Our document states that “universal accessibility must be a central design concept to every new publicly accessible riverfront site, while existing sites should be retrofitted to accommodate people with disabilities.”

So what does riverfront accessibility look like right now?

When we examine what currently exists along Chicago’s riverfronts, we find quite a few parks (which are owned either by the Chicago Park District or Forest Preserves of Cook County) on the North Side, a few parks and lots of industrial space on the South Side and an impressive River Walk along the Main Stem of the Chicago River. Additionally, the Calumet and Des Plaines Rivers are bordered by many natural areas and preserves. But are these parks, green spaces and River Walk accessible to Chicagoans and visitors of all abilities?

The answer is yes and no, even though the American Disabilities Act of 1990 requires all public spaces (and private spaces that serve the public) to have a certain level of accessibility. Unfortunately though, as Access Living explained, this law is not always strictly enforced.

Both the Park District and Forest Preserve however, have made a strong commitment to providing the proper infrastructure so that people of all abilities can enjoy the amenities these places have to offer. This includes many ADA accessible playgrounds, swimming pools, picnic areas, and a wheelchair accessible baseball/softball field at California Park on Chicago’s North Side. The River Walk provides ADA compliant ramps from Upper Wacker Drive at three locations: the east side of State Street, the west side of Clark Street, and the west side of Franklin Street. The ramp located at Franklin Street looks the most user friendly as there are railings along both sides (see photo).

But of course there is always room for improvement, as not every amenity offered along the rivers is ADA accessible. Thankfully, the Park District has a survey on their website where you can let them know how they are doing with accessibility issues and offer your opinions and suggestions for improvements. In addition, the Forest Preserve has hired a technical advisor and has created advisory groups to improve ADA access throughout their preserves as part of their Next Century Conservation Plan.

Providing the appropriate infrastructure and auxiliary aids and services are not always enough. It is equally important to let the public know where these improvements and additions exist. Providing the locations of ADA accessible spaces through websites, brochures, etc. allows people of all abilities to plan their recreational activities. It is also vital to have appropriate signage at these spaces to help direct people to where infrastructure, such as elevators and ramps are located, making accessing these additions as simple as possible.

The renaissance of Chicago’s riverfronts offers an exciting opportunity for residents, elected officials and other stakeholders to expand the amount of accessible green space, recreational amenities and economic development to a significant portion of the city, but as we create these new spaces, whether beaches, parks, or commercial development, we must remember to keep them accessible to everyone! This ensures that all Chicagoans and visitors, regardless of their ability can enjoy the city’s 2nd coast.


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