12 Tips for Designing Accessible Outdoor Spaces

canopy lighting

Focusing attention and resources on designing accessible spaces lead to inclusion. Outdoor accessibility for people with disabilities can be achieved through universal design. Make entertainment and social events accessible to all with the following tips for accessible outdoor design.    

  1. Illuminate Walkways

Good illumination is vital for safe walking and wheelchair navigation. Install bright canopy lighting in covered walkways and parking zones. This is important for people with mobility challenges and impaired vision. Line paths with small lamps on either side to define the route to your seating or activity area. Think about overhead and ground-level lighting. 

  1. Eliminate Steps

Steps create fall risks for both disabled and non-disabled people. Snow, ice, and heavy rain can make outdoor stairs tricky for anyone. Look for access points and changes in elevation where you can create step-free transitions. Some established spaces may benefit from outdoor chair lifts that are built with weather durability in mind.

  1. Build Safe Ramps

Many places where stairs are typically installed can benefit from the construction of a ramp. People can traverse ramps on foot or wheels. They can be easier to navigate than stairs for visually impaired people who use canes. There are many ways to design ramps and some are safer than others. Create a very gradual elevation change, with no more than a one-inch increase in elevation per 18 inches. Opt for solid wood or stone over metal ramp materials and incorporate switchbacks.

  1. Add Handrails

All walkways and ramps should have handrails or rest spots. Handrails are safety features for people of all ages, from small children to elderly adults. Stain or paint your handrails to match the aesthetic of your overall design. This should also be part of any raised deck plan.

  1. Make Wide Entries

Gates and other points of entry need to be at least 32 inches wide to meet ADA accessibility standards. This allows typical wheelchairs and walkers to pass through comfortably. Some power wheelchairs are wider and would benefit from an increased standard 36-inch width. 

  1. Highlight Multiple Points of Access

Use lighting and signs to indicate at least two accessible entry and exit points from the space. This is essential for outdoor entertainment spaces that may become crowded during concerts or parties. Consider how weather conditions may impact the usability of your access points. This safety and convenience feature helps people with mobility access need to feel welcome.

  1. Use Smooth Surfaces

Smooth surfaces are safer to walk on and better for wheelchair propulsion. You may need to replace old deck boards or pour new concrete for a patio. Cobblestones and soft, porous materials like wood chips are not favored. Think about how smooth the surface would be of a wheelchair user as they carry a drink or continue a conversation while on the move. 

  1. Optimize Water Drainage

Water drainage is an often overlooked yet vital component of outdoor design. Use subtle slopes and strategically placed covered drains to reduce standing water or moisture. This makes surfaces more stable for mobility aid users and can reduce weathering of permanent materials. 

  1. Provide Seating

Plan seating areas in your outdoor design and incorporate flexible spaces for wheelchair users. Provide seats with backs and armrests that are easier for guests to stand up from independently. Measure the height of any table so that there is clearance for standard wheelchairs.

  1. Create Barriers Near Fire Features

Prevent emergencies by incorporating safety barriers into any fire pit or outdoor fireplace design. Place candles in hurricane jars so that their flames can flicker with a better degree of safety. These measures help people with balance and vision issues to navigate the space with confidence. 

  1. Construct a Sun Cover

Provide cover from the bright sun and the rain. This protects mobility aids and extends events through season weather transitions. 

  1. Consider Sound Management 

Use fences, tents, plant walls, hedges, trees, and upholstered outdoor furniture to manage noise. Play any event music at a reasonable decibel level. This enables people who are hard of hearing or blind to access the space with fewer barriers. It is also helpful for addressing sensory needs.   

Make the outdoors enjoyable for everyone by prioritizing diverse access needs in your design.