Designing a playground for all in Iowa City

The City of Iowa City made significant changes to its original vision for the new playground on the Ped Mall after overwhelming community feedback. –City of Iowa City

It’s been just over a year now since the Department of Justice reached a settlement agreement with the Iowa City Community School District over the dozen playgrounds that failed to meet ADA requirements. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (which turned 30 just last year) provides that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs or activities of a public entity.” The ICCSD was found to be in violation, following an investigation spurred by parents at Shimek Elementary, and the district has until 2023 to fix access issues on their playgrounds.

But what if accessibility is insufficient? What more do children need than is provided for by law? And how can a community come together to ensure that children of all abilities have the opportunity to find joy, camaraderie and engagement on the playgrounds they can access?

In April of this year, the City of Iowa City began soliciting public feedback on a design for a new playground on the Ped Mall. They do this for every new playground that’s built, and they’re currently in the middle of a massive renovation project that ultimately will replace all of the city’s 32 playgrounds. Begun in 2016, the project is expected to be completed in the next five years, at a rate of two to three new builds each year.

Over the last five years of the effort, the city saw between 30 and 40 community responses to each of their surveys. The Ped Mall playground brought in over 550.

“I was flabbergasted, extremely surprised, when they said they were going to fix it,” Melissa Krishnan told me. Krishnan was one of the driving forces behind the DOJ-ICCSD success. She became involved in the original renovations of the Shimek Elementary playground when her son, who is now 13 and who has cerebral palsy, was entering kindergarten—the “pinnacle of his playground experience,” she said.

Those early design meetings were exasperating for many parents. Jenni Mettemeyer, another Shimek parent at the time, described them as “a bunch of people in a room with a bunch of catalogs, looking at equipment and picking out cool pieces.” (Mettemeyer’s children are abled; her daughter became friends with Krishnan’s son when they both started at Shimek.)

“That alone doesn’t make a good playground,” she said.

The Shimek Elementary School playground in 2017

Parents convinced the district to hire Team Inclusion: Tony Malkusak of Abundant Playscapes here in Iowa City and Ingrid Kanics of Kanics Inclusive Design Services, LLC. Together, they created a rubric for district playgrounds, according to the principles of Universal Design, that Mettemeyer believes may be unique in the nation in terms of school playground tools. It lays out in detail the best practices for inclusive play and the design features best suited to serving the needs of all children, regardless of ability, at each age level.

The city doesn’t follow anything so specific.

“We don’t have a formal policy,” Juli Seydell Johnson, Iowa City’s director of Parks and Recreation, told me. “At minimum, we have to meet ADA requirements.”

The playgrounds they’ve built over the last five years have exceeded those requirements, she added.

“It’s a process that’s highly supported by public comment,” Seydell Johnson said. “We do our best to include as many requests as possible.”

Among the changes made to the Ped Mall design, thanks to feedback, were the addition of a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round and spin cycle and the addition of stairs (as opposed to ladders) to the top of the play tower. Stairs are crucial in a playground, especially where there isn’t sufficient room for ramps, so that children with mobility issues, as well as adults with mobility issues who are helping young children, have the best chance to reach the most amenities.

“My son is just ecstatic that they’re going to put in a staircase,” Krishnan said.

This is the key to examining the limits of “accessibility.” Many ADA-compliant playgrounds offer ways for wheelchair users, for example, to navigate—paved walkways from the parking area, poured rubber surfacing rather than wood chips—but have little for them to do once they arrive.

A ground-level ADA-approved speaker at City Park is all but impossible to reach by wheelchair. — Jenni Mettemeyer

“A lot of people will tell you things are accessible when they’re really not. A great example would be the City Park playground,” Mettemeyer said. “The new City Park playground has—you know those microphone things you talk into? And the other kid standing across the playground, you can hear them? Well, if you are just going by ADA compliance, that counts as an accessible ground-level component, because technically you should be able to roll up to it and use it … but at City Park, where it’s placed, under the platforms, with all of the posts around it—it’s completely inaccessible.”

“[The city] should know better, but they’re not doing better,” Mettemeyer said.

Krishnan was active in discussions about the City Park playground, and she felt as though concerns went unheard. The city had already designated that location as an adventure park-style experience, with plans for a more broadly accessible playground at Willow Creek.

“If someone’s looking for a park, they’re going to [search] ‘Iowa City park,’” Krishnan said. “Why wouldn’t you want to make that the most inclusive park in town?”

According to Seydell Johnson, “Our role is to provide a variety of free public experiences throughout the community.” In addition to the adventure-focused City Park and Willow Creek—where “a lot of steps were taken to make it even more accessible to people from a wide range of disabilities,” she said—there’s also Wetherby, where the focus was to be more spread out, because they knew that larger groups of children often play there.

“My whole thing is sure, presumably, all the new playgrounds are ADA compliant, but that is just the bare minimum,” Dina Bishara said. “That doesn’t mean they’re actually fun for kids, or inclusive in any meaningful way.”

Bishara has an autistic son, and she has been working in advocacy for a long time. She is co-founder of the Iowa City Autism Community and the ICCSD Mental Health, Special Education and Disability Advocacy Group.

“It’s the kids with the physical disabilities, I think, who are facing the biggest challenge as far as playgrounds,” she said, adding that while she finds value in accommodations made for children with other disabilities, “that’s a lower priority than just allowing kids with physical disabilities to be in the mix if they want to be; most playgrounds don’t allow for that at all.”

Seydell Johnson said that the city tries to accommodate all requests that come in as feedback to individual playground designs, including for things such as signage prohibiting food allergens.

“It’s much more than a mobility device,” she said. “We think that’s important, but that’s only one aspect.”

Isaiah Krishnan, 9, uses a wheelchair to navigate the Arc pArc playground in 2017. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Bishara, who has partnered with local organizations and with the city to establish accessible activities for autistic children and their families, acknowledges that there’s a greater challenge with “big ticket” items like playgrounds. Ultimately, the community needs to make a decision about priorities.

“Is this an area we want to really stand out in?” Bishara wants Iowa Citians to consider. “Is this a message that is really important to send to our community? And it’s not just sending a message to kids with disabilities, it’s sending a message to kids without disabilities. … It’s not just about making sure these kids are included. It’s about asking people to think about who’s being excluded, and are they OK with that.”

The large response to the Ped Mall playground was “especially heartening” for Bishara, who believes the people of the city are starting to take notice. “As someone who advocates for people with disabilities, especially at the school district level … parents like me are very often totally alone. We don’t get a lot of allies.”

“Have I seen change? Yes,” Krishnan said of community support for these ideas. “I think it’s slow.”
Krishnan was new to advocacy when she began the process of pushing the district on playground design. She notes that it’s been an “incredible learning experience,” but not just for her. It’s also helped her teach her son how to self-advocate.

“To be able to get him to advocate and speak up and have his own voice has just been paramount,” she said.

“I would really like the city to maybe have a similar process [to the school board’s rubric] that would formalize their commitment to inclusive playgrounds,” Bishara said.

Universal Design is a foundational concept for all architecture that enables access and ease of use to all people, regardless of ability. It incorporates both accessibility and inclusivity, Metemeyer said.

“Accessibility should just be the starting point,” Krishnan said. “How do we open up the conversation that if you do for all, then there is no one that’s left out?” She points out that there is often an attitude, once accessibility has been achieved, of, “We’ve done that, so let’s put in more for us now.” But playgrounds built around the principles of Universal Design serve all children, as well as the adults in their lives. It all boils down to one simple concept, Krishnan said.

“Let’s have fun together.”

The author’s 4-year-old Calliope finds a novel way to enjoy accessible equipment at Willow Creek Park. — Genevieve Trainor/Little Village

Genevieve Trainor has a 4-year-old who spends a lot of time on playgrounds. She is not OK with anyone being excluded.

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