A park focuses on universal accessibility

Feliz Paseos Park: a model for the nation?

Robie Pardee, Program Manager, Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Department, Tucson, Arizona
Tom McGovern, P.E., Vice President and Regional Manager, MMLA Psomas, Tucson, Arizona

Just 15 minutes west of downtown Tucson, Arizona, Feliz Paseos Park affords a welcome respite from the city, with breathtaking vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the nearby Tucson Mountains. An extension of the 22,000-acre Tucson Mountain Park, the Feliz Paseos protects an important biological corridor running to the Santa Cruz River.

But it is not just beautiful vistas and habitat preservation that makes Feliz Paseos unique. This is the first park in Arizona, and one of the first in the country, with a focus on universal accessibility.

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that people with disabilities be accommodated in both public and private facilities, the disabled are more often than not an afterthought. Typically in parks the primary accommodation is a sign leading to the handicapped restroom and a handicapped-parking place.

At Feliz Paseos (loosely translated, "Happy Trails") it is the other way around. The emphasis is on recognizing the special needs—and capabilities—of people with disabilities. The park features a recreational trail system of increasing difficulty that allows those in wheelchairs to determine for themselves if they want to attempt the challenges of a particular trail.

Feliz Paseos is a model that communities across the nation can reproduce. The same design principles can be applied to open-space parks throughout the country with relatively little extra expense.

Initially an all-volunteer effort
The inspiration for Feliz Paseos began back in the summer of 1997 when neighbor Laurel Park was walking her dog by the property. "I was thinking how lucky I was to enjoy the untamed beauty of the desert, and wouldn't it be wonderful if people with disabilities could enjoy it too," says Park, reflecting on that day several years ago when she first got the idea for a universally accessible park. Her timing couldn't have been better. She contacted the owner who was literally two days away from selling to a developer.

Park joined forces with local attorney Bob Mora, an activist for the disabled who himself is wheelchair-bound, to lobby the county to buy the property. They received a strong boost when Congressman Rep. Raul Grijalva, a county supervisor at the time, became a driving force to make it happen.

In 1999 the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to purchase 50 acres of the historic Las Lomas Ranch and create a park featuring a recreational trail system for people with disabilities as well as the able-bodied.

The Feliz Paseos Committee was formed to represent a cross section of people with a variety of disabilities. Excited that the county was willing to undertake this project, the committee met every month to assist in developing the conceptual master plan. In the beginning it was basically an all-volunteer effort, with architecture, engineering and landscape architecture firms donating their services. It was slow going until the county passed a bond issue in 2004 that allocated $1 million to the park. Thanks to this infusion of funds, construction is starting in early 2006 and will finish by spring.

Designing the trails
Universal design is an attempt by landscape architects, architects, interior designers, environmental design engineers and homebuilders to make the built environment more usable by a wide variety of age groups and abilities. Universal design is not just for the permanently disabled. It could be for the pregnant woman, someone with a broken leg or the elderly. It makes our living environments better by removing barriers.

Everything will be accessible in Feliz Paseos Park. A 1.5-mile universally accessible trail system will be comprised of both natural and paved trails at grades and widths that make them accessible to wheelchairs.

There will be a 1/4-mile paved trail providing ease of gliding for wheelchairs, with curbing for the sightless. But many times those in wheelchairs want more options than just an asphalt trail system. Some prefer natural surface tread with signage so they can decide for themselves what to tackle. Most of the slopes on these trails will be gradual, but some will be quite steep for those who want more of a challenge.

  Location of the 8'-wide paved trail

"This was a very educational process for me," says Kathy Nabours, a principal of Vision LA, one of the landscape architects on the project. In designing and constructing these trails, landscape architects must take into account a wide range of factors: surface conditions, grade of slope, cross slope, obstacles in the path and the width necessary to accommodate wheelchairs and turnouts/resting spaces.

Nabours notes that applying the principles of universal accessibility actually results in a more sustainable approach to trail design. It is a "gentler" approach if you will. Requiring less of a grade, these trails wind along the contours of a slope, creating less opportunity for erosion.

This effort is not without its challenges. Much of the trail system will be constructed using extensive hand labor to control the grade and cross slope and to protect native vegetation. This has added to the initial costs, although the revegetation/preservation efforts will be less because of smaller, lighter construction equipment. Trail maintenance will be crucial in order to keep the actual trail experience true to the signage and preserve accessibility.

The looped trails will be evaluated and signed using the Universal Trail Assessment Process (UTAP). Rather than pave the wilderness, UTAP provides a means to measure the wilderness so more people can enjoy it. A system of Trail Access Symbols goes beyond the commonly used wheelchair icon to inform the public about the different levels of opportunity and challenges of using the trail. The signage gives maximum cross and running slopes, surface type, width, presence of obstacles and other information. Users determine for themselves the level of challenge they want to undertake to experience the native desert and natural terrain. Several of us involved in the planning of Feliz Paseos took courses to become UTAP certified.

An opportunity for communities across the nation
This is one of the most satisfying things we have done in our careers, in particular working with the Feliz Paseos Committee. Understanding the difficulties the disabled deal with every day of their lives and knowing that Pima County was going to provide this park for them was truly rewarding.

The most encouraging lesson learned from this project was that the opportunity exists to create a universally accessible park in any community.

It is not really an issue of money—this project was begun and would have been completed with all-volunteer design and construction had additional county funds not become available to shorten the schedule. The unique design aspects of this park, including the use of the UTAP methodology for the trails, can easily be learned and implemented in virtually any physical setting or environmental condition. Normal hand and power tools and construction equipment are all that is needed. The added costs from the use of these design tools are likely to be negligible, while their benefits are dramatic.

Rather, the only thing preventing any community from developing a universally accessible park system is the misconception that it is not affordable and/or outside their capabilities. We believe that once a few parks have been brought online using these planning, design and construction techniques, universal accessibility could become the norm on most new parks.

Robie Pardee is the Program Manager with the Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Department. He served as project manager for Feliz Paseos Park. He can be reached at (520) 877-6203 or Robie.pardee@parks.pima.gov.

Tom McGovern, P.E., is a vice president and regional manager with MMLA Psomas and managed the team of design consultants for the Feliz Paseos Park project. He can be reached at (520) 292-2300 or tmcgovern@mmla-psomas.com.

Firms participating in the project included: landscape architects - Sage LA and Vision LA; architecture - ELA Architects; electrical engineers - R.A. Alcala & Assoc.; geotechnical engineering - Terracon; bridge design - Structural Concepts; civil engineering services and project management - MMLA Psomas.