How New Plans Will Make Frick Park More Accessible to Visitors with Special Needs
Pittsburgh Parks, City are seeking public input on two proposals aimed at creating an outdoor sensory “classroom” in Frick Park.
Frick Park is a 600-acre wild respite from the urban landscape of Pittsburgh: trails snake along steams, under bridges and through deep woods, trees change with the seasons. However, for those with mobility or sensory challenges, the woods beyond the stony Beechwood Boulevard entrance gates may be inaccessible.
The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the City of Pittsburgh, community groups and other stakeholders are well into the design phase of the “Frick Environmental Center Sensory Classroom,” a broad project aimed at making an area near the Frick Environmental Center in Squirrel Hill more accessible to visitors with special needs.
Planners are seeking public comment on two proposals for the renovation, both expanding wheelchair access and interactive elements throughout the trail system. People can leave their comments online here.
In an initial survey of Frick Park visitors, Brandon Riley, the project manager for the renovation, says more than half of the respondents either identified as having a disability or having a family member with a disability.
“It’s a tremendously valuable open space with a lot of great natural ecosystems to learn about biodiversity, but it’s entirely inaccessible for the most part,” Riley says. “It doesn’t take into consideration persons of different abilities and what kind of accommodations they might need across the spectrum.”
For example, the paved paths on the grounds of the environmental center currently barely extend out to the wooded trails.
In both proposals, the gravel and dirt trails in the planned area would be replaced with wheelchair-friendly asphalt, the most comprehensive alteration among other accessibility implementations. Braille, QR-accessible audio tours and rope banisters lining the trail would serve as guides.
The comprehensive approach to disability access is a balancing act. For visitors with conditions such as autism, Riley says there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Some neurodivergent people experience overstimulation while others under stimulation, which requires an integration of quiet spaces and engaging sensory elements.
The main difference between the two proposals is the routing of the new paths. A consideration in both is reserving some spaces for quiet contemplation and portioning off others for involved play. Proposal One expands access to the meadow space, for example, and Proposal Two keeps it more isolated.
Both designs plan to employ sensory elements along the trails. Finger mazes, raised forest beds and intricate wood carvings will give neurodivergent visitors a more immersive way to interact with the environment.
Ingrid Kanics, an inclusion expert from Pittsburgh now based in Swansboro, North Carolina, who consulted on the project, says in sensory processing theory, a guiding adage is “kids will always find what they need.” She says the implementation of texture in exhibits such as the mazes or wood-carved benches gives kids the freedom to explore and learn through play.
She says the physiological benefits of spending time outdoors are well documented, and for neurodivergent children with sensory disorders, natural spaces provide a learning environment that they can’t find in typical playgrounds.
“There’s just so many more benefits that come from that natural tree,” Kanics says. “The texture of the bark, the texture of the leaves, the filtered light that goes through those leaves, the changing of colors of the leaves, the sound of the wind as it goes through the trees all have calming effects.”
Riley asks that people provide their feedback online by Feb. 20. The input will be instrumental in deciding the direction Frick Park takes with the redesign, he says, and the finished product will likely include aspects of both proposals.
Though there’s no completion date for the major renovation, Riley says he’d like to be done with the design phase by July and be“shovel ready” once they secure more grant funding and donations.
He says the target budget is set at $750,000, “but the final number will change based on the public process and final design.”
The project is pulled from a growing knowledge base of inclusionary design, which Kanics says she’d like to see implemented citywide.
“I’d say the city as a whole really has this desire to really support people of neuro-diverse backgrounds and approaches to engaging in the world and really wanting to create spaces that make them feel comfortable within the city,” Kanics says.