Gardens for Everyone

Originally posted at Union Park Press.

When you think about going outdoors in New England, it’s easy to imagine strapping on hiking boots and clambering up the stunted piles of rocks Yankees call “mountains,” leaping over burbling brooks, or chucking boots, pants, and skivvies altogether and rushing into the frigid ocean waves. But some people never get the opportunity to do that. A granite curb can look like a mountain if you’re in a wheelchair, and beaches are made of quicksand when you’re on wheels. How can you get outside, even to a park, when there are obstacles everywhere you go?

You get rid of the obstacles. For example, the Fenway Special Needs Garden was recently re-dedicated to service as a community garden. The Northeastern University student chapter of American Society of Civil Engineers (NUASCE) first built this accessible garden of wheelchair-level beds in Boston’s Fenway Victory Gardens in 1999, and refurbished it last summer; you can see pictures of the process on the NUASCE web site. It isn’t the only accessible garden around; there are wheelchair-level raised beds at the Fresh Pond Community Garden at Neville Place in Cambridge, for example. But the Fenway Victory Gardens are on display to thousands of tourists who stroll through the place every year. The Special Needs Garden gives passers-by an opportunity to see that people with physical challenges can get outside and tend a garden.

For people with limited sight, there’s the Pappas Horticultural Center at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown. Students can enjoy the scent and touch of plants, and raise specimens for the school’s annual flower show. As the Perkins site puts it, “…children who often must depend on others gain pride and self-esteem from taking care of another living thing.”

Of course, sometimes children don’t want to care for another living thing; sometimes they just want to mess around and play. There are two wheelchair-accessible playgrounds in Boston: Mission Hill and Harambee Park. Beyond Boston, there is an accessible treehouse at the Institute for Developmental Disabilities in Assonet. You can get to the top of a treehouse even if you can’t walk. Imagine how that must feel for someone who is almost always sitting down.

As for those quicksand beaches; check out the “swimming, sand and sunbathing beach wheelchairs” available at Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) swimming spots and parks. They won’t warm up the water for you—or make skinny-dipping legal, alas—but they will let people who cannot walk get to the water, and borrowing them is free for the asking.

There are obstacles to getting to Boston’s green space if you cannot walk or see, but if we think about it, there are methods to conquering them. The trick is to actually think about the obstacles—and the people who just need a way to get around them.