Making Michigan’s outdoors accessible to all

Between 30% to 35% of the population has some issue that could make it difficult for them to interact with the outdoors. They deserve access.

The lakes, dunes, and forests of Michigan’s northwest lower peninsula offer a number of different opportunities for outdoor recreation, but these spaces are often inaccessible for people with disabilities or mobility issues. “In our region, there was absolutely nothing four years ago,” David Foote, director of stewardship for the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (GTRLC) says of accessible trails or other infrastructure for people with disabilities.

“Now we’re looking at maybe 10 throughout the region,” he says.


In creating parks and natural areas, planners are increasingly incorporating so-called ‘Universal Design’ principles that aim to make spaces accessible to everyone. This can mean building piers with areas where railings are lower so visitors can fish from a wheelchair, constructing boardwalks with a gentle slope so they’re easier for people with mobility issues to walk up or installing interlocking rubber mats known as ‘Mobi mats’ to help more people get out on the beach.

Scarlet's Playground at Dodge Park #5 in Commerce Township
Foote’s work has also involved building a trail for the visually impaired at Arcadia Dunes. Here visitors with limited eyesight can still smell the pine forests, meadows, and stands of oaks. Trees with different kinds of bark can be touched from the trail and the dappled light of diverse woodlands is visible to those with partial sight.


Right now, Foote and the GTRLC are partnering on an accessible trail at the Timbers Recreation Area in Long Lake Township that incorporates Universal Design principals and was funded primarily by Michigan’s Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF). This fund is derived from the sale of mineral rights and it has funded roughly $1 billion in land purchases and development for state and local government since its founding in 1976. While all applicants to the program must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the MNRTF also judges them on how well they integrate Universal Design principles. This along with advocacy from disability advocacy organizations and conservation groups is helping to make Michigan’s natural areas much more welcoming to a diverse population.


Andrea Stay, a grant coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources says that the MNRTF has a big impact on public open space in that state–having purchased over 140,000 acres for public use since it was founded–and that incorporating accessibility in these projects can have a ripple effect in communities.

Scarlet's Playground at Dodge Park #5 in Commerce Township
When municipalities or other government bodies apply for funding from the MNRTF, somewhere between 30 and 60 points of their project’s score is based on how well it incorporates Universal Design and making spaces accessible. With the total for a successful project often falling in the low 300s, that means that roughly a fifth of the score is related to promoting universal access to open space.


Foote believes that this is an equity issue, saying that 30% to 35% of the population has some issue that could make it difficult for them to interact with the outdoors. “It's not just people who are in wheelchairs,” he says. “It's everyone that uses canes or has bad knees or is overweight…or people who are just older.”


Responding to these different needs can take planning and creativity. In the past few years, the MNRTF has helped fund projects like Scarlet’s Playground at Dodge Park #5 in Commerce Township, a 16,000 square foot all-inclusive playground that’s the largest structure of its kind in Michigan.

The design allows children of different abilities to play together with platforms and play areas that are easily accessible by wheelchair. Another project in DeWitt, the
Miracle League Field has replaced the rough surfaces of a traditional baseball diamond with a rubberized surface that makes it easier for athletes using wheelchairs and walkers to play.

Scarlet's Playground at Dodge Park #5 in Commerce Township
Design innovations have helped some of these projects come about, but the age of many Michigan parks and natural areas presents an opportunity as well. “Many of our park systems across the state of Michigan were built-out or were developed during similar time periods,” Clay Summers, executive director for mParks–an organization advocating for parks and recreation in the state–says. The MNRTF is in position to help municipalities and state parks pay for upgrades to facilities that may have been built 30 or 40 years ago and need improvements, which could include making these spaces more accessible.This could have benefits for conservation in general as more people get outside and see why Michigan’s open spaces are worth protecting.

“There's a saying that you don't protect what you don't experience what you don't love,” Stay says. Of course, the move towards universal access benefits visitors as well. With numerous studies citing the
physical and mental benefits of outdoor recreation, there’s no reason why these spaces shouldn’t be available to as many people as possible.
Scarlet's Playground at Dodge Park #5 in Commerce Township

For his part, Foote is continuing to look for new ways to serve people with disabilities, doing things like including the use of rocking chairs or glider chairs in planning to help those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. These have been shown to decrease the anxiety and depression associated with these conditions. “

We're always finding new ways to include more people,” he says. “That's the real rewarding part of it.”

“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.