When was the last time you took a walk outside in our amazing wild landscape? I love exploring off the beaten track, discovering new paths leading to new views and stunning scenery. There is something about wandering aimlessly which makes you feel calm and rejuvenated, and sometimes I think that every new discovery brings a subtle shift in perspective. How therapeutic the rich green corners in the forest are, full of ferns and mosses. Or running through the wildflower meadow, brimming with staggered colour blooms swaying in the summer sunshine.
But what if you can’t just pick up and explore? What if rather than the forest being an exciting journey through nature it is an obstacle which is impossible to navigate? Or what if the meadow is a soft inaccessible mass of flowers which cannot be entered and only admired from afar? In a country of endless spots of extraordinary beauty one must ask: how accessible is our great outdoors to everyone?
This question of what accessibility means is something which has been explored deeply while I have been working together with the Irish Wheelchair association on a collaborative show garden for this year’s Bloom in the Park. One thing I have thought a lot about over the course of working with the fantastic team at the IWA is that accessibility is a kind of freedom which most of us take for granted. The freedom to explore, to take steps into the unknown without thinking too much and allowing life to lead us into the great unknown- the great outdoors.
Until I started working with the IWA I had never consciously realised how easy it is to take the accessibility in our parks, forests, beaches, trails and greenways for granted. I started thinking about our everyday journey through life, urban and wild and how no two people experience it in the same way.
More than this it made me view every step I took, from the car onto the path, the steps up the slope over the forested hill on my walk, the wander through the meadow, in a new light. Where I felt grateful for taking these steps, I realised that exploring the great outdoors for many people is truly a challenge in accessibility.
Recently I took a trip up to the IWA campus in Clontarf and what stayed with me vividly until now, was the sense of community and inclusiveness which was apparent on the campus. I met the force of nature that is the paralympic John Fulham who runs the Irish Wheelchair Association’s Corporate Wheelchair Basketball experience and the lovely Kayleigh McKevitt, Rachel Creevey and Dave Barry, who were just back from giving an inspirational talk at Trinity College.
Our meeting that day brought to mind a statement which Rosemary Keogh, CEO of IWA had given at the launch of ‘The Great Outdoors campaign’ where she said that the IWA vision is of “an Ireland where people with disabilities enjoy equal rights, choices and opportunities in how they live their lives, and where our country is a model worldwide for a truly inclusive society.”
This statement really stayed with me and turned my whole thinking upside down when it comes to designing space from scratch. What I realised after after our meeting is that where we have ‘problems in accessibility’, we need to make us give careful thought to how we approach every project from its very inception.
Accessibility is still far too often forgotten about in the realm of urban design and architecture and it is of course vital that inclusive design needs to address making all spaces inside and out as accessible as possible. As designers we need to ensure that our spaces comply with regulation and law and even more than this, I think inclusive accessibility needs to lie at the heart of all new design, urban and wild.
Inclusive accessibility has become a theme which lies at the heart of the show garden ‘The Great Outdoors’ this year which I’ll be designing with the IWA for this year’s Bloom festival. While working on the garden I came to consider that our design needs to do more than just ‘address a problem’. It needs to come from a deeper place of inclusive thought and ask some important questions. Added to this we agreed that inclusive design should encourage a deep connection with nature and the great outdoors for every user, regardless of disability.
The garden takes its name from the IWA’s recent publication ‘The Great Outdoors, A guide for Accessibility’ produced by the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA) Sports and Access departments with the support of Sport Ireland and the Dormant Accounts Fund. It is a document which provides guidance on how accessible design can be applied to open up natural beauty spots to all and the details within the guide provides accessibility information, advice and guidance to organisations and individuals responsible for outdoor environments including, trails, greenways, public parks, beaches, waterways and the built environment.
Our show garden this year aims to create an accessible place of wild beauty that excludes no-one and aims to highlight this important document which provides everyone from developers and planners to architects and designers with detailed technical and practical advice across a range of environments on how we can make Ireland more accessible to everyone.
In our garden, a simple cedar structure, open at the front and growing more protected at the back sits nestled within a wild garden becomes a peaceful, inclusive haven. It invites the user to immerse their senses in nature, drinking in the sounds, touch, scent and views of the exquisite setting. The structure design enables wheelchair users comfortable access, with ample room for navigation, turning and companionship. Surrounded by lush ferns, with shade planting towards the back and soft meadow-style planting towards the front, the structure poses the question ‘what is inside and what is outside?’ and represents a calming journey from everyday life into the wilderness.
As part of the garden we will also be collaborating with the talented artist Sara O’Neill of Eadach designs who will explore of the IWA vision from an artistic perspective, creating some very special artwork for the show garden, bringing nature and the great outdoors into the garden from another fascinating perspective.
It’s this multi-faceted, accessible connection to the great outdoors which I’m looking forward so much to creating. Taking inspirations from the people I met over the course of the design, the wild nature we all love and bringing our design to the Phoenix park on the June bank holiday weekend to be shown to everyone. It’s the perfect chance to create a design which is inclusive and allows every user to re-connect with nature and embrace ‘The Great Outdoors’.
‘The Great Outdoors’ show garden designed by Leonie Cornelius for the Irish Wheelchair association garden can be seen at the Bloom in the Park festival this June bank holiday weekend- 30 May- 3 June 2019