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Chapel Hill plans first all-inclusive, accessible playground

Press Conference
Press Conference

Chapel Hill has nine playgrounds, but the town is in the process of planning a new playground that's accessible for all children — especially those with disabilities.

Bill Webster, the planning and development manager for the Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation Department, is working on the construction of Chapel Hill’s first all-inclusive playground. It would be a place where children with varying levels of mental and physical disabilities could play side-by-side with children who are developing typically.

The playground will be in Cedar Falls Park in northeast Chapel Hill, where a playground already exists. The first step will be to expand and convert the pre-existing playground at Cedar Falls and build outward from there, with structures designed so that everyone can participate.

The designs will go beyond the minimum requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

“Chapel Hill has always tried to think outside the box to incorporate different needs,” Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger  said. “We take a look at our population and hear them out to make sure we’re serving people with what they need.”

Webster said one of the biggest challenges for building such a playground is raising the money.

“It’s something that we’ve wanted to do for a decade; playgrounds are pretty expensive,” he said. “Frankly, we just haven’t had nearly enough funding over the years.”

Webster estimated that to get handicapped access, parking, accessible picnic facilities and upgrading the existing park would cost around $100,000 to $150,000. Those are only the basic upgrades needed for phase one of the construction.

Voters approved a bond in 2015 that will be used for the initial construction, Webster said. From there, he plans on applying for various grants and receiving aid from the Parks and Recreation Department. He also said he hopes to find a member of the community to step up and raise money independent of town government.

Hemminger said town meetings will be held to ensure the the the public has a voice in the plans.

“If you’re designing an inclusive playground, you need to have a process to get the public involved and understand the needs of their children,” she said.

While the project is still in the design stage, Jim Orr, director of Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation Department, hopes to have the project completed within the next two years.

“We all feel that every child, regardless of any disadvantage or handicap, should have the ability to utilize a facility to the extent of all their experiences, rather than just using a certain part of the facility,” he said.

Orr also said one of the biggest challenges of creating an all-inclusive park was the topography of the land. Three locations were considered for the construction of the park, but Cedar Falls was chosen for its ability to support more accessibility and allow for more space, he said.

“The actual footprint is a lot greater than what we would normally do,” Orr said.

Webster said inclusive playgrounds can't be compact.

“Cedar Falls has parking and accessible bathrooms, so it has enough space,” Webster said.

Plans to start phase one of construction are loosely set for the summer 2018, Webster said.


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