Urban Greenways Need To Be Made More Accessible

Hiking and walking Nashville’s greenways has helped my quality of life tremendously, and these benefits should not be limited to the able-bodied.

URBAN GREENWAYS AND green spaces are essential aspects of city life, especially for people with disabilities, an aspect not commonly considered in the design, creation, and advocacy of these green areas.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), one in four US adults, 61 million Americans, have a disability. This is higher than the worldwide average of 15 percent. Moreover, disabled adults are three times more likely to have heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer than nondisabled adults, and almost half are physically inactive. Urban green spaces can provide a much needed safe place for people with disabilities to remain active and enjoy the benefits of nature.

harpeth river greenway
The Harpeth River Greenway (pictured) in Nashville, TN is only accessible by car. Lack of transportation and lack of accessibility (paved walkways, paths with no stairs) are major barriers of access to urban greenways for folks with disabilities. Photo by Rex Hammock.

Hiking in Nashville’s neighborhood greenways and parks not only improves my leg strength and overall health, but also gives me mental sustenance and respite. I feel more alive and creative after being among the hickory trees of Edwin Warner Park or with the sun beating down on me as I walk beside the long grasses of the Harpeth River Greenway. I and other folks with disabilities deserve to enjoy the beauty of nature and urban green spaces as much as non-disabled folk, yet often these places do not take accessibility into consideration.

The benefits of walking to health are well documented. A review of 25 studies demonstrates clear benefits to walking in natural environments versus synthetic ones, particularly in the area of positive emotions. Another study found improvements in mood and lower cortisol levels for those who walked outside. Moreover, both walking and natural environments are used to treat mental health, and according to a report by the UN World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.

Clearly, exposure to natural environments would aid in both the mental and physical health of disabled folk. Even those unable to walk would receive the emotional and mood benefits of being outdoors. Jessie Voigts, a wheelchair user and publisher from Michigan, says that while she visually enjoys visiting her city’s green spaces, she’s unable to go as often as she likes due to a lack of wheelchair-accessible paths. This is unacceptable.

I FIRST PASSED OUT in the fourth-grade lunch line. In junior and high school, I found myself slipping in the shower almost daily, without realizing I was actually fainting. The fainting spells would last so briefly, I thought I’d slipped without remembering the fall. My family was concerned by the bruises that covered my legs, but doctors could find no reason for them. In the rural, Tennessee town I grew up in, the doctors were unable to determine the issue, though they did discover I had an irregular heart rate. Unlike many women with my health condition, I’m lucky in that no doctor ever doubted I had a health problem or misdiagnosed me with anxiety. They just didn’t have the tools to figure it out.

While my troubles began in elementary school, I wasn’t diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) until I was in my twenties. I lived in a big city at this point, and after several friends witnessed an incident where I fainted after walking down a set of stairs at the university we attended, and after a semester of struggling to go up and down the stairs to my third-floor dorm room, it was finally clear that I needed to see a specialist, and specialists are much easier to come by in cities. It took a cardiologist about five minutes to diagnose me with POTS, and later testing confirmed his diagnosis.

This disorder affects my life in many ways — from being unable to drive to difficulty going up and down stairs. The condition is complicated by an undiagnosed immune system disorder that sometimes causes irregular heart rhythms when I have what would otherwise be a mild virus. But I am lucky that I can walk and participate in most daily activities. Many people with POTS have more difficulties with mobility and exhaustion than I do. Once I had the means, I researched ways to lessen the effects of POTS so I could enjoy my life more fully. Exercise suggestions focused on building leg strength, and as an avid nature- and bird-lover, I turned to Nashville’s greenways for physical therapy.

Almost every day I walked, and as my legs grew stronger hiking trails between long Tennessee grasses and heron beset ponds, I became proud of my body, aware of its physicality and strength.

In Nashville, greenways preserve nature and wildlife within the bustling city — from the shy and vivid indigo bunting to the dwindling population of bobwhites and the protection of important floodplains. They also serve as my, and other disabled folk’s, physical therapy. It’s hard to describe the joy I felt when I first realized I was sweating as I hiked. My armpits were wet, my back damp, a little trickle ran down my forehead. I was one of many people with POTS who had difficulty sweating, so that stinky dampness was one of the many signs that my greenway physical therapy was working. As my legs grew muscled, I stopped “slipping” in the shower, and I no longer needed to sit down in the bathtub.

pileated Woodpecker
A pileated Woodpecker at Edwin Warner Park. In Nashville, greenways preserve nature and wildlife within the bustling city. They also serve as my, and other disabled folk’s, physical therapy. Photo by Chad Horwedel.

Of course I also kept track of all the birds I saw, and dreamed of someday being able to name the trees. I’d never considered myself strong, or an outdoorsy person. As a child, I would hide inside and read whenever anyone mentioned spending any length of time outside. Now, my perspective has shifted. My time walking Nashville’s greenways has taught me to take pleasure in the strength of my body and in listening to the wind whisper through trees. To see the beauty in pit stains and muscled calves. To relish and honor nature and all the treasures it holds.

I’ve said it before, but let me say it again: I’m lucky to be able to enjoy these urban greenways at all. It’s gotten much harder since having a child. The main way POTS affects my daily life now is in my inability to drive. After giving birth to my daughter, I’ve found it almost impossible to visit the Harpeth River Greenway, though it’s less than five minutes from my home. I could easily walk there if my neighborhood had sidewalks, but it does not. The greenway is only accessible by car.

Lack of transportation and lack of accessibility (paved walkways, paths with no stairs) are major barriers of access to urban greenways for folks with disabilities.

Nashville is progressive in making greenways accessible, and most of the greenways I’ve been to have paved paths without stairs for people with mobility issues and/or wheelchair users, though it would be nice if they listed which greenways and trails were accessible on their website. Many people with disabilities avoid places that aren’t clearly labeled as accessible, for obvious reasons. In 2017, Nashville’s Greenways and Open Space Commission conducted a survey and found that people want more paved trails and to be able to bike or walk to their greenways. While they’ve made a lot of progress with these goals, it’s still mostly impossible for people to access greenways without driving.

The lack of listing accessibility online is widespread. The official webpage for New York City Parks, for instance, claims to strive to make city parks accessible for all abilities. Yet when I looked to see which trails were wheelchair accessible, only one in a city of millions was listed as fully wheelchair accessible. TrailLink, a handy tool that lists wheelchair accessible trails by state, gives far more trails that are wheelchair accessible than NYC Parks’ website. So which resource should a wheelchair user trust, the official website or TrailLink? Official park websites need to make the effort to better label their accessible parks and greenways.

A 2013 study in Extreme Physiology & Medicine concludes by saying: “The challenge for researchers in this field is not only determining whether knowledge of nature’s health benefits can act as a motivator for behavior change, but also ensuring that the increased use of ‘nature as a therapy’ is accompanied by a conservationist approach to ensure preservation of the environment. It is hoped that by more individuals partaking in green exercise and enjoying the great outdoors, they will retain their evolutionary connection with nature and act to become more protective of it.”

While the primary purpose of preserving green spaces in cities is to protect and preserve nature, making these greenspaces accessible for all should not be a secondary task. Hiking and walking greenways has helped my quality of life tremendously, and these benefits should not be limited to the able bodied only.

What needs to happen? More pathed paths; bus stops and sidewalks to greenways; and websites that clearly label accessible trails.

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