Encouraging Inclusive Design for All

Harper’s Playground: a non-profit organization dedicated to designing and building inclusive playgrounds in Portland and beyond.

Cody Goldberg, Executive Director of Harper's Playground, visited the Bureau of Development Services as a guest speaker in November 2018, where he asked City staff to reflect on their influence in building more inclusive communities. The BDS Communications Team met up with Cody at the Harper’s Playground headquarters (housed in the Gerding Edlen Development offices downtown) to talk further about his goals, his beliefs and the future of inclusive design.

Flashback to 2009: Cody Goldberg and his wife, April, took their daughter Harper to Arbor Lodge Park to play. Harper uses a walker—she was born with Emanuel Syndrome, a rare disorder that can make those who have it unable to walk or talk. Harper approached the play structure at Arbor Lodge Park, but her walker got stuck in the woodchips. An otherwise normal day at the park sent Cody and April on a mission to redesign and rebuild that playground and sparked a passion that has had a worldwide impact.

Today, Cody is the Executive Director of Harper’s Playground, a non-profit organization dedicated to designing and building inclusive playgrounds in Portland and beyond. They’ve rebuilt five playgrounds in the Pacific Northwest and have consulted on inclusive park designs around the world. Harper’s Playground shares a model to create playgrounds that work for everyone—they’ve found by making things more accessible for people who experience disability, it makes those elements more accessible to all visitors. “Harper’s Playground is the curb cut effect in motion,” Cody says.

“For me, community is everything. Our work is all about creating community: community benefit through community involvement. Healthy community means inclusive, playful community. These things are paramount.

Everybody could be a little more thoughtful about people who might have a harder time navigating a space or using something. We have to make accessible design the norm, not the exception. Designing for people who use wheels is ultimately the best way to get there. From my experience, it’s how I was able to go from skateboard shoe marketing to a leader in this concept. But all I do is think, ‘How will someone in wheels interact with this? How will people in wheels access this?’ There are often little tweaks in the design that cost nothing and make things better for a lot of people. It doesn’t require a high paying consultant—just give the design a wheels test!  

I’ve noticed that there is a chasm between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. When people are following the letter of the law too stringently, they’re losing sight of the spirit of the law. That’s why playground design has gotten worse and worse over the years, intending to follow the ADA laws but losing sight of why the laws exist in the first place.

What needs to change is the mindset that there has to be a trade-off when creating radically inclusive designs. There are people stuck in a mindset that radical inclusion means you must lose out on other things. We can take care of everyone and nobody has to lose out. So many people who hold power feel that allowing other people power means you must give something up. But true power means sharing your influence. It’s difficult to get people to admit that typically developing children do not lose out when they’re playing at accessible areas.

Ultimately, we need new policy. I have read the ADA requirements for playgrounds, and I am confident that we could create a much simpler set of guidelines that would make it easier to design playgrounds. We should simplify policy to be user friendly, both the policy itself and the resulting developments. I have such faith in human beings to do the right thing, but it literally takes questioning how things are done: is this the right way to do it? Who gets to be here? Who is invited to be in this space?

Diversity in decision-making groups is important, but diversity of thought is as important as anything. I have worked with people who use wheels in decision-making capacities who are compromised by how hard they can push, because their job is to keep moving things forward. I don’t believe that anyone’s ability or background qualifies them to be the best advocate necessarily.

Until someone knows something, they don’t know it. I didn’t know about the importance of inclusion, and just because I do now, I can’t forget that once I did not. We are not tolerant of people who know better and make choices that exclude people with disabilities, but we are tolerant of the experience of figuring this out. My wife, April, is really good at being humble and appreciative of people who come to the knowledge without having their own personal experience with it.

We came to this realization after our daughter faced this challenge. For other people to get it without going through it personally takes a lot of empathy. We are very thoughtful about the usefulness of our spaces for people who don’t experience disabilities as well. Harper’s Playground wouldn’t be the success that it is if it was our spaces were not fun for kids who don’t experience disabilities…that’s not inclusive. Inclusion is making it fun for everyone. We just make sure that friends in wheels can be there too, and to feel connected.”  

To volunteer with Harper’s Playground or learn how you can support its efforts, visit its website.


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