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Nature on Your Terms: Envisioning a Chattahoochee River that is Accessible to Everyone

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By Walt Ray, Director of the Chattahoochee River Program with The Trust for Public Land

 On a recent sunny afternoon, a group of people with disabilities riding in motorized wheelchairs joined over a dozen members of the visually impaired community and their families to enjoy a nature walk and birding experience along the Chattahoochee River. Walk participants learned to identify birds by ear and stopped at sensory stations with scented leaves and textured bark as families chatted and children played against a backdrop of fall leaves framing the sights and sounds of the river.

It wasn’t chance that brought them together; this ramble along the river was part of the Chattahoochee RiverLands Greenway Study. Everyone in the group volunteered their time and expertise to contribute to a plan that will ensure people of all abilities can enjoy the river and surrounding areas on their own terms. Commissioned by The Trust for Public Land, the Atlanta Regional Commission, the City of Atlanta, and Cobb County, and led by nationally renowned landscape architecture and urban design studio SCAPE, this 18-month effort will result in a Greenway study for a public realm of connected trails, parks and other amenities spanning a 100-mile stretch of the river, from Buford Dam in Gwinnett County to the north, to Chattahoochee Bend State Park in Coweta County in the south. That gathering of advocates and friends of the differently abled was just one of many targeted small-group excursions along the river to help the team developing the plan understand the unique ways specific audiences interact with nature.

The emotional, physical and spiritual benefits of time outdoors should be accessible to all, and there’s more to accessibility than ramps for wheelchairs and grab bars in bathroom stalls. That’s why we’re going beyond the basics and imagining how the Chattahoochee River can become a destination that not only passively welcomes people with disabilities, but actually removes barriers to experiencing all that nature has to offer.

Mobility impairments don’t have to prevent individuals from enjoying the splendor of paddling down the Chattahoochee’s invigorating water and taking in the fresh air and breathtaking surroundings. People who are visually impaired can enjoy the sounds of a bird call on a birding expedition. Children with learning disabilities deserve the same opportunity to discover forests’ natural wonders through environmental education classes. We can design a RiverLands system that encourages and enables everyone to make this river their own.

The Greenway study will take into consideration needs such as abundant handicap parking, accessible trails, and navigable surfaces to trailheads and water access points. Boat launches will be designed to accommodate everyone. Wayfinding features and interpretive signage can offer opportunities to engage multiple senses to learn about the river and experience nature. Everyone will have the opportunity to smell the leaves, feel the water, and hear the wind. 

“River Rambles” like the nature walk for people with disabilities are just one part of the comprehensive and deliberate engagement process informing the Study. These small, intentional gatherings are also impacting the people who participate:

Thank you for embracing the diverse community of people with disabilities and recognizing that public lands and parks and opportunities for nature experiences should be accessible and shared by everyone. I know that the enthusiasm, abilities and comments of the participants gave a new perspective to those team members who attended.”

Cathy Barnard, board member with the Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy 

“The participants pointed out many small things we would not have thought of. They helped us see that the main idea is to remove the barriers and stress that people with disabilities can experience when they recreate outdoors.”

 Byron Rushing, Atlanta Regional Commission, Bicycling and Walking Program Manager

“Attending the River Ramble was a beautiful opportunity to connect with others who have diverse abilities and backgrounds and helped us all understand how creating accessible spaces not only connects people to the healing powers of nature, but also to other people and our communities. Everyone left with new friends and new experiences that will continue to impact us all.”

Aimee Copeland, Director of the Aimee Copeland Foundation

“The huge turnout for this River Ramble showed the immense support of the community of people with disabilities for the inclusion of accessible outdoor spaces along the new Chattahoochee RiverLands. These individuals generally have few opportunities to get outdoors and explore nature, and this event gave them a chance to enjoy its sensory experiences with their families and others in the community. Part of what made this event amazing was that the stakeholders were directly involved and able to share their perspectives for the planning of accessible features for this project.”

Evan Barnard, Founder and Leader of Nature for All

“During the walk, we focused on listening to birds and learning about the different ways they communicate. Identifying birds by call is arguably more important than visual identification, as many birds prefer to stay hidden from predators and are thus detected only by sound. In fact, there are certain birds that look so similar that they can only be reliably identified by their calls. I was so impressed with the level of knowledge and enthusiasm amongst the ramble participants and I loved getting the chance to work with them.” 

Lillie Kline, Education Coordinator with Atlanta Audubon

The Trust for Public Land works with and not just for communities to champion thoughtful community engagement practices to gain better access to public spaces for all by co-creating shared vision and prioritizing investments that renew the power of public land to serve a greater public good. Along with the other partners in the Study, we are grateful to the participants and organizations who made this River Ramble possible, including: Nature for All, the Georgia Council of the Blind, Aimee Copeland Foundation, Atlanta Audubon Society, Shepherd Center for Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Rehabilitation, Center for the Visually Impaired, Friends of Disabled Adults and Children, National Park Service and the Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy. 


If you haven’t yet interacted with the Chattahoochee RiverLands Greenway Study, check out the website — it is updated regularly as the plan evolves–and share your ideas and feedback.

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