Inclusive Park and Recreation Design: Versluis Park, Grand Rapids, Michigan

"It broke my heart every day seeing Dad or Mom seated on the pavement watching their kids play 100 feet away on the beach." These words from John Short, Parks Director of Plainfield Charter Township, echoed the feelings of many in the community.

This quickly growing township on the northeast edge of Grand Rapids saw a need at Versluis Park and responded to the challenge. Tired of observing patrons who were unable to engage in beach and water activities because of varying abilities, they decided to do something about it.

A Versluis Park goal is to become fully accessible. To achieve their goal of a fully accessible park, the necessary funds were secured through a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grant, with 50% local match. The Township then hired two consultants: Progressive AE for site design and engineering services and Cindy Burkhour, an inclusive recreation consultant with Access Recreation Group for accessibility expertise. A three-way partnership was formed to creatively eliminate obstacles to universal enjoyment of this lakefront area.

"This was truly a team effort, with our client providing the vision, Cindy contributing insight into recreation accessibility-above and beyond ADA compliance, and Progressive solving the design challenges," stated Greg Scott, project designer for Progressive.

Versluis Park comprises playground areas, picnic facilities, beach and swimming areas with lifeguard stations and a bathhouse, fishing, boating, and two miles of paved walking trails. Rather than creating "separate but equal" facilities, the design team wanted to provide recreational opportunities for people who are physically challenged by integrating them into the fabric of the park.  Their solution included:

Beach access consisting of a deck, transfer step/backrest, shade trellis and seating

Lake access from a wheelchair ramp and transfer-step system down to the water

Water-side viewing via a 300' boardwalk with railing design that is sensitive to user sight-lines

Fishing access from a floating pier that has seating and wheelchair accessible fishing stations

The park borders a 50-acre manmade lake that evolved from a sand and gravel mining operation. The lake is separated from a large river by a tiny sliver of land. The lake level rises and falls with the level of the Grand River--a seasonal fluctuation of approximately 7 feet. Because the park is in a floodplain, the parking lot and restroom facilities are on high ground that can be up to 14' higher than the water elevation in some instances.

The design goal was to make the grade transitions seem like a logical progression of travel, rather than a forced set of switchback ramps. This was accomplished by grade transitions of considerable length that lead to landings with intermediate activities. These spacious landings act as resting spots or spring points to multiple destinations.

Due to lake level fluctuation, maintaining universal access to each recreational component, regardless of the prevailing conditions, posed an engineering challenge. The lake access transfer step system needed morethan one entry point to accommodate both very high and very low lake level conditions. This was accomplished by the inclusion of an adjacent wheelchair ramp, which could bring a patron down to a halfway entry point in low water conditions in addition to serving its primary function of water access.

A poured-in-place slip-resistant rubber surface on the ramp, galvanized metal railings and colored accent bands on the edge of the transfer steps all help to guide or assist users into the water whether the surfaces are above or below the lake water. The adjacent beach access deck, transfer steps, and wheelchair ramp are all within the heart of the park. Bench seating and a shade trellis are used to draw all park visitors to this area of the beach, successfully integrating people of all abilities. "Our intent was to create a gathering spot where all visitors could interact--this has been successful beyond our expectations. The steps and ramp are also used as a shallow water play area by young children while their parents watch under the comfort of the shade trellis. It has become a real focal point of activity for the beachfront", said Greg Scott.

The fishing pier is a floating facility that rises and falls with the lake level. The engineering design was complicated by the extreme grade drop from the boardwalk to the end of the fishing pier in low water conditions. To maintain universal accessibility, it was necessary to have a landing after 30" of grade drop before another ramp continued down to the fishing portion of the pier. The solution was a landing that "locks in" at the necessary elevation by means of legs and spread feet that rest on the lake bottom. The legs are adjustable so the landing may be raised in extreme high water conditions.

The pier takes advantage of excellent fishing due to several years of stocking fish by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. It includes four accessible fishing stations that have low railings with the capability to secure fishing rod handles. Fish retrieval openings and small bench seats are adjacent to wheelchair accessible areas, letting all devoted fishermen entertain each other with their favorite fishing stories.

While other Michigan parks have begun paying attention to inclusive design, it was John Short's intent to fully embrace the spirit of the law (ADA compliance). "If you're going to build new, why not be inclusive 100%?" John further noted that these facilities are used extensively every day during the summer months, "We have a gentleman who comes on a daily basis, transfers into the water via the steps and swims laps in the swim area". Whether it is an individual or one of the many groups from area schools, all can find recreation opportunities that previously were not available to them.

Cindy Burkhour considers the Versluis park waterfront a leading example of what creativity, commitment and thinking outside of the box can accomplish. "I don't know of any [other Michigan parks] that are as successful in providing access to these types of facilities."

It is the project team's hope that Versluis Park will become a model for others, encouraging communities to make the effort to incorporate inclusive facilities into their parks. With a little extra effort and financial commitment, all patrons can enjoy recreational activities equally.

For more information about this project, contact:

John Short, Parks Director
Plainfield Charter Township
P.O. Box 365
6161 Belmont, NE
Belmont, Michigan 49306
Phone: (616) 364-1197

Gregory H. Scott, ASLA, Project Manager
Progressive AE
1811 4-Mile Road, NE
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49525
Phone: (616) 361-2664

Cindy Burkhour, MA, CTRS, CLP
Inclusive Recreation Consultant
Access Recreation Group
2454 Lamplighter Drive
Jenison, Michigan 49428
Phone: (616) 669-9109



The citation for this article is: 

National Center on Accessibility.  (April 19, 2002). Inclusive Park and Recreation Design: Versluis Park, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Making the Grade. Indiana University-Bloomington: National Center on Accessibility.