The quarterly donor newsletter of The Morton Arboretum

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Building a More Welcoming Arboretum

A number of recent construction projects at The Morton Arboretum are really building one thing: a welcoming space for a wider variety of people.

The Gerard T. Donnelly Grand Garden, the new Firefly Pavilion for weddings and events, and the newly rerouted Conifer Walk are all designed to be accessible to people who use wheelchairs, walkers, or strollers.

They are building blocks in the Arboretum’s ongoing effort to make experiences among trees and nature open to everyone.

The new route of the Conifer Walk doesn’t just wind among evergreen trees from around the world. It is now also a crucial link between paths leading to central areas of the Arboretum, connecting Meadow Lake, the Children’s Garden, The Grand Garden, and the new Firefly Pavilion, site of this year’s Evergreen Gala. Guests using wheelchairs or electric mobility scooters, or who simply prefer a paved path, can now make their way through varied sights.

Formerly, the path had steep slopes that made it difficult to traverse in a wheelchair or with a walker or cane. It was especially challenging for visitors to Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum, who may have struggled to get up a hill.

“We wanted to make this area something everyone can enjoy,” said Susan Jacobson, head of site planning and design, who laid out the new route. Basic geometry said that to make the slopes lower and easier, the path had to be longer, so now it meanders like a gently curving road.

Several areas of the Arboretum have been created with accessibility in mind, starting with the Visitor Center and the Arboretum’s central courtyard, Arbor Court, which has paved paths and shady seating areas. They were designed to be accessible two decades ago.

Many areas of the Children’s Garden can also be enjoyed by people using wheelchairs, walkers, wagons, or strollers. The Tree Walk, with paved surfaces, tall trees, and easy-to-read signs, begins at the entrance gate. Nearby is a fountain in which a huge ball is balanced on water, at a perfect height for children in wheelchairs to touch and splash.

In the Every Which Way area, designed for preschool-age children, the path and many of the play structures can be entered with a child’s wheelchair. A paved path leads to Wonder Pond, home to many fish, toads, and dragonflies, and a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk runs alongside it. The family restrooms in the garden have power doors and cubicles with plenty of space.

One of the Arboretum’s most popular paths is the one that sweeps around Meadow Lake, paved with asphalt and looping through sweeps of native plants. Benches, with space for wheelchairs alongside, provide places to pause and enjoy the view. Another accessible spot is the tranquil, shady Ground Cover Garden, with paved paths and with benches for restful pauses.

The Sterling Morton Library is fully accessible to wheelchairs. Farther afield, both the Prairie Visitor Station and the Big Rock Visitor Station are connected to short paved trails that loop through the Arboretum’s natural areas. The Fragrance Garden near the Thornhill Education Center is also wheelchair-accessible.

The Arboretum is continually working to make more of its spaces and experiences available and welcoming to more people. The Children’s Garden often works with groups of parents of children with sensory challenges to provide tailored programs. Tram tours have been arranged for groups of people with hearing disabilities. A “Have an Accessible Visit” guide on the website encourages guests to ask for help arranging accommodations.

The Arboretum is always building toward a more inclusive, diverse, accessible, and equitable future for all its guests, staff, and volunteers.