Wisconsin’s first universally accessible park breaks ground in Wauwatosa

Moss Universal Park funded through private donations

several people wearing hard hats shoveling dirt
Officials break ground on the Moss Universal Park in Wauwatosa on July 26, 2023. Steve Smith/The Ability Center

Five years ago, Wauwatosa resident Damian Buchman noticed that although there were playgrounds with some inclusive features in the Milwaukee area, there wasn’t a park that was fully inclusive and universally accessible.

So Buchman, the founder and executive director of the Ability Center, decided to change that.

It was very clear that the whole park needed to be accessible, because that’s what opportunity looks like,” Buchman said.

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Now, Buchman’s vision is starting to become a reality with the Wednesday groundbreaking of Moss Universal Park in Wauwatosa. The $10 million redevelopment project, which is being funded through private donations, will be built at the former site of Wisconsin Avenue Park. When it’s complete, the 18-acre inclusive playground and park will include recreational areas and amenities designed for individuals of all ages and abilities.

“We really see it as a transformative project for how parks will be built in the future,” Buchman said.

It’s the first universally accessible park in Wisconsin and Buchman believes it’s also among the first in the nation.

“This isn’t just about Wauwatosa, Wisconsin — this is about the entire state and the entire country really learning how to do better, why it’s important to be better and elevating the game for everybody to be able to play together,” he said.

a rendering of a park
A rendering of Moss Universal Park, a $10 million redevelopment project which will be at the former site of Wisconsin Avenue Park in Wauwatosa. The Ability Center 

Moss Universal Park is a public-private partnership between the Ability Center, Milwaukee County, Milwaukee County Parks and IMPACT Parks. The first phase of the park, which will be designed by IMPACT Parks, is expected to open next summer.

When it’s complete, it’ll include play and fitness areas, a wheelchair-accessible slide, a clubhouse with accessible restrooms, sensory rooms, baseball fields, picnic areas, a half-mile of universally inclusive trails and a challenge course. Seasonal, adaptive equipment — including bikes, trail chairs and cross country skis — will also be available for free rental.

Buchman, who has an ambulatory disability after beating bone cancer at the age of 13, said the park isn’t just for children or for people with disabilities — it’s for anyone, at any age.

In a statement, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said 25 percent of households in Milwaukee County have at least one family member who has a disability.

“Those families have lacked an equitable opportunity to partake in play, recreation, and other physical activities,” Crowley said.

Crowley said he believes the park brings the community “one step closer to creating a more equitable county.”

Jeremy Lucas, the director of administration and planning for Milwaukee County Parks, also said he looks forward to the prospect of all county residents being able to enjoy the park.

“It’s going to be very exciting to be on the forefront of a full recreational facility for everyone to enjoy,” Lucas said.

A report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that nearly half of adults with disabilities who are able to do aerobic physical activity do not get any. Meanwhile, the Ability Center found there were 190,000 people living with a disability in Southeast Wisconsin alone.

“Moss Universal Park will be a beacon of universal accessibility, fostering a sense of belonging for individuals of all abilities,” said Guy Smith, Executive Director of the Milwaukee County Parks. “We are grateful to be part of this significant milestone that promotes equity, inclusion, and embraces diversity.”

a man in a black shirt stands in a group of people
Damian Buchman (center) is the CEO of the Ability Center. Steve Smith/The Ability Center

A 2022 study published in the National Library of Medicine found that improvements in social skills and reductions in stress and anxiety can be linked to playgrounds and kids engaging in unstructured play.

“By including a variety of play elements that cater to different age groups, play preferences and abilities, inclusive playgrounds can provide a welcoming space that facilitates equal and equitable play opportunities for all children,” the report found.

An article from Kids Included Together also found that inclusive parks can instill a sense of independence and confidence in children.

Buchman said fundraising for the project is about halfway complete. The park was named Moss Universal Park after a $2.5 million gift from the George F. Moss Foundation Trust.