There are many stories across the country of neighborhood groups working together to reclaim blighted and underused space. Marvin Gaye Park, in Northeast Washington, D.C., is exemplary of how a revitalized park can catalyze change in a long-struggling neighborhood.
Originally named Watts Branch Park, for the nearby stream of the same name, Marvin Gaye Park was created in the 1870s as part of the subdivision of the northeast section of Washington, D.C. Falling into disrepair in the early 1970s as maintenance funding shifted from federal responsibility to city management, the park became a haven for drug users, referred to as “Needle Park” by local residents.
In 1997, through the leadership efforts of the nonprofit Washington Parks & People, the community decided to restore Marvin Gaye Park to its once famed beauty. Throughout the next decade, volunteers participated in the largest community park revitalization in D.C. history, removing an unbelievable 3.5 million pounds of trash, 14,000 hypodermic needles, and 89 abandoned cars. The community also planted more than 1,000 native trees and renamed the park after local music legend Marvin Gaye in 2006.
“Parks are not just an agency of the government, they are the center of public life,” says Washington Parks & People President Steve Coleman. “A park can be the center of helping to move the concerns of a community forward, such as crime, health, obesity, and illiteracy,” he added.
There are many exciting amenities and activities in the park including a permanent mosaic featuring 200 community heroes, a youth-run farmer’s market, an amphitheater, and 1.6 miles of hiking and biking trails.
The park’s revitalization continued in 2009, as a collaborative effort of the National Recreation and Park Association and its Parks Build Community partners, with the installation of a brand new playground that has quickly become the park’s focal point. Funding for the neighborhood’s first playground in thirty years came from donations by Playworld Systems, Kompan, Playcore, and Surface America, altogether raising $400,000.
After the installation of the playground, usage by children and older community residents increased dramatically. Studies have noted that 85 percent of the activity in the park has taken place in the playground area. According to The Washington Post, “preliminary review shows that 50 to 70 children play for about 25 minutes daily when the weather is nice and that most live within a 10-minute walk.” The new playground has also increased the presence of local law enforcement, which helps to make the surrounding neighborhood safer.
Even more recently, the area around the park has begun to attract investment by both public and private partners – and signs are emerging that the vitality of the park and the health of the surrounding community are closely linked. Though there are still public concerns about safety in the park, recent and continuing efforts have shown that revitalized green space in urban areas can improve more than just aesthetics of a neighborhood.
One such effort is the D.C. New Communities Initiative, which undertook four projects in different wards of D.C. In the ward that includes Marvin Gaye Park, the city is investing in a $100 million, 235,000 square foot high school, $50 million in residential development, and $10 million in improvements to the park itself.
The Washington Post also reports that the transformation of Marvin Gaye Park should help to enliven other city facilities in the area, like the nearby community center:
“Autumn Saxton-Ross works at the Riverside community center across the street from the playground. Since she started there last May as an assistant director in charge of health programs, the number of children going to the community center has grown from 15 to about 50 each month. The increase is partly due to the playground, whose users often drift over to get a drink of water. They stay, said Saxton-Ross, 33, for such things as bike repairs, beat poetry sessions, tree planting, cooking classes and a farmers market.”
There has also been action on the private philanthropy front. Kraft-owned Planters recently announced that it is building four neighborhood parks in San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. In this novel twist on private partnerships in urban parks, Planters will embellish the parks with homages to America’s favorite legume, including plazas in the shape of peanut shells and occasional visits from the Planters Nutmobile, a biodiesel-powered, peanut-shaped bus that will promote youth volunteerism. Though some questions were initially raised about whether the interweaving of corporate advertising and public outdoor space was a positive development, the neighborhood’s character was carefully incorporated into the park. The path that cuts through it is lined with white posts that echo the front porches that have traditionally lined neighboring homes.
This new investment may be a sign of things to come: the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation has just been granted the authority to allow corporate advertising in parks. Fortunately, as the city moves forward fleshing out the details of this new arrangement, they have a positive example of how corporate involvement can enable much-needed improvements without overwhelming the park’s appearance or character.