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People and their Playgrounds

By Matthew Shulman

How do urbanites use public playgrounds? Do they use them every day? Who uses them? How are they maintained? Is collecting this information even possible? These were some of the many questions posed when a team of public space researchers from New Yorkers for Parks and New York University collaborated on the daunting task of obtaining this elusive yet vital information.

The findings have been published in Understanding Playground Utilization, a new report that digs deeply into the users of 10 sample neighborhood playgrounds. The results as well as the methodology employed can be illuminating not only for the rest of city’s 1,900 parks but also to the parks of many other cities around the country.
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February’s Frontline Park

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes a “Frontline Park” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country. The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

R.V. Burgess Park

R.V. Burgess Park

R.V. Burgess Park is a small greenspace located in the middle of a dense high rise tower development called the Thorncliffe Park Community.  Built in the 1970s, the community and its amenities were meant to serve a maximum population of 12,000 people.  The area now has more than 30,000 people, mostly recent immigrants, and such a large number of children that the elementary school located next to the park is the largest in North America, with 900 enrolled in kindergarten alone.  As the main recreation area for the community’s youth population, R.V. Burgess Park was woefully inadequate, made even more so when the only playground equipment was torn down in 2006 after being deemed unsafe.

Community garden

Community garden

The park’s downslide was halted when six women from the community – professionals and mothers who met in the park – formed the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee in 2008. Initially, the Committee focused on bringing playground equipment back into the park, but the organization now advocates for development and implementation of a variety of public space enhancement projects. Thanks to the work of the committee and a partnership with the City of Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division, R.V. Burgess Park not only has a playground, it has a splash pad, a community garden, new turf and programming such as weekly bazaars and arts and cultural events. This small park has become a playground, a cultural center, an arts center, a market, and common meeting space for thousands of people.

The R.V. Burgess story is just beginning. There are plans to install a community tandoor oven in Spring 2013, and a playground with brand new equipment in 2015. The Committee hopes to establish recreation-focused programs, like walking clubs and swimming groups. And the appeal of the park is reaching beyond its neighborhood borders, bringing people from all over Toronto to its weekly bazaars and winter carnival.

For more on R.V. Burgess Park and the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, please visit:

Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee

City of Toronto Parks, Forestry and Recreation Division

The Miracle of R.V. Burgess Park

The “Frontline Parks” program is made possible with generous support from DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.

Creating and Financing Infill Parks in the Bay Area: Part III

The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence performed a study for the Association of Bay Area Governments, one component of which was identifying examples of how recently completed infill parks were financed. We will be publishing each of the four case studies (see the first here and the second here), with Oakland’s remarkable FROG Park as our third case study.

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The city of Oakland has an impressive amount of parkland. In fact, of the nation’s densely populated cities, it has the most parkland per resident. But the land is unequally distributed: the hills are green but the more populous portions of the city are lacking. This fact was the impetus for the formation of the Friends of the Rockridge-Temescal Greenbelt (FROG), which began an effort to build a community park in the Rockridge neighborhood in 1997.  The story of FROG Park is a paragon of community initiative and drive.

The first effort to create a park failed. When a Department of Motor Vehicles licensing facility underwent renovation, green space advocates suggested converting half its parking lot into a park to mitigate the development impact. Other neighbors, however, protested, fearing the loss of parking, and the FROG proposal was rejected. Though unsuccessful, the group remained determined to find a space for a park, and began researching other nearby sites. They soon discovered an area that combined an underused basketball court and dog park with fenced-off land owned by the Alameda County Flood Control District.

The FROG Park playground during construction by community volunteers. Photo credit: Theresa Nelson.

The site was complicated, both in shape – it is long and narrow, and passed over by a major highway – and in ownership. But it also offered tremendous potential, with a creek and an already-existing 120-foot-long mural under the highway. The idea for a park gained additional traction when two FROG volunteers came up with a master plan inspired by the idea of building playgrounds – one for toddlers and one for older kids – to serve as anchors on either end of a linear park.

To secure a lease on the site from the city, FROG was required first to deal with a number of liability issues, negotiating with CalTrans for permission to improve the site below California 24, and assuring unfettered passage for the Alameda County Flood Control District to service the creek and its utility area.

By early 2000, it became clear that FROG would be able to secure the cobbled-together park site, and fundraising began in earnest.  By working with Oakland Vice Mayor Jane Brunner, FROG positioned itself to legally receive funding from city bond measures. (Later, Brunner also provided her entire $125,000 annual discretionary allotment to the park as a challenge grant.) Oakland’s Measure DD (the Trust for Clean Water and Safe Parks) provided $140,000. California Proposition 12 (the Safe Neighborhood Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2000) supplied $493,000. They also manage to snag $60,000 for a tot lot under Measure I (the Oakland General Obligation Bonds for Parks) — and then, with the help of Friends of Oakland Parks, an amazing additional $400,000 of interest money on unspent Measure I funds.

Private fundraising followed in 2000, consisting of a mail campaign, monthly articles in the local newspaper, direct solicitations of businesses, a reception and a silent auction, generating well over $200,000, along with a critical $350,000 worth of volunteer labor and tools.

The park was built in two phases (with a third and final phase still to come). Phase I consisted of improved access to Temescal Creek (most of which flows below in an underground pipe), the construction of two playgrounds, the restoration of the 1972 mural (by the original artist along with students from a local arts college) and Phase II, completed in 2006, yielded paths, basketball hoops, swings and a water fountain, and the public art element: a series of obelisks equipped with small telescopes aimed at brass castings of animals that inhabit the landscape. (There is also a reproduction of the castings on a table so that the visually impaired can feel the sculptures.). The final addition will be a solar-powered restroom, as the park has only a porta-potty for 10 years, funded by FROG.

Total costs for Phases I and II totaled only $2.87 million, partly because FROG mobilized the entire community to help — 1,300 volunteers showed up over 10 days to construct the playgrounds under the direction of Leathers & Associates of Ithaca, New York. (FROG volunteers also prepared three meals a day for the volunteer workers and offered free child care during the entire period.)

The design of FROG Park incorporates land owned by the Alameda Couny Flood Control District. Photo credit: Theresa Nelson.

FROG now works to sustain community involvement, which remains the backbone of the park. All maintenance besides grass cutting and trash removal (done by the city), such as creek cleaning and refinishing the wooden play structures, is done by neighbors on semiannual work days. A local high school sends its entire freshman class each year to work on replanting the native garden.

The park is a seven-minute walk from the nearest BART station, and park co-founder Theresa Nelson reports that many park visitors arrive on public transit. The weekend farmer’s market, held in the DMV parking lot, brings in “probably a thousand people, from kids splashing in the creek and sailing boats to older couples walking to the market,” according to Nelson. FROG has also worked with the developers of two adjacent infill developments to extend the park into their properties. Realtors have begun to pitch the park in advertisements, and surrounding properties seem to have benefited: while Rockridge property values have generally remained stable since the park was constructed, Nelson estimates an average home near the park has increased in value by about $150,000.

Marvin Gaye Park: Renewal by Playground and Peanut-Shaped Plaza

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.

Mosaic sculpture at entrance to Marvin Gaye Park. Credit: Phaesia2011(Flickr Feed).

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.

Some news from around…

  • Students in the Bronx celebrate their new playground, one of 42 vacant lots that the Trust for Public Land has transformed into playgrounds and community spaces in New York City. (NY1)
  • Proof parks are brought to life by their communities — Youngstown, Ohio residents set up a temporary “pop-up park” in a downtown parking space. (Rustwire)
  • The New York Times covers yet another planned pedestrian plaza in New York City. The Bloomberg administration plans to close portions of Union Square to automobiles, creating safe spaces for bicycles and pedestrians and enhancing the community space surrounding the year-round farmers’ market. Streetsblog NYC provides clear, detailed illustrations and descriptions of the plans.
  • In Indianapolis, parent volunteers escort children to school on foot and bike. The First Lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative awarded the community $250,000 to continue ensuring children safe walking paths to school, encouraging children to be more physically active. We believe parks and greenways are an integral part of that effort. (Fox News)
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