Spotlight: When the Job is Child's Play ...

June 28, 2011

Born and raised in New York City, Mary Alice Lee had a fortunate childhood. "My mother was a science teacher," she explains. "She was always taking us to parks on weekends." High Rock Park on Staten Island was a favorite, she recalls, and these visits instilled within her an enduring love of nature.

The excursions also sparked an early awareness of the contrast between dense urban neighborhoods and the green open spaces where she learned about plants and animals. "Whenever I'd return to the city from a park visit, it always struck me that New York City didn't have a lot of green space. I knew from an early age that I wanted to do something to help."

With an undergraduate degree from Cornell and a masters in urban planning from Hunter College, Mary Alice began to work toward her goal at the New York City Parks Department, where she helped with acquisitions for projects in Manhattan. Her next position, as an environmental planner at a private firm, gave her invaluable experience in designing parks and overseeing construction. That background made Mary Alice a neat fit for a 2002 project manager opening in TPL's New York office, longtime players in city park creation.
 
In a city with limited open space available, TPL was transforming vacant lots into playgrounds, and just beginning to work with schools. For years, the mayor's office had wrestled with both space and funding challenges, and in the '90s considered working with corporate sponsors: the parks would serve as advertising space. Word leaked to the press, and the idea proved very unpopular with the public. "Corporate sponsorship was fine, but TPL knew there was a different way to create the working partnership," says Mary Alice. "So TPL went to the mayor's office with a better idea."

TPL launched a pilot program, City Spaces, and raised private money to pay for the creation of playgrounds on parks department property. "When I came on board in 2002, we were beginning to design and build playgrounds on schoolyards because the city was running out of vacant land. We realized that schools were good partners because they have a built-in population of users-the students who would use the site every day-and with the custodians, a built-in maintenance staff as well." 
 
At P.S.38, TPL helped bring on board the New York Life Foundation and the Charles Hayden Foundation, and oversaw the community meetings and workshops that comprise TPL's participatory design process. Because the playgrounds are used during non-school hours by the entire neighborhood, community involvement is crucial. Input from the schoolchildren helps guide the design process and the final result is a vibrant play space that reflects the local culture and meets the needs of its users.
 
"We budgeted $500,000 for P.S. 38, which was my first schoolyard project and a learning experience," Mary Alice recalls. The lessons learned began with the realization that there were unanticipated costs-removing the old paving surfaces, for starters. "In the end we wound up with a beautiful site, but we realized we could do more." In 2004, TPL established its first public-private partnership with the city of New York, which allowed access to more funding.
 
From P.S. 38, TPL staff also learned the importance of having a community partner to direct activities during off-school hours. Involving administrative and operations staff helps ensure that the chosen play equipment meets the school's needs. "We often bring the principal and custodian to sites we've done previously so they can see what's possible."

Sometimes, there is a gap between what the students request and what is actually practical. "The kids always ask for things like swimming pools," Mary Alice says—not much use in a New York winter. At P.S. 15, the kids wanted a petting zoo, but happily settled for a wildlife viewing area with bird houses and a butterfly garden. "For some kids, this was the first time they'd seen butterflies at a park!"

Other requests present an unexpected—but delightful—challenge to designers. "We try to make sure that there is a good mix of offerings for boys and girls." Mary Alice cites P.S. 242 in Harlem. "We asked kids how they use their school yard. Here, it turned out that girls often braided each others' hair." The architects came up with a two-level structure that provided just the perfect place for this activity.

While each playground is unique, each is brought to life by the community participation process that TPL has developed and honed over the years. Recently, Mary Alice and her team brought their expertise to Colorado, where they've helped with projects in Denver. Newark, New Jersey, has an active school playgrounds program, while similar parks are underway in Los Angeles and other major U.S. cities. Each region has its own special flavor, but for Mary Alice, the strength of the program across the nation is a sweet success.