Playgrounds by Design—Land&People

Promptly at noon on a hot day in late June, most of the nearly 1,000 students at Newark’s McKinley Elementary School break out of their classrooms and stream onto the cracked, bumpy parking lot behind the school for recess. The two-acre expanse is a virtual wasteland of asphalt–a shabby dumpster at one end, a few rickety basketball hoops at the other, all surrounded by ten-foot-high chain-link fencing. Yet, even in this sterile setting and stifling heat, the age-old playground games of tag, jump-rope, and basketball take form.

The children’s shouts and laughter fill the bright afternoon and filter back into hallways and classrooms. In one of those classrooms, forgoing recess, a dozen students huddle around an intricate model. It takes only a moment see that the configuration of construction paper, Styrofoam, and cardboard is the McKinley School building and parking lot. Blue lines represent the boundaries of a regulation basketball court. Pipe cleaners stand for trees and a play structure.

The students are charged with coming up with a plan for transforming McKinley’s asphalt lot into a real playground. Today they are making a crucial decision: How tall should a slide be for a five-year-old? Travis, a second-grader, stands in the middle of the room wearing a purple T-shirt and Nike sneakers. He raises one hand in the air at the height he thinks the slide should be. His art teacher, Barbara Ostrovsky, asks, “Don’t you think that would be a scary slide for a little kid?” Lorenzo and Roy, both fifth-graders, agree with Mrs. Ostrovsky. The slide needs to be a little shorter.

Lorenzo, Travis, Roy, Mrs. Ostrovsky, and the school’s principal, Carolyn Granato, have worked for nearly three months as part of a 14-member playground design team. Students worked shoulder to shoulder with a team of experienced design professionals assembled by the Trust for Public Land to accomplish the parking-lot-to-playground transformation. The process involved surveying 700 of their schoolmates, meeting with professional architects, and visiting playgrounds to learn about how play structures actually work–an integral part of the process, since several of these students had never seen a working swing set.

It is a model TPL has introduced in inner-city schools nationwide, and the sixth such playground to be completed in Newark since TPL launched its City Spaces program there in 1995. “TPL is responding to the overwhelming need for safe playgrounds in underserved communities,” says Leigh Rae, TPL’s New Jersey field office director. “In many places, greenspace is nonexistent. For many children, the only place to play is in the street.”

“As McKinley students visited other playgrounds and learned about what was out there, the way they imagined their own playground really changed,” says Granato. “They got so involved, their excitement was contagious among the rest of the students. Now that the participatory design process is complete, the whole school is anticipating the groundbreaking in September.”

When students at McKinley School were asked to rank the features they most wanted to have in their playground, trees were among the most desired, along with water fountains and a play spray. “All these were more highly ranked than even basketball,” says Margaret Seip, TPL’s Newark program director. Seip led the team of experienced design professionals that included Paula Hewitt, a participatory design educator; Melissa Ix, a landscape architect with Mark K. Morrison Associates; and horticulturists from the Greater Newark Conservancy, a grassroots environmental-education organization.

McKinley School’s Crusaj Thomas, a lively ten-year-old, says, “Site visits are fun because you observe the equipment and play on it and see how it works and see if it’s good. I like how the thinking goes on and how we design things.” Looking over the playground model, he listens to Mrs. Granato and nods his head eagerly as she speaks about how participatory design has helped her students. “These kids never knew they could be architects, or that they could be landscape designers either. They are thinking about their careers as a result of this project.”

A City Left Behind

Newark’s population peaked at more than 400,000 residents in the 1960s, but tight budgets, race riots, and an embattled city government led to a population exodus in the 1970s that left neighborhoods decimated and the city among the poorest in the nation. Newark public schools have virtually no money for playgrounds, and community support is rare in a city where a third of the 274,000 residents lives below the poverty line.

In 1995, TPL identified five school properties in some of Newark’s neediest neighborhoods as potential playground sites and began involving students in designing the new play spaces. Those first five playgrounds were completed at a cost of $3 million, with critical support from numerous foundations.

The Prudential Foundation, an outgrowth of the insurance company that began in Newark in 1875, has been a continuous supporter of TPL’s City Spaces program from the beginning, and is now helping fund five more playgrounds, including the one at McKinley School, with a leadership grant of $900,000.

“Prudential is delighted to be creating safe, fun environments for children,” says Gabriella Morris, president of the foundation. “Newark needs permanent, school-based community recreation spaces. But we have learned that it is through partnerships with community groups and government agencies that playgrounds will be successful and long-lived. “

Building relationships around a community playground is as important as the play equipment installed there, says TPL’s Seip. “In the long term, these projects depend on stewardship,” she explains. “That’s one reason we try to get people involved and invested early in the design process. There needs to be a strong fabric of support.”

Newark’s playgrounds, along with new housing and economic development, are helping the city regain population, and with it a growing sense of stability and optimism. This year, in partnership with TPL, the city was awarded a $1 million federal grant from the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery program, a National Park Service effort that had virtually disappeared until being revived by Congress three years ago. These federal funds, along with a $175,000 grant from the state’s Green Acres program and support from the Prudential Foundation and others, were critical to the effort to reclaim and restore Mildred Helms Park, a three-acre city-owned site adjacent to an elementary school in Newark’s Central Ward. Originally built in the 1970s, Mildred Helms Park has a few concrete tables whose benches have disappeared and the remains of an old shuffleboard court. The park is a frequent destination for stolen and dumped vehicles. Proposed improvements include landscape and equipment renovation, installation of play equipment, and a new basketball court.

The Reverend Frederick Wilkes, whose passion for urban ministry led him from Trenton to Paterson to Newark, chairs the Mildred Helms Restoration Committee, which for years has advocated improving the park. “When we realized that Clinton Avenue Elementary School had no play area, our concern for the lack of usable neighborhood space turned into a crusade,” Reverend Wilkes recalls.

Wilkes’s group, which includes local parents, pastors, and a representative from the city department of parks and recreation, will play an integral role in the upcoming TPL-led design process for Mildred Helms Park. “Urban parks survive when the community has the pride to maintain them,” Wilkes asserts, noting that his biggest challenge will be ridding the park of drug dealing. “Even a million dollars won’t automatically fix that,” he admits. “But we will be a significant stakeholder in the new reality of this playground, and we will find a solution.”

TPL will guide the school, the Mildred Helms Restoration Committee, and the Clinton Hill community through an extensive participatory design process that includes stewardship education. Among the benefits of the process is what TPL’s Seip calls building social capital. “Children learn about design and expand their horizons,” she says. “Community residents become enfranchised as they transform their neighborhoods, and economic development is spurred by the improved conditions.”

Success at St. Columba

As local residents gather in support of Mildred Helms Park, they will draw upon the successful experience of past community collaborations in their city, such as the one that created a thriving community playground at St. Columba School, in Newark’s East Ward.

A row of social agencies clustered at the end of the East Ward’s Pennsylvania Avenue depicts this neighborhood’s daily realities: the Clinton Avenue Homeless Shelter, the Riviera Hotel for the Homeless, and two drug-rehabilitation centers. “This is a beat-up neighborhood where day-to-day life is a struggle,” acknowledges Sister Mary Dwyer.

Sister Mary, a tall, trim woman with a patient, clear way of expressing herself, has lived in the St. Columba Convent around the corner from what is now Columba Peace Playground for 32 years. When shady characters infested the lot next to the parochial elementary school, dumping drug paraphernalia on a field already strewn with rubble and weeds, Sister Mary, then principal, undertook to reclaim the property.

In a decade-long effort, Sister Mary, with help from other groups, raised some $300,000 for the playground. TPL secured the land, and the new playground was built in 1996 with the participation of St. Columba students, neighbors, and TPL staff. Children painted garbage drums, planted weeping willows, watered petunias and marigolds, and helped install benches and picnic tables. “On opening day, we lined up the kids outside the fence,” Sister Mary recalls. “When we opened the gates and the kids ran in, it was a great day.”

Although she retired as principal in 2000, Sister Mary still has the keys to the gates that keep the playground safe for the hundreds of children that play there. “These days when I go over there are 50 or 60 people playing basketball. If that playground did not exist, there would be an enormous void here,” she says.

Club del Barrio puts on after-school programs and summer camps at the St. Columba playground, and arranges for highlights like the bilingual performance group Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, which makes a stop in late summer. Demand for the space is so great that the club’s director, Betty Delgado, must juggle a sophisticated schedule to accommodate all the groups that want to use the playground. In fact, St. Columba is now renowned throughout Newark as the playground with the most neighborhood use.

Anzella K. Nelms, deputy superintendent of the Newark public schools, credits TPL’s program with transforming not only city spaces, but also the lives of children. “In place of cracked cement, there are now beautiful, multicolored tracks and play equipment,” she says. “But for aspiring young architects, landscape designers, and land stewards, the opportunity to make a difference extends far beyond the playgrounds they helped create.”

The TPL participatory design model has birthed six new playgrounds in Newark, seven in New York City, and others in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles.

Martha Sutro is a sailor, cyclist, teacher, and freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.