Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Playground politics

What's the hottest new component of neighborhood development? Playground design. As childhood obesity grows and schools devote less time to recess, the importance of good playground design garners more attention. Last week's Newsweek highlights innovative public playgrounds across the country. Note that of the five highlighted, at least four were fully or partially funded with private donations.

This month's Governing magazine provides insight into why publicly funded playgrounds tend to be "home to dull, pre-fab plastic equipment." Local politics. Local governments are risk-adverse when it comes to liability, maintenance, and cost. Quotes the Governing article:

"I don't see a lot of change in parks departments unless there's somebody at the local level who really wants to agitate for it," says Susan Solomon, author of American Playgrounds. "They won't say we need to make massive change because everybody is so afraid of liability."
A one-acre playground in New York City to be designed by architect Frank Gehry will include vegetal walls and cost $4 million, which will be raised by a private group. Another new playground in New York City, designed by the Rockwell Group, includes "a selection of blocks, buckets, shovels and the like that lets youngsters build something, tear it down and start all over again." It's unclear from news reports whether the city will own and/or maintain these playgrounds--a key determinate of liability.

Southeast Wisconsin has seen some of the private funding phenomenon. The Friends of Bradford Beach formed in 2005 to raise money for a playground and water garden at Bradford Beach. Their goal is to raise $500,000. Racine's North Beach boasts a 20,000-square-foot sunken "pirate ship" for climbing and imaginative play. The $270,000 cost was raised privately from residents and businesses. Without private donations local parks officials tend to play it safe: a Forum survey of all Milwaukee County parks in 2002 found most park playgrounds, while newer, had few distinguishing features. There are pockets of innovation, like the Gordon Park splash pad, which show that local officials aren't immune to kids' needs and can move away from cookie cutter design without increasing risk unacceptably.

The appropriateness of raising private funds to initiate innovative recreation opportunities has been debated over the past week after the announcement of a $4 million challenge grant to renovate the Hoyt Park pool in Wauwatosa. Many are classifying the donation as a win-win, with County Executive Walker stating that private donations for the Hoyt Park pool will allow county funds to be used for other pools. The Journal Sentinel article states that the Friends of Hoyt Park and Pool organization is proposing to building and operate the pool under a lease with the county, similar to the relationship between the county and the Urban Ecology Center in Riverside Park. A key element in the county's support seems to be the Friends' group's recognition of the need to fundraise for operating expenses as well as capital expenses. According to the WauwatosaNOW website, Friends of Hoyt Park President Denise Lindberg estimates the construction costs at $6 million. but also

plan[s] to have two $1 million endowments set aside - one to cover operational needs to ensure that all things that need to be fixed will be fixed during those first few years of operation and another to make sure there are adequate funds on hand for security and safety needs.

If the Hoyt Park pool model succeeds, expect future public playgrounds to be built and operated privately as well. From all reports, this is a practice gaining favor across the country as policymakers eschew innovative, high-risk recreational developments in the midst of tight budgets.

UPDATE: Supporters of another county pool announce a fundraising effort: Hales Corner Pool

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