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The mighty Elm Playlot

Toody Maher knows the impact a local playground or park can have on residents’ health.

She can cite studies that show that children with a playground very near their home are much more likely to be a healthy weight, that kids are more active at a renovated playground, that more kids in low-income neighborhoods use a playground when there is adult supervision.

With goals like these in mind, Maher has worked tenaciously over the last six years to renovate Elm Playlot, a small community park and playground in the Iron Triangle neighborhood of Richmond, Calif.

One of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Iron Triangle had no safe, stimulating public spaces for kids to play outdoors. Elm Playlot was a trash-filled, vandalized park used primarily by men who drank, gambled, and loitered, people who brought their pit-bulls to fight, and drug dealers.

Today, the team at the nonprofit she founded, Pogo Park, has transformed the half-acre park into a clean, safe place, with a tricycle path, a ball wall, a zip line and much more. It’s a hub for the community, where neighbors meet and children play.

Research funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that in the first three years after Pogo Park started work on Elm Playlot, children’s physical activity at the site increased 170 percent. More kids came, stayed longer and played more.

“I see playgrounds as an undervalued asset,” Maher says. “There are thousands of little-used parks and playgrounds in low-income neighborhoods all over the country.”

Elm Playlot’s rehab isn’t a typical park renovation, though. Pogo Park has developed a grassroots, hands-on process that builds community, brings resources to the neighborhood, and makes parks and surrounding streets safer.

“There’s a lot going on there, on one little community playlot,” says Margaret Gee, executive director of Bay Area LISC, which has worked side-by-side with Pogo Park on a planning committee to create Healthy Richmond, part of a statewide initiative. LISC has provided funding for a filtered water fountain for the Elm Playlot renovation and is working with Pogo Park on other projects, including hiring an AmeriCorps member this fall as a volunteer coordinator.

“Parks are a Trojan Horse for getting healthy food and a healthy lifestyle into a community,” Maher says. “I feel like we’ve found how to reclaim and rebuild forgotten playgrounds the right way.” Here’s how.

Use the park to bring in new resources.

Community developers typically look to a well-known set of place-based funding: HUD programs, Community Development Block Grants, city and philanthropic anti-poverty funds, etc.

Alongside these tried-and-true sources, programs that support open space and resident health are another resource for struggling neighborhoods like Iron Triangle.

Pogo Park and the city has raised $1.94 million for Elm Playlot from a Prop. 84 State Parks grant, for example. And three more recent Pogo park renovation projects in the neighborhood have brought in a total of another $6 million from that grant program, the Trust for Public Land, Kaiser Permanente, The California Endowment, SD Bechtel Jr. Foundation, and the Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation.

“Done right, park renovation is a really potent community development project,” Maher says. 

Build with loose parts, not big plastic.

Pogo Park wasn’t the first attempt to reclaim Elm Playlot. In 2008, the City of Richmond replaced the old equipment with $200,000 worth of new plastic play structures.

The park didn’t really change, though. There was just newer equipment sitting largely unused. Maher says it took just a week for someone to scar them with graffiti, burns and knife cuts.

"There’s nothing more healthy for children than unstructured free play in a safe, welcoming place.”

In the years it took Maher’s team to work through the planning and permitting for the full playlot rehab, they tried a different approach: Pogo built a pop-up park with temporary play structures, a stage and what playground designers call “loose parts”— rocks, sand, sticks, rope, fabric.

The big cost was $2,500 for 19 tons of Hawaiian sand. “It was the most beautiful sand you’ve ever seen,” Maher says with a laugh. “The kids loved it.” She adds that because of imagined problems about keeping play areas clean, too many playground managers have given up on sand.

Today, with the final rehab in place, Elm Playlot is still filled with these kinds of creative, open-ended materials.

“In Britain, they call them ‘adventure playgrounds,’” she says. “Kids can build, destroy and manipulate their own environment. Children move more by playing than any other activity. There’s nothing more healthy for children than unstructured free play in a safe, welcoming place.” 

Learn what the community wants for real results.

To learn what the community wanted in the park—from loose parts to barbecue pits—Pogo Park staff went door-to-door to talk with people in the neighborhood, starting a planning process that included more than 500 local residents who live within a quarter mile of the playlot.

Maher says that, with the exception of some planting by a landscape construction company, the community team did 95 percent of the rehabbed playground’s design and layout. The California State Parks Department selected Pogo Parks’ community-based planning as the outstanding statewide model.

“How Pogo did community organizing, and residents taking ownership of their own park, is critical for the whole process being sustainable,” Gee says.

Hire residents to do the work.

Pogo’s commitment to community involvement goes deeper than canvassing the neighborhood.

All that money saved by avoiding expensive plastic equipment? Much of it was spent on salaries for nearly a dozen “RecTechs,” local residents who serve on Pogo Park’s staff, trained in everything from how to take minutes at a meeting to the basics of playground planning, design and construction.

In the last four years, Pogo Park projects have put more than $500,000 into the community in wages earned by local residents, from RecTechs to construction jobs. Elm Playlot isn’t just a fun place to play—it’s a workforce development program.

“Our solution is to engage people in the community and invest the resources coming into the community on local people,” Maher says. “People in this community designed the park, they built it and now they’re running it.” 

Pay attention to public safety.

A big part of the job of RecTechs is to be onsite at the playground, keeping an eye on the kids and helping out when needed. Their presence onsite—nine or 10 hours a day, depending on the season—also helps keep away drug dealers and anyone else looking for trouble.

“When we started, people could see that the park was staffed by long-time residents who truly value this park,” Maher says. “That makes a big difference for community safety.”

It’s a virtuous loop—the more people who are out in the park, the safer it is, and the safer it is, the more families there are who are willing to let their kids come out and play (and that, of course, means more exercise and healthier kids).

"Pogo Park and the police have reduced crime in the neighborhood in a very strategic and persistent way.”

Pogo Park also works closely with the local police and groups that aim to reduce violence in the community. This fall, Pogo Park and the Richmond Police Department were one of 11 partnerships recognized nationwide with a 2014 LISC/MetLife Foundation Community-Police Partnership Award.

“By connecting police actions with community organizing and rehabbing local buildings, Pogo Park and the police have reduced crime in the neighborhood in a very strategic and persistent way,” says Julia Ryan, the program director for LISC’s Community Safety Initiative. 

Healthy spaces deserve healthy food.

During planning, residents were adamant that they wanted healthy food available at the renovated park. 

The answer was right next door. Working with the city, Pogo Park bought a home in foreclosure next to Elm Playlot. After a gut renovation, it’s now a community center, including a state-of-the-art kitchen and snack bar.

But not a snack bar with hot dogs and soda. When it opens next spring, the food will be affordable, tasty and healthy.

Ms. Muro, a local resident who grew up in Guatemala, shared her beans-and-rice recipie, for example, and a partnership with Marin Organics across the bay will bring in fresh produce.

The playlot is now also an official place for at-risk kids to get a free lunch from the local school’s summer program. In its first year, it served 9,000 meals, becoming the number one distribution point for the program in Iron Triangle.

Leverage the park as a catalyst for community transformation.

With momentum building at Elm Playlot, Pogo Park reached out to use the energy and community to bring in more investments.

In addition to the grants to rebuild three more local parks, Pogo also worked closely with the city to get a $3.6 million HUD grant to buy and renovate the vacant houses that surrounded the playground. Now they’re all rebuilt and occupied by local families.

Maher is proud of how Pogo Park is a vehicle forhealth and wellness, community organizing, public safety, affordable housing, child development, economic development and more. And they’re not done yet.

“We’d like to have all the parks in the Iron Triangle be Pogo Parks. We’re already working on a ‘Yellow Brick Road,’ a safe route so kids can go to the next park over and find something else going on, and to schools and stores, too,” she says.

“Children and families will be able to move throughout the entire neighborhood, and that makes it healthier,” Maher says, her enthusiasm for another new project bubbling through. “Won’t that be great?”

Click here to read more about Pogo Park

Posted in Health & Wellness, Parks, Open Space & Greening, Richmond, CA

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