Nowhere to play
Recreation deserts leave too many city kids without community playgrounds to call their own.
The small, aging playground in Kelly Park is a sparse oasis in the recreation desert that exists in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood.
There are three swings, which are sometimes broken, and two metal slides connected by a wooden foot bridge. It is the only major Chicago Park District playground for the 48,000 residents of this largely Hispanic, working-class area on the Southwest Side.
“It’s tiny, old and needs to be improved,” says Monica Rodriguez, 42, who takes her sons Sergio, 10, and Daniel, 6, here. “My kids say the playground is boring. Sometimes they get splinters from the wooden bridge, or cuts and bruises from falling on the wood chips.”
Rodriguez and other parents would like to see a safer, more modern playground, like new ones in other parts of the city that have climbing nets, and ramps for older children and slides and tunnels for tots. And they’d like a soft, rubber surface in place of the hazardous wood chips. The Kelly Park Advisory Council, a grassroots org, was founded in January to persuade the Park District to build a new playground and make other improvements.
The problem is, the Park District doesn’t have enough money to renovate Kelly Park or many of the 520 public play lots in the city. It says new playgrounds cost an average of $500,000 and, faced with a tight budget, it can only complete about 20 projects each year.
That’s why the Brighton Park neighborhood remains in need, according to Friends of the Parks, the advocacy group dedicated to preserving and improving Chicago’s parks. Other neighborhoods identified by FOTP as needing playgrounds include Albany Park, Avondale, Englewood and Little Village.
“There are areas of the city—especially on the Southwest Side and West Side—where there is a deficit of playgrounds,” says Erma Tranter, president of FOTP. “The Park District would love to build 100 new playgrounds a year. It just doesn’t have the funds.”
Chicago scores low in providing playgrounds to its overall citizenry, according to a national study by the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit land conservation group. It says Chicago has 1.8 playgrounds per 10,000 residents, ranking it 64th out of the nation’s 100 largest cities. The median number nationally is 2.1 playgrounds per 10,000 residents. (By comparison, Madison, Wisconsin, is No. 1 with seven playgrounds per 10,000 residents. New York is 86 and Los Angeles is 93.)
CPD examines satellite images of parks to identify areas most in need of new playgrounds or upgrades. Staffers also consult with FOTP and local park advisory councils. And they look at data from Children’s Memorial Hospital’s Injury Prevention and Research Center, which conducts safety surveys of all the playgrounds owned by the Chicago Park District. The last survey, conducted in 2010 (find it at bit.ly/JnnRxm), showed that 37 percent of Park District playgrounds didn’t meet its safety standards.
“Each year when we do a budget hearing, the number one request from the public is for new playgrounds,” says Beth Tomlins, a Park District project manager. “A local playground is a key to having a strong community,” acknowledges Linda Daly, the Park District’s deputy director of capital. “A playground is a gathering place for children and parents, a place where members of the community can engage.” But, again, it boils down to the money simply not being available, they say.
To accelerate the construction of new playgrounds, CPD encourages communities to develop public-private partnerships in which building costs are shared: The Park District pays one third, the community raises a third, and the balance comes from government sources, such as federal or state grants and funds from aldermen.
For example, CPD is building a new playground in Claremont Park on the Near West Side after a successful public-private funding campaign. The community held fund-raisers, received $70,000 from Kohl’s Cares Kids Safety Network at Children’s Memorial Hospital, and secured $250,000 in TIF funding from 2nd Ward Ald. Robert Fioretti. Similar successes have unfolded in Portage Park on the Northwest Side and Gompers Park on the Far North Side.
The Brighton Park activists who launched the campaign in hopes of renovating Kelly Park hope they can add their playground to the list of success stories, and they’re aiming high: Their goal is to secure $2.8 million to fund two new baseball diamonds, improved drainage, new sidewalks and safety cameras, better lighting, plus the new playground. The council hopes to raise its first portion with a 5K walk/run on June 16, and have all the funding within a year.
“[This] can make a difference,” says Sara Reschly, an organizer with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. “We’re a family-oriented community. A new park brings families together.”