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Feature Article - November 2013

Power of Play

Investing in Playgrounds Benefits More Than Children

By Kelli Ra Anderson


Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Ill., get the message, and they're willing to bet big bucks that the message is right. These cities and others are currently investing hundreds of millions of dollars in renovating and adding playgrounds with the belief that if done right, playgrounds can do so much more than just entertain children.

According to new studies and successful models, when designed for the needs and wants of an entire community, public play spaces can increase a city's tax base, improve economies, improve the health of the very young to the very old, and improve the overall quality of life. Playgrounds aren't just for children anymore. They are growing up. And going up fast.

"Our first park opened at the end of May. It's been amazing," said Bridget Stesney, chief operating officer with the Department of Parks and Recreation in Washington, D.C., about Rosedale, a 12,000-square-foot playground, the largest playground renovation project in the District's history. "We started off with the first one being a fully inclusive playground where inclusive means not only abled and disabled kids playing, but parents and caregivers, like grandma in a walker or wheelchair. We don't want folks to sit on a bench, we want everyone to play."

And that really is the key. Everyone. When the ADA first introduced the world to the notion that playgrounds should be accessible, playground designers and manufacturers swung into action with initial modifications like curb cuts, a few specialty swings and accessible pathways in response. Today, after many experiences of trial and error, building on successes and expanding the vision, those ideas have evolved to an even greater understanding of what inclusive play and the benefits to community can look like.

In the Zone

Two years ago, when the DC park district created some new playgrounds, they concluded that that something still wasn't quite right. "When we decided to try and do this, we tried to think about play space differently," Stesney said of the first steps toward community play spaces. "So, one of the things we started were fitness zones near the playgrounds, but we wanted them to be spaces where entire families could come—especially grand-families (we have a lot in DC)—and tweens, too."

To date, eight play spaces have been completed. To provide something to attract everyone, communities were polled using a scorecard to help evaluate the needs and wants of the locals in each park area. As a result, splashpads were added for the little ones, scaled-down skate spots for the 15-year-old-plus crowd, and community gardens and fitness zones for adults where caregivers could exercise while watching their kids. Some communities wanted walking trails with fitness zones spread out, while others wanted walking paths for strollers nearby; some wanted a pavilion for seating, or game tables for seniors and areas for Zumba and other popular fitness classes.

Stesney recognizes, however, that playgrounds and spaces are not static. Scorecards will be used to re-poll those same communities every two years to update certain elements (as they are able) in response to the communities' changing needs.

"So, we figured out how to best piece it together," Stesney concluded. As a result, over the next few years, the district plans to renovate 32 parks in its 80-playground inventory, with Mayor Vincent C. Gray being so enthusiastic about early results that he increased the building budget from $9 million to $30 million in what he is calling the Play DC Program, a key fixture in his main goal of improving the quality of life as outlined in his One City Action Plan.

Fitness zones for adults in public parks is not only a novel idea, but one with gaining momentum in communities that recognize not everyone can afford a gym membership. Just last year, Florida counted 17 open-air gyms while Los Angeles boasted 41. But, don't be fooled. These fully equipped exercise zones aren't just for the warmer-weather states. Newark, N.J., Denver and Minneapolis are joining in the movement with reports that it is bringing people to parks who were not regular users in the past.

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