D.C.'s fast-growing downtown neighborhoods have new restaurants, offices and apartments--but few playgrounds. With thousands of children expected to be born in the District in the next five years, where will they all play?
An official map of D.C.’s parks blooms like a colorful garden, with the flower-shaped asterisks used to represent new playground projects forming a bright circle over the city. A second look, however, reveals a problem: the circle is more like a wreath, with park and playground improvements planned for the outer neighborhoods, and lots of blank spaces left downtown. There’s parkland, but almost no outdoor play space for kids in the center of the District, and parents say this poses a challenge to the city’s livability.
“When you have a kid between 18 months and three years old, you suddenly realize that you need space for them to run and play,” says Danielle Pierce, a playground advocate and co-founder of Downtown DC Kids, an online group dedicated to making D.C. accessible and livable for families. “You can’t just put a kid down on the ground in Dupont Circle and expect them not to eat condoms.”
In many ways D.C. has become a victim of its own popularity; there are now more kids than there used to be in many neighborhoods and many people wanting to raise their children in places that did not used to be heavily residential a few years ago. The public’s response to being able to live close to where they work created a rate of demographic change in D.C. that has surprised everyone. Ward 6 alone has added more than 8,500 new residents between 2000 and 2010. The city anticipates more than 114,000 new residents will arrive in D.C. overall by 2020; 40,000 of those are expected to be children.
“You can’t just put a kid down on the ground in Dupont Circle and expect them not to eat condoms.”
City agencies have struggled to keep pace, because keeping families with young children from moving out of the District is seen as a true sign that the city is flourishing economically. In addition to good schools, parents often rank access to safe, clean parks and playgrounds as top priorities when it comes to real estate options. Many who are worried about issues like childhood obesity and “nature deficit disorder” want places where their children to can get outside for exercise, fresh air and access to green space regularly. So as the city seeks to retain its attractiveness to parents, officials are seeking to add more play space for everyone in all neighborhoods.
In its 2014 report detailing the city’s new Play DC playground improvement initiative, the Department of Parks and Recreation announced an ambitious goal: to have “meaningful greenspace” of at least one-third of an acre (less than the size of Dupont Circle) within a half-mile of every resident’s home.
“That means a space where there’s some level of recreation, whether it is passive or active,” says Ella Faulkner, a planning and design officer with the parks department. “It should be pleasing, safe, and functional.”
A map showing planned and proposed playgrounds in the District
The agency is first working to improve, upgrade and enhance existing playgrounds across the city that are in disrepair after years of neglect.
Putting in new play space, though, is turning out to be a real challenge in a city where real estate is at a premium and more than 74 percent of existing parkland is owned by the National Park Service. Many of those NPS “open spaces” in downtown neighborhoods are already filled with statues or intended as memorials, and not amenable to jungle gym additions or even raucous free play.
What’s more, NPS budgets are relatively slim and do not usually include playgrounds.
“For the last twenty-five years there has been a continuing decline of resources made available to the National Park Service to do anything,” says Ellen Jones, director of infrastructure and sustainability for the Downtown Business Improvement District. NPS does have a separate National Mall and Memorial Park unit, which has responsibility for the “most sacred spaces” in D.C. No one would disagree that should be the agency’s priority. Those spaces are heavily visited, she adds, and NPS has been under increasing pressure to enhance security since 9/11. But that leaves the non-Mall parks in D.C. with less attention and resources.
Even so, many groups around the city have been working to re-invent their relationship with the federal agency in hopes of meeting neighborhood needs, too. “We tried to be as inclusive as possible in the plan and not just look at the DPR properties,” Faulkner says of the Play DC evaluation process. “One of our goals is to do more collaborative planning with other groups and agencies.”
In the case of Franklin Park downtown, several groups have come together in an almost unprecedented level of cooperation and coordination. NPS, DPR, the D.C. Office of Planning, the Downtown D.C. BID, elected officials, and several parent groups have been meeting since 2013 to discuss and implement a series of park enhancements that will transform the northeast quadrant of the park into a family-friendly nature-based “children’s garden,” coupled with public restrooms and an outdoor café by 2017.
It might strike some as surprising that a business improvement district would take on playgrounds as one of its key interests. But it is clear that safe, attractive, well-loved parks are seen as a boon to both residents and profit-driven companies.
A proposal for the "Children's Garden" at Franklin Square Park, which DC is working on revamping with the National Park Service
Hotels downtown, Jones points out, avoided being associated with Franklin Park in the 1980s and early 90s when prostitution and drug dealing were rampant there
. Park safety has improved significantly since that time, but the area still lacks amenities parents and children would actually want to use. Jones says the hotels eagerly await the day they can brag about the new play space to tourists, and hope it will bring increased revenues from families.
Neighborhood schools and day cares probably await that day as well. Right now, anyone downtown at lunchtime is likely to see groups of preschool children loosely lassoed together with ropes for safety, being led down busy, traffic-filled streets, or circling around seated in nine-passenger "super wagons." By law, all day care centers must take children outside for one hour each day, but without any open space, the children are unable to run free, climb, or use swing sets the way many parents would like because such structures and spaces simply don’t exist within walking distance.
Thomson Elementary School, a public school around the corner from Franklin Park, also currently lacks outdoor play space. Instead, each floor of the multi-level building has an indoor area for children to use during recess; something many downtown parents have noted as sad, frustrating and potentially unhealthy.
“Franklin Park is like a beacon of hope,” says Claire Schaefer Oleksiak, president of the Mount Vernon Triangle Community Improvement District, which sits just northeast of Chinatown and Judiciary Square. Like downtown, Mount Vernon Triangle has been marked as a neighborhood in need of more open space for recreation.
There're some promising projects on the horizon: two small lots at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue NW and 5th
Street NW could be developed as play space or playgrounds in the near future as part of a proposal from the Peebles Corporation, which paid $28 million for development rights to a vacant lot across the street last May. The developer’s bid to the city included a promise to enhance the National Park Service-owned lots in the coming years and make them more usable for the community, although it is unclear how much play space the project would actually include. There’s also a tantalizing prospect that Cobbs Park, which just a few years ago was used by the homeless as a makeshift encampment area, could be turned into a family-friendly park. At the moment, that piece of land is buried under backhoes, piles of concrete pipes, and other heavy equipment, as it is being used as staging for Capitol Crossing, a mixed-use, 7-acre development site under construction above I-395 and Mass Ave.
"It could even come back better than it was before."
The plan is to turn Cobbs Park back into park space once construction is finished, Schaefer Oleksiak says. Because it’s already owned by the District, the renovation could be relatively straightforward compared to other projects. “We'd like to engage the community, and design the space to be more usable, have more amenities, and possibly include a playground. It could even come back better than it was before. It is a space ripe with opportunity.”
Parents remain skeptical, however, that a space so close to an I-395 off-ramp could be safe or child-friendly. The parks department says that a realignment of traffic is planned as part of the area’s long-term plan.
“When … you hear somebody say I want to be able to walk to a playground, what they are really saying is that they want to be able to walk to a playground with a five-year-old, or a three-year-old,” says Michelle Martin, who lives with her own five-year-old daughter in Mount Vernon Triangle. There’s a big difference, she says, between walkability for an adult than there is for a young child. Crossing multiple lanes near a highway with a tiny person is a big challenge, even with a stop light.
She wonders if there could be more investment in small, pop-up, temporary parks and small child-friendly spaces in existing streetscapes.
“We tend to look at playgrounds in the literal sense: that it has to have a slide and a swing and things like that,” Martin says, referring to herself and fellow parents. But through meetings with MVTCID, she has begun to question those preconceived notions. “In cities where you have a smaller space to work with, you have think outside the box to come up with play spaces. We may not have the huge space like Franklin Park to create a playground. But we may want to put a small climbing structure in the corner or hang a swing from a lamppost."
Like downtown and Mount Vernon Triangle, growth in the District’s NoMa neighborhood has been astoundingly fast, and surprisingly full of children. Where just two decades ago there was a large number of vacant lots, there are now shiny condos and apartments bursting with young families. Both planners and political leaders underestimated the strong desire Millennials would have for short commutes and the increased demand the public would have for long-term housing in the neighborhood. The lack of set-aside park space during re-development has been widely acknowledged as a planning oversight.
In 2012, the NoMa BID created a separate non-profit organization, the NoMa Parks Foundation, to try to address the situation. D.C. provided $50 million in funding for the group in its 2014 budget.
“The opportunity to create parks in NoMa diminishes with each new building that is constructed,” says the group’s website. “With the rapid pace of development, it is now urgently important to move the NoMa parks mission forward.”
“The private sector understands that you can’t have a great neighborhood without parks,” says NoMa Parks Foundation President Robin-Eve Jasper, who works to coordinate public and private neighborhood projects.
“The private sector understands that you can’t have a great neighborhood without parks.”
Although one attempt by the NoMa group to get a small public park space near Metro fell through after some initial negotiating, the foundation is now working acquiring vacant space on the southwestern side of a lot owned by Pepco. The land, which is north of New York Avenue and sandwiched between Harry Thomas Way, NE, on the west and the Metropolitan Branch Trail
(MBT) on the east has been labelled by the NoMA BID as “the best and likely last opportunity to provide an expansive open green space in the neighborhood.”
Jasper anticipates a playground will be installed at the front of the site; the other acre or so of land at the northern, back part of that same location would be open green space to serve as “the backyard of the neighborhood.”
The community, she notes, has requested safety checks to make sure nothing dangerous is coming out of the site’s existing substation before beginning. The current design proposals also call for a play structure that can easily be moved offsite and then put back into place as needed so that the utility can continue to function on the property in the coming years.
But just as with the other properties around the city under discussion as new playground space, NoMa’s new parks may take as long as two years to develop.
Martin and Pierce, the two parent playground advocates, say they have a bet going how long it will take the city to finish the huge play space at Franklin Park. They both think by the time it opens, their kids won’t want to climb or run on it—they’ll want to sit on park benches nearby and kiss their boyfriends there. But both agree they will keep pushing for publicly accessible, large or small play spaces as much as they can in the meantime.
“It will make the city a better place to live,” says Martin. “Not just for parents like me, but for everyone.”
This article has been updated to clarify the funding source for the NoMa Parks Foundation, which received money from the D.C. government.