As children growing up in Montreal, Toody Maher and her brothers loved
their local park. They spent long afternoons playing with other children and
learning critical social, cognitive and physical skills. Today, Maher lives in Richmond, California, a city with one of the highest
crime rates in the United States. The parks and children's playgrounds
in its inner-city neighborhoods are neglected and unused. Two years ago, Toody
Maher made it her mission to transform Richmond's public spaces, starting with one
of the little neighborhood parks known as playlots.
A park in the midst of poverty
The Elm playlot sits
in the middle of the Iron Triangle, one of Richmond's most crime-ridden neighborhoods.
The neglected jungle gym is spray-painted with graffiti and the dry grass is
often littered with trash containing used condoms, cigarette butts, hypodermic
needles and empty gun shell casings. Most afternoons, when kids are out of
school and could be playing there, the park is empty.
Toody Maher often visits the playlot
and longs to see it filled with children. "I like to say that [parks] are
'the energetic hubs of community life' and they inherently have tremendous
power. So when I see parks that are just so un-thoughtfully made, and so un-thoughtfully
attended to, it's very disturbing," Maher said.
Maher says parks are public common
spaces, "that breathe life and serve children and families who surround
One of the biggest problems with
American parks is they are static and unimaginatively designed, with few
amenities, said Maher. "There's play equipment awkwardly put on plots of
land that doesn't relate in any way or bind the neighborhood together." And, she observed that there's not a lot to do
in many parks. "They're just empty pieces of land in the middle of
neighborhoods with lots of kids and just barren."
Programming for playgrounds
Maher said a key element
missing from most American parks is programming, "something going on that
magnetizes people to even want to come there." An important part of that is an adult
supervisor trained to motivate children and stimulate their play activities.
Europe has thousands of these adventure
playgrounds, which are staffed by professional playworkers who provide safe but
challenging play areas for children. At St. John's Wood Terrace, the oldest adventure
playground in London, kids can run around freely and
make up their own games. They play basketball and cricket, gyrate on giant rope
swings and play indoor games such as table tennis and billiards.
Convincing officials of the value of playgrounds
Toody Maher used these adventure
playgrounds as role models for her vision for Richmond's Elm playlot.
But selling the city of Richmond on the idea was not easy. For the
last two years, Maher attended countless community meetings and went door-to-door
seeking support. She lobbied city officials, local agencies, non-profit
organizations and spoke with scores of neighborhood families.
Finally, her efforts finally paid
off. The city has agreed to fund 100 percent of the capital costs for fencing,
bathrooms, office space, water and sewage at the Elm playlot.
Revitalizing an entire neighborhood
To make the park safe,
Maher said the city has also agreed to clean up the surrounding neighborhood.
"So many of the problems with crime are because of these boarded-up and
vacant houses," she explained. Maher
worked with city officials and non-profit agencies to purchase those homes and
transform them into affordable houses for families and children. "That way,"
she said, "the park is surrounded by houses that are inhabited by families,
rather than surrounded by houses that are magnets for crime."
When renovations are completed, Elm
playlot will be renamed Pogo Park. Toody Maher anticipates a
beautiful new playground with shady walkways, benches, clean bathrooms and a
"If we can staff the park and
we can have the vision we set out, of making it safe and welcoming and giving
folks stimulating things to do, this is going to become a valued and supported
community asset and we will not have problems with crime and violence," she
Maher predicted that, "parents are
going to wake up each day and say 'Hey, let's go down to Pogo Park at Elm playlot, because there's
always something that is going on.'"
Toody Maher plans to bring children
to the Richmond playlot soon. She said their presence will bring good
energy to the park even before construction begins. Maher expressed hope that the new park will
become a central hub for community activities and the first of many parks that
will help revitalize her city's impoverished neighborhoods.