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 them."

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 snack bar.

"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 said.

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.