Photo by mdmarkus66 on Flickr.

We received this letter from Chinatown resident Caroline Armijo:

Since March, I have been on a quest to find space for a playground in downtown DC. I have been living in Chinatown for six years and now have a two-year-old daughter.

I was warned that the lack of playgrounds, not the dismal schools, is the primary reason that young families move away from downtown. I did not understand the full impact until this spring when my daughter was in full-force running mode.

Long story short, my husband walks to work and we drive to playgrounds. Furthermore, my daughter gets her exercise in museums, at the library and church — all places I would want to my child to act in a more reverent fashion. Not the case. But what can you do? We live in a 1000-square foot apartment with no outdoor space. Toddlers need to run.

One of the great mysteries is dealing with the [National Park Service]. Numerous people have told me that NPS does not support playgrounds on the parks they control. However all of the parks in Capitol Hill are parks maintained by the NPS and they all have playgrounds. How did this happen? Did Congress intervene?

NPS playgrounds rare and hard-won

To get an answer for Ms. Armijo, I talked to Peter Harnik of the Trust for Public Land. He addresed this very issue in a Washington Post op-ed (pay required for full article) on October 10, 2004:

The almost 7,000 acres of national park land in the District contain a grand total of 11 playgrounds. If you include playgrounds on the 800 acres operated by the DC parks department, Washington’s total reaches 71. This compares with 129 playgrounds in Baltimore, 162 in San Francisco and 504 in Chicago.

Each of the 11 playgrounds on national park land has a political history akin to the passage of some major piece of legislation. The newest one, which opened last winter on Capitol Hill, took a group of Lincoln Park mothers six years of campaigning and resulted in an unfenced tot lot rather than the adventure playground they had hoped for.

It’s not just a problem for small children: Even counting the wide open spaces and recreational facilities of Anacostia Park, the Park Service provides only 18 soccer fields in the whole city, compared with, for instance, 75 on a smaller land base in Seattle.

Frustration felt citywide

Steve Coleman, of Washington Parks and People, says the challenges of getting NPS to accommodate children goes beyond downtown. He wrote in an email:

Yes, the parks on Capitol Hill tend to have playgrounds.  Residents have generally only gotten their concerns addressed through massive community effort.  Stanton Park neighbors, for example, had to campaign for years just to make simple safety upgrades to their play area.

For some, the wait is even longer.  At Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park, the Park Service approved, ordered, and began to install several play areas in the 1930’s, then halted work because of budget cuts for World War II, never to be re-started.  As a result, thousands of families living in the densest area of the city have faced the same dilemma as Chinatown residents of whether to give up on the neighborhood because of lack of adequate play facilities.

The Park Service has built some beautiful playgrounds in DC.  But sadly, NPS has shown a tendency to build and care for play areas in some more affluent neighborhoods such as Montrose Park in Georgetown while providing far less care or support for the families living in many less affluent areas.

The Park Service’s enabling legislation cites its mission as preserving the nation’s natural and cultural resources unimpaired for the education, inspiration, and enjoyment of this and future generations.  Many dedicated people in the Park Service work hard every day to advance this mission for all, despite budget shortfalls. 

There are signs that Park Service leaders may want to finally address the under-investment and shortcomings of inner-city DC parks management.  Yet in many under-served parts of the capital, the reality is that the enjoyment of this generation of children has been all too often left by the wayside.

Park Service spokesperson Bill Line did not respond to multiple emails sent over the course of 2 weeks asking for comment on Ms. Armijo’s question.

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