Photo by xcode on Flickr.

Downtown DC is in desperate need of a playground, and with the help of the National Park Service and Councilmember Tommy Wells, the District may just be able to get one.

Peter May from the National Park Service told residents that NPS may be able to turn over some of the vacant park space near Mount Vernon Square to the District to house a play area.

Still, it will be a long road—a transfer would likely take a year, and money must be found to actually build and maintain a playground. If you are interested in participating in this effort, please come to a meeting this Wednesday.

For the past year, Downtown DC Kids has headed up efforts to create a safe outdoor play space downtown. It quickly became clear that identifying a parcel of land was our number one challenge. We raised this issue last fall at the community panel that Eleanor Holmes Norton held with the National Park Service, and I requested NPS cooperation.

After the meeting, Peter May, Associate Regional Director for Lands, Resources, and Planning with the National Capital Region of NPS, approached us with his business card offering to join us on a walking tour to look at the property. We had already been talking with Councilmember Tommy Wells, who chairs the DC Council’s commitee overseeing parks, and organized a group tour to see how NPS and the District could work together to build the much-needed playground.

The early December walking tour was an amazing show of cooperation on all fronts. Besides downtown playground advocates, May, and Wells, we had Bob Vogel, Superintendent of National Mall and Memorial Parks; Steve Lorenzetti, Deputy Director of National Mall and Memorial Parks; Daniel Connor, Deputy Director, DC Council Committee on Libraries, Parks, Recreation and Planning; and, members of the Washington Interfaith Network.

As a group, we spent over two hours walking around the neighborhood identifying potential sites for playgrounds and figuring out how to work together to make them happen. Almost all of the sites visited will require participation by both DC and federal officials, and in this meeting, we saw that such cooperation is possible.

Our walking tour included the four small pocket parks surrounding Carnegie Library; Milian Park, on the northeast corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 5th Street; Franklin Square, between 13th, 14th, I and K; and Pershing Park, on Pennsylvania Avenue between 14th and 15th.

Mt. Vernon Square pocket parks are best immediate opportunity

NPS officials felt that the 4 pocket parks surrounding Carnegie Library ought to have already been transferred to the District along with Mt. Vernon Square. Peter May said that the NPS would be willing to turn the land over to the DC government to accommodate play areas in those currently-empty spaces.

Mount Vernon Square and its associated pocket parks. Image from Google Maps.

The small parks have a lot of potential for varied use and would be a great way to enliven the overall space. They could become an attraction and leave the open lawn of Carnegie Library as a place to gather for picnics or other activities.

To make that happen, Mayor Gray needs to send NPS a letter requesting the land. Tommy Wells promised to ask the mayor for such a document. This will start the process of creating what will, with any luck, become a world-class play space near the Convention Center.

Why downtown needs a playground

Right now, there are absolutely no playgrounds in the downtown DC area. Since the area is only newly residential, there was little need for playgrounds years ago. As more and more children move in to the neighborhood, they need space to play where parents needn’t fear they will run into the streets.

The problem affects more than just downtown DC residents. School children from the surrounding areas lack sufficient play space, too. It is ironic that the closest public elementary school to the White House, Thomson Elementary, has absolutely no outside space to play.

First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign has, as one of its primary goals, to get kids outside and active. Yet, these kids have absolutely no opportunity to do so. Moreover, the children in this school are at high risk of suffering from obesity, as over 75% of the students qualify for free and reduced price lunch. It is unacceptable that these children get absolutely no opportunity to play outside.

To appreciate the severity of this problem, all you have to do is walk around the downtown area in the mid-morning on any weekday. You are sure to see some of the hundreds of toddlers and preschoolers being walked around on ropes by daycare supervisors. Much of the time, those children are not headed for any particular location, because there is nowhere for them to go. Instead, the caregivers are simply walking them around the block, strung together for safety, day in and day out.

Regulations require that the children spend this time outside, but neither the District nor the federal government (which controls most of the open space in the area) is providing a place for them to go to play. Those kids who are lucky enough to be in government daycare do have access to playgrounds, but those are fenced in and closed to the public. As a result, many children spend much of their childhoods holding onto a rope instead of learning to run and jump.

Until our parks catch up with the rest of the world-class development taking place in our capital’s downtown, we will never have a truly healthy neighborhood. It will benefit all of us to reprogram our park spaces to be useful and beneficial to all.

Although the need is clear, it has proved difficult to meet because many different entities control the park space in downtown DC. Much of the property is federal land. Some is District land, some is private land, some is federal land leased to the District, and some is federal land turned over to the District which in turn leases it to private entities.

As a result, Congressional oversight, historical considerations, and the need to reserve space for future memorials all complicate considering any change to downtown green space. In short, it will take a lot of cooperation among numerous entities in order to bring play space to the neighborhood.

We are very thankful to everyone for the time and effort that they have already put into this project and that which will be necessary to fully realize our goals. Every child needs access to a playground, and we are very happy that NPS and the District government are willing to work together to meet this need.

If you are interested in helping us move forward on any of these initiatives or have other ideas for play spaces in downtown, please join us for our meeting Wednesday, March 14th, 6 pm at Calvary Baptist Church.