When Toody Maher first moved to Richmond, she was dismayed to see how many of the city’s parks were in shambles. Local residents described the parks as being “dirty, dull and dangerous,” and one in particular caught Maher’s eye – Elm Playlot, a half-acre park set in the middle of the Iron Triangle, one of Richmond’s toughest neighborhoods.
It was obvious to Maher that Elm Playlot had seen better days. Littered with rubbish, broken glass, and abandoned syringes, even the park’s sole play structure was tagged with graffiti, serving as a testament to local gangs. Although the Iron Triangle is home to approximately 6,000 children (90 percent are children of color), and Elm Playlot is in close proximity to a local elementary school, families avoided the park out of fear.
Maher, whose own childhood had included long days playing outside, has always been an advocate for increasing overall health and well-being in communities. Where others saw Elm Playlot as an area in ruins, Maher saw it as an opportunity for local families to re-claim a park for their children, and allow them to reap the benefits of outdoor play.
“Every child deserves a safe place to play,” says Maher who decided to found an entrepreneurial community-based organization named Pogo Park in 2007. Her organization’s goal: transform the lives of Richmond families by working to transform public play spaces.
As a former entrepreneur who launched Swatch watches on the West Coast and designed the world’s first clear phone with lights, Maher knew she needed both financial backing and community support to transform Elm Playlot. She worked with Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay to get members of the community involved in the planning and construction of the park.
A $1.94 million grant from a Prop. 84 State Parks grant funded Elm Playlot and three other planned park renovations have brought in additional funding from that grant program and others including Kaiser Permanente, The California Endowment, the SD Bechtel Jr. Foundation and the Margaret Lesher Foundation.
Build It and They Will Come
In order to meet the needs of the community, Maher put together a group of neighborhood volunteers who conducted door-to-door surveys to determine what residents would like to see in the park. They also asked children for their feedback on the specific features they would like to see in the park.
Maher not only wanted to engage residents and secure buy-in and enthusiasm for the park, she also hoped to hire many of them to help build it.
“I knew the only way this project would work is if residents felt connected to it,” Maher says. “We hired a team of 11 local residents, all parents or grandparents, to design, build and manage Elm Playlot. ”Time has demonstrated that the “design-bid-build approach doesn’t work for inner-city parks, so we wanted to do the opposite and work from the ground-up rather than the top-down.”
In Richmond, where unemployment is high, Pogo Park not only gave residents the chance to improve their own neighborhood, it also gave them jobs.
“People work in the park 15-35 hours a week and make $16.69-$22 an hour,” Maher says. “These are all people who have longstanding ties to the Iron Triangle, and they hail from all walks of life and are composed of men, women, Black, Latino, Asian, LGBT all between the ages of 22-66.
Before building Elm Playlot, Maher and her team of residents, looked at parks and playgrounds in other cities for ideas. They also identified local master builder-teachers who could teach residents the design, construction and craftsmanship skills necessary to build the park and then Maher created her own workforce development program.
A Shining Example of Urban Renewal
Today, Elm Playlot is a clean and safe park that features a zip line, a ball wall and a tricycle path. Families use the park as a gathering place, and long-time residents called RecTechs remain on site for 9-10 hours each day working to divert crime and maintain the park as a safe space.
A foreclosed home next to the park was bought by Pogo Park and turned it into a community center with a kitchen and snack bar that offers affordable and healthy snacks.
The park has proven to be such a success that Pogo Park opened a second park, Harbour-8 Center in November of last year at Harbour Way South and Richmond Greenway in Richmond. They are also in the planning stages of developing a Yellow Brick Road, a concept started by a group of teenagers six years ago that would connect safe biking and waking routes to the Iron Triangle.
Maher’s goal is to complete all work on Elm Playlot, Habour-8 and the Yellow Brick Road by 2020 and to have the organization’s work serve as an example of urban renewal in other inner-city neighborhoods.
Maher notes the work at Pogo Park mirrors a national effort seeking to connect playgrounds and urban parks with health benefits and childhood obesity prevention. Active Living Research, part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, administered by the University of California, San Diego, found that some lower-income communities and communities of color tend to have less access to quality parks and recreation facilities. Their research suggests that making recreational facilities available in all communities is a critical strategy for increasing physical activity and preventing childhood obesity.
She hopes that Pogo Park will serve as a model for other cities in California and across the nation.
“There are so many studies that show that children with a playground near their home are more likely to be at an active weight, and that kids are more active at a renovated playground,” Maher says. “Kids rarely visited the old playground, but today it’s not unusual to see them at the park playing for hours after school or on the weekend.”