How a forlorn playground became one of America’s most innovative public spaces
By Patricia Leigh Brown
The Christian Science Monitor
27 June 2017
Photo courtesy Christian Science Monitor
Toody Maher (BA History, 1983) is an urban visionary who helped residents in Richmond, California collectively transform a deserted spot. She believes that the most beautiful and enlightened public spaces belong in the most disadvantaged communities.
From their windows in the Iron Triangle section of Richmond – a place synonymous with violence and urban blight – Rita Cerda and other longtime residents watched as a crazy-seeming woman in pigtails poked around the then-deserted playground in their midst. Day after day in this heavily Latino and African-American neighborhood, she’d come to this sorry spot ridden with hypodermic needles and gin bottles. The swings had been shredded by pit bulls trained to improve their jaw strength by hanging from the seats.
But as Cerda and her neighbors quickly discovered, Maher – the indefatigable force who helped them collectively transform that land into Pogo Park, one of the most innovative and jubilant public spaces in the United States – is definitely not everybody.
Maher, whose rubber gardening boots complement the yellow rubber bands fastened around the pigtails she still wears in her mid-50s, is an urban visionary. She is a playground-whisperer who stubbornly believes that the most beautiful and enlightened public spaces, especially playgrounds, not only belong in the most disadvantaged communities but also can be designed, built, managed, and programmed by the people who live there.
Citizen participation in playground design isn’t new. But the reimagining of Elm Playlot and a new sister park by a “team” of residents, with Maher as coach and provocateur in chief, has considerably upped the ante. Together, after seven years of meetings and learning how to weld, bend rebar, pour cement, and cajole local politicians, the neighbors have forged a dazzling oasis of calm and possibility in a neighborhood in which youngsters are frequently awakened by gunshots and more than a third of them live in poverty. The team’s motto? “Think it; do it.”
Jason Corburn, Professor of City and Regional Planning at the College of Environmental Design, is beginning a study for the state of California to measure the effect of Pogo Park on the surrounding neighborhood. “Toody is not just about parks – she is a community builder,” Professor Corburn observed. “Pogo Park is a heart that is pumping life into the hardest-hit area of Richmond.”
The park has benefited from city policies that put health front and center in government decisionmaking, especially in land-use planning. It’s a recognition that there are steps a city can take to positively influence health, whether it’s planting more trees or installing streetlights to make neighborhoods safer.