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Philadelphia’s Placing a $500 Million Bet on Play

Monday, September 11, 2017

By Jen Kinney via NEXT CITY

As the city plans a major investment in rec centers, parks and libraries, two neighborhoods offer a road map to getting this overhaul right.

Even as Lawncrest, the Philadelphia neighborhood, has transformed over the past half century, Lawncrest the city rec center has — for better and for worse — remained largely the same.

A mash-up of two adjacent neighborhoods, Lawndale and Crescentville, Lawncrest is sandwiched between the neglected urban expanse of North Philadelphia and the near-suburban neatness of the city’s far northeast. Best known for hosting one of the city’s longest-running July Fourth celebrations, the neighborhood also gained a reputation for violence after a string of murders in 2014. Incomes have declined; poverty is rising. Nail salons, day care centers and delis plod redundantly down the Rising Sun Avenue commercial corridor, while the neighborhood lacks for a convenient grocery store. An aging library sits at one end of the strip, next to the rec center and a dusty double-wide trailer that serves as an outpost of the DA’s office.

But besides the pool (installed in the 1960s), and the playground (replaced two decades ago, now dilapidated), and the community garden (just a few years old), the Lawncrest Recreation Center is almost exactly the same today as it was when it was built in the 1940s. It’s still at the heart of the neighborhood, still much beloved, even as neighbors use the same old rec infrastructure in new ways. Baseball has waned in popularity, so the center’s four diamonds don’t get the use they once did, but the impromptu football field carved out from their intersecting outfields bustles with leagues for every age. Hockey is rarely played in the walled-in outdoor rink anymore, but teams largely composed of Latin American immigrants play weekend soccer tournaments there. Teens cluster, too, in the shade of the library, smoking illicit cigarettes and charging their phones at an outdoor outlet.

Maintenance, though, hasn’t kept pace with need. The gym roof leaks, sometimes so badly games have to be canceled midway through. The wall around the pool is crumbling. All but two of the swings are missing; playground equipment lies snapped and unusable on the ground. The center is dark, crowded, hot and not ADA-friendly. On a busy Saturday, cheerleading practice and dance class fill the multipurpose rooms; zumba has been relegated to a hallway. Where there are no picnic tables, neighbors grill and picnic on a weedy lawn, paying no mind to drifts of litter collecting by tree trunks.

Less than 2 miles away, the rec center at Sturgis Playground gleams like new. Also located in the 9th District, in a neighborhood similarly posed in a holding pattern between gentrification and decline, Sturgis’ rec center was rebuilt from the ground up in 2013, after nearly a decade of fierce advocacy by neighbors Jeff Hackett and Frances McDonald. Once so underused the city threatened to close it, the center today is a thriving town square for the neighborhood of modest single-family homes that surround it, especially popular with parents and children in the evening hours after work and school. Hackett and McDonald credit the rebuild for the transformation, and something else: their own watchful presence, their enforcement of a moral code. “We walked the playground, we stopped the profanity, we stopped the smoking ourselves, we didn’t wait for anybody to do that,” says Hackett.

Whereas public-private partnerships and private friends groups have made dazzling examples of Philadelphia’s Center City public spaces, in the outlying neighborhoods, this is what has kept rec centers running: neighbors and residents, paying up, with their time and money, despite facing Sisyphean levels of need. Voluntary associations known as advisory councils raise funds for programming, and increasingly for basics like air conditioning and new floors. As a result, rec centers experience vast disparities. Wealthier neighborhoods can more easily raise money from residents. Rec centers with politically savvy advisory councils might agitate effectively for renovations, as Sturgis did. Unorganized rec centers in lower-income neighborhoods go without.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s Rebuild initiative aims to level that playing field, with the city planning to invest $500 million in up to about half of Philadelphia’s 406 parks, libraries and rec centers over the next seven years. Guided by the belief that investment in shared civic spaces is good for the economy and improves children’s life outcomes, Rebuild sites will be chosen in part based on factors like a neighborhood’s poverty, health data, drug offense rates and the potential for economic growth.

With the first round of Rebuild sites to be announced by the end of the year, Next City partnered with urban designers at Gehl to survey users at both Sturgis and Lawncrest — a rec center that has already received transformative investment, and one that might. (The William Penn Foundation provided grant funding for the reporting and research and is also a supporter of the Rebuild initiative.) Sturgis likely won’t be a top pick for Rebuild money, while Lawncrest will. Both are located in Philadelphia neighborhoods where poverty is rising, and in which, like the city as a whole, residents are becoming more diverse and younger.

Our goal was to better understand how rec centers are being used in these neighborhoods that are changing in ways that reflect citywide trends, and to explore how new investment in facilities might affect that. We asked people how often they visit, how they travel there, whom they come with, how long they stay and how safe they feel. We asked about their connection to the rec center, what would make them feel safer, and what would make them visit more often. Surveyors also made hourly notes of where people were in the spaces, their ages and genders, and the number of pedestrians passing by. (See charts for information.)

The data confirmed just how valuable these places are to the communities that surround them. Over 80 percent of respondents at both Sturgis and Lawncrest said they view the parks as neighborhood gathering places. Two-thirds of respondents at Sturgis and three-quarters at Lawncrest said they visit weekly. Exactly 62 percent at both parks said they learn about neighborhood opportunities there. Despite the gulf between the quality of their facilities, both remain places to chat with neighbors, exercise, and relax with friends and family. The data collected indicate that both places do a better than average job at encouraging visitors to talk to one another, build relationships that extend beyond the space and interact serendipitously. “Compared to other sites that have been surveyed, Sturgis and Lawncrest both reinforce social networks in a positive way,” says Kate DeSantis, designer and strategist at Gehl.

Yet, Sturgis evokes more unequivocally positive responses. When Gehl’s researchers asked park users how safe they felt at Lawncrest, the most common answer – 34 percent — was neutral. Only 46 percent felt “very” or “somewhat” safe from crime. Compare that to Sturgis, where 76 percent said they felt safe. At both parks, perceived safety coincided almost perfectly with visitors’ emotional attachment. While three-quarters of surveyed park users at Sturgis said they felt a positive connection to the park, only half at Lawncrest did. A third were merely neutral. Surveyed park users between the ages of 15 and 19 — a target demographic for the city’s parks and rec system — were less likely to feel safe and less likely to report a positive connection to the spaces, survey results show.

Gehl has done similar surveys in public spaces all across the United States. Because every site is so distinct, comparisons are done very carefully, with an eye to spatial, programmatic and geographic differences. “Public life in cities is really messy, there’s no apples to apples of anything,” says DeSantis.

When it comes to Sturgis and Lawncrest, the former is a far smaller site nestled in a residential area with a compact rec center, two playgrounds, and a handful of fields and courts. Lawncrest’s bigger center has a gym and an auditorium, an outdoor pool, and a larger cadre of fields and courts sprawling out from a bustling commercial corridor. Whereas Lawncrest’s football field gets ripped up by ATV riders, Sturgis keeps fields locked unless users have a permit.

But even after accounting for the differences, some conclusions can be drawn. A 2017 empirical study from the Center for Active Design quantified the impact of things like park maintenance and benches — both in short supply at Lawncrest — on people’s attitudes about a community. Researchers found that litter is associated with eroded civic trust while more seating is associated with greater levels. The poorer the conditions of a shared public space in general, the more neutral or negative the sense of civic trust, CfAD data showed. The disparate levels of positive connection and maintenance at the two parks surveyed by Gehl reflect a similar pattern.

“Their responses affirm what we said about middle neighborhoods,” says Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, who represents both parks, and thinks a brand-new rec center at Lawncrest should be a Rebuild priority. “These are neighborhoods that are, right now, right on the tipping point for growth or decline. So if we don’t make the investment that we’re talking about, what is neutral today, what is a neutral perspective today, you come back five years and you let everything stay the same — no investment, with no engagement — that neutral will be a negative, and rightfully so.”