Test Case: Will the City of Madison Make Good on Plans at Brittingham Park?

plans

Park plans show the two proposed playgrounds. The garden is in the middle with the adjacent land forms that would replace the existing play structures. Click to enlarge. (City of Madison Parks Department image)

The City of Madison wants to build a large, barrier free playground at Brittingham Park.

This is a good thing for the city and it should be built.

However, this means that a much loved playground – primarily used by people of color – located adjacent to the gardens would be replaced by a set of “land forms” or natural play area. The Bayview community is not convinced that this is in their best interests. The land forms just don’t cut it.

In a video (shown below) Kabzuag Vaj, of Freedom Inc. said that the playground is an important part of the Bayview community and allows elders and their grandchildren to enjoy the outdoors together. The new playgrounds are too far away from the garden for young children to enjoy on their own and would destroy the community that has been developed. In fact, close proximity to the playground was a consideration for locating the gardens in the first place.

The video also says that many of the users of the garden are disabled. So it doesn’t make sense to remove a playground that is already serving the disabled community.

Because of Freedom Inc’s concerns, the plans to build the new playground are on hold while the city conducts an equity analysis to determine if in the course of doing something good, something bad has unintentionally happened. This will be one of the first cases where the tool is being used.

Brittingham Park sits across the street from Bayview Townhouses, a cluster of low-income housing units that are home to a diverse group of people, many of which have roots to Hmong culture. During the summer, the park’s playground and community garden is a hub of activity. Many Hmong elders work in the garden while their grandchildren play in the adjacent playground. So, when the community discovered plans to remove their playground, they were concerned. How could this be?

I spoke with Jason Glozier, the City of Madison’s Disability Rights and Services Specialist within the Department of Civil Rights about the project. He said that about a year ago, the City of Madison wanted to find a home for the city’s first barrier free playground for people in wheel chairs. They choose Brittingham Park because of it’s central location and because the park was in need of a makeover.

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This playground primarily serves people of color. (Still image from Freedom Inc. video)

From November 2014 to April 2015, the city conducted several public input sessions on the project. The plan was to remove the popular playground adjacent to the community gardens and replace it with two new playgrounds located near existing park shelters. One is a large playground by the main shelter and the other is a smaller playground located by the boat house and basketball court. A natural play area with grass berms would stand in place of the old playground. Click for a photo of the plans. Community input from Bayview was clear: no one objects to the new playgrounds, they just want to keep what they had – a perfectly fine playground.

So what’s the deal?  According to Assistant Parks Superintendent Kay Rutledge, the efforts at Brittingham are part of bigger picture plan that unfortunately has caused some strife in the community. “That was not the intent of the project, which is why we thought it best to step back and engage the community.”

“With the concerns of Freedom Inc., we decided to involve the newly formed Racial Equity (and Social Justice Team) to determine if communities are being adversely impacted by city decisions.”

The team will use a newly developed  Equity Impact Assessment Tool. According to the city website, the “tool guides users through a series of questions to help identify the benefits, burdens, and unintended impacts” of a plan. Launched in the fall of 2013, the Racial Equity and Social Justice Initiative focuses on eliminating racial and social inequities in municipal government.

In addition, Rutledge explained that the City of Madison is evaluating all of it’s park play structures.

“Madison has more play structures per capita than any other city in the country. With 172 playgrounds in over 270 parks, the city is committed to getting kids outside,” she said. Each year, the city invests one million dollars to update aging equipment nearing the end of it’s life. That includes the playground by the garden.

Furthermore, Rutledge said that the garden site was evaluated for the new barrier free play area, but was discounted because it cannot allow parking. The new playground would be a destination and needs parking.

Kabzuag

Kabzuag Vaj of Freedom Inc. (still image from Freedom Inc. video)

So where does that leave the Bayview community?

There is a public meeting on November 18 at 6:45 p.m. at the Bayview Community Center, 601 Bayview Triangle, to discuss the playground and the proposals.

As for me, it’s unclear whether the natural land forms proposal will ignite the fire of the Bayview community so that they see this as a win. I for one see nothing wrong with a natural play area as long as it’s interesting and serves the same purpose as the old structure – to provide a place for kids to play near the garden. There are some wonderful natural play areas out there, but based on the plan show here, this isn’t going to be one of them. I will give the city time to create something wonderful. They owe it to the community. If they can spend thousands of dollars on two new playgrounds, they can invest in a third area as well. Whatever it is, the Bayview community needs to be invested in the final solution.

What do you think? Contact the City of Madison Parks Department at (608) 266-4711 or parks@cityofmadison.com and let them know.

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