“Don’t take our playground” – Equity conversation draws full house at Bayview

The City of Madison’s new Race, Equity and Justice Initiative (RESJI) is getting its first test.

According to Tori Pettaway, Racial Equity Coordinator, the RESJI team finished their report on the Brittingham Park playground renovations on December 9 and will be presenting it to the parks department soon.

In an email, Pettaway wrote, “The goal is to continue to work with the parks department and the community for next steps before the end of the year. The next steps is to have the report ready for public review next week.  We want to make sure we have adequate time for the Parks Division to review our recommendations first.”

Pettaway leads a core RESJI team of 40-plus people who support four different action teams – data, communication, community and tools and training. The RESJI initiative was launched in 2013 to eliminate racial and social inequities in municipal government by implementing strategies in three main areas: policies and budgets, operations, and the community.


The playground is a popular picnic spot for the Bayview Community. Freedom Inc. Video screen shot.

The report is based largely on input from Bayview citizens who were upset when they learned that the popular playground – used primarily by children and families of color – located next to the community garden was slated to be removed and replaced with a natural play area. When Freedom Inc. objected, the project was halted and Pettaway organized the meeting at Bayview Community Center on November 18 to hear their concerns.

About 60 people – Black, Hmong, Hispanic and White – packed the Bayview Community Center. The message was clear, “Don’t take our playground.”

“The only reason we’re here (at the meeting) is because the city started this (equity) process. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a playground. They (parks) were going to remove it in November. Because of this process we still have a playground.”                     Kabzuag Vaj, Freedom Inc.

Janet Schmidt, Manager, Parks Planning and Development Manager, City of Madison, explained how we got to this point. She talked about the Master Plan process and the need to replace two playgrounds at Brittingham Park: one by the garden and one by the boat house. “Both are nearing the end of their lives,” she said.

The existing boat house playground consists of one swing set. It is largely used by visitors to the boathouse. The surrounding neighborhood consists largely of single family homes and newly built apartment buildings that cater to young professionals. Under the proposed plan, this site would get a new play structure.

The playground and garden near Bayview housing.

The playground and garden near Bayview housing has been in use for decades. It is largely used by people of color, many who live in nearby apartments and Bayview Townhouses. The proposed plan would remove the play structure and replace it with a set of natural land- forms. The Bayview community considers this a downgrade.

Distance to the new playground from the gardens is more than 100 yards.

The new barrier free playground would sit next to the shelter (in the distance on the left), some 100 yards from the existing structure and garden. A set of landforms designed as a natural play area, would replace the existing structure (note red roof).

The city conducted three public input meetings to create the final plans which includes the large barrier free playground by the main shelter and a smaller playground near the boat house. The playground at the garden would be replaced by a natural play area, now simply called “proposed landforms” on the map (see below). The barrier free playground and the landforms would be the first built-in a city park.*

Brittingham Park proposed plans 2015

The meeting gathered input on the proposed plans for Brittingham Plans. Plans call for a large barrier free playground near the shelter (left) and a smaller playground to the east by the boat house. The Bayview garden area would receive a natural play area consisting of  landforms. City of Madison Parks Department image.


Several people at the meeting interrupted Schmidt to remind her that the pubic meetings were not well publicized or attended.

“There’s enough natural play everywhere,” said one parent. “The children from Bayview will be sad if you take our playground.”

Schmidt explained that the shelter site was selected for the new playground over the garden site because of existing parking and because they felt that a large play structure near the gardens would make it harder to enlarge the community gardens in the future. Parking is critical because families with kids in wheel chairs would need to park, she explained.

When asked why not have three playgrounds, Schmidt said that parks want to limit the playgrounds to two for maintenance reasons.

Kabzuag Vaj said that “no one mentioned expansion of the gardens until it was needed as a reason to justify taking away our playground.”

Mary Berryman Agard, Bayview Foundation board member said that the Brittingham Garden Placemaking project has raised over $75,000 to install sculpture and benches near the garden which includes a decorative fence around the garden.”

“The garden was built with the intention that it would never get any bigger, so hearing garden expansion used as a justification for moving the playground doesn’t make sense.” Mary Berryman Agard, Bayview Foundation Board Member

M. Adams, Freedom Inc., said, “We fought for the gardens and selected that site because of the playground. Now they want to move the playground.”

After the parks presentation, the group split to discuss what the park means to them and why. All groups stated that they love the park and the playground and do not want to see it taken away. A few mentioned that it was racist to put the playgrounds near the white neighborhoods and give the poor neighbors the landforms. It was also noted that there are very few children that live near the boat house, so in terms of sheer numbers, the best place for a playground is nearest to the garden and Bayview.

Kabzuag Vaj, Freedom Inc.

Kabzuag Vaj, Freedom Inc. Freedom Inc. video screen shot.

It should also be noted that no one opposed the barrier free playground, they just don’t want to lose what they have in the process. The new playground will be a regional draw and be good for the park, but the group worried that non-residents with means were having more say about the park than poor residents who live nearby.

“It’s unfair to spend hundreds of thousands to build new playgrounds for potential-city wide use and downgrade or take away from poor people of color who live across the street…it’s also unfair to create divisiveness (and use) divide and conquer tactics by pinning poor people of color, children and elders against “differently able” communities – as if they aren’t part of this community too.                                                                            Kabzuag Vaj, Freedom Inc.

A group of Hmong elders and parents spoke, with the assistance of an interpreter. They take their grandchildren and children to the park while they work in the garden. The close proximity of the park makes that possible. Many are disabled.

“I wake up every day and my kids want to go to the garden. Taking away the playground makes us feel like you don’t care. Please be fair to us.”

Hmong interpreter assists residents at the community meeting.

Hmong interpreter assists elder residents at the community meeting. Photo by Zon Moua, Freedom, Inc.


“We struggle with language. We are poor. If you take this away, what do we have?”

“The new barrier free playground is a good thing, but it is several hundred feet from the garden. This may not seem like much, but it is a long way. The elders do not have good eyesight and they are not going to let small children make the trek.”   Kabzuag Vaj, Freedom, Inc.

Distance to the new playground from the gardens is more than 100 yards.

The new playground would sit next to the shelter, some 100 yards from the existing structure and garden. A set of landforms, or natural play area, would replace the existing structure.

At the end of the meeting, Vaj asked, “Does it make a difference? This should make a difference. It’s loud and clear what we want. We demand an upgrade to the garden playground – not a tear down of it.”

Links: Existing Playground, Proposed Playground

Author’s notes:

  • Elvehjem Elementary School has the city’s first barrier free playground. This playground would be the first barrier free playground located in a City of Madison park.
  • Natural play areas such as the landforms proposed for the park are part of a larger movement to provide alternative play environments in city parks. Plans for the landforms were not available.
  • The barrier free playground is being spear-headed by Jason Glozier, Disability Rights and Services Program Coordinator, Department of Civil Rights, City of Madison.
  • The city has budgeted $790,000 for the project, of which $540,000 comes from park impact fees from nearby housing projects. The remainder comes from general borrowing. Half the money will be used to reorient and reconstruct the parking lot next to the shelter. Source, Kay Rutledge, Assistant Parks Superintendent.


    Impact fees from housing – mostly for young professionals – near the Brittingham Park boat house and beach has helped to pay for the improvements to the park.

View from the proposed site of the new playground with the existing playground and garden in the background.

The proposed new playground is more than 100 yards from the existing playground (red roof) and garden. Elders who use the garden will not be able to supervise small children from this distance.

Project contacts:

Toriana Pettaway, Racial Equity Coordinator
tpettaway@cityofmadison.com, 608-267-4915

Jordan Bingham, Health Equity Coordinator at Public Health Madison & Dane County, (RESJI Team), jbingham@publichealthmdc.com, 608-266-4821

Lara Mainella, Office of City Attorney (RESJI Team)
lmainella@cityofmadison.com, 608-266-4511

Sarah Eskrich, District 13 Alder
district13@cityofmadison.com, 608-669-6979

Janet Schmidt, Manager, Parks Planning and Development Manager
jschmidt@cityofmadison.com, 608-261-9688



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


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.


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 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.