Phyllis Atiba Brown is in the kitchen of the Spradling Urban Development Center in Smoketown; a small, concrete daycare facility decorated with wooden cut-outs of “Rugrats” characters and animal posters. She’s making trays of macaroni and cheese and chicken tenders for the dozen or so kids who are staying late into the evening.
They’re here as part of a new program called “Smoketown Synergy.”
“We started it last year when the Presbyterian Community Center was sold to the board of education and we kept getting the runaround about who was going to do what and where our kids were going to meet,” Brown says. “We decided to open the building in the evenings so that the children would have somewhere to go.”
Brown says when she was a kid growing up in Smoketown in the 1960s that wasn’t really a problem.
“You could go out your door, go to the playground, playing,” Brown says. “You didn’t have to worry about strangers and danger.”
But a lack of accessible, safe playground and park space is the reality in the neighborhood despite new housing developments.
The area used to be home to the Sheppard Square public housing complex, which had a lot of problems — but Brown says one thing the old ‘projects’ did have was several playgrounds.
“They almost had a playground every other block where kids could congregate, play on the swings, had open fields for ballgames and those kind of things,” she says.
Now, there’s a brand new mixed-income development on the site. It’s an improvement in many ways, but Brown says while there’s a lot of open green space, it’s not necessarily being used by neighborhood kids.
“There are many homeless people,” she says. “We have maybe three or four transition houses in this area and they put them out at a certain time and they have to be out until it is time to come back. They literally walk the streets and a lot of times they take up residence in the open space that the children are supposed to have to play in.”
The city announced that there will be a new “pocket park” developed on a former vacant lot in the neighborhood. Initiatives like this are great for increasing green space, which has many benefits — but it doesn’t address Brown’s concern about playgrounds.
And the closest large park to Smoketown is Shelby Park, which is a nearly 20-minute walk, so it’s not really a viable option for younger neighborhood children.
“They have one other park on Caldwell Street called Ballard Park, but it’s not really equipped to hold many,” she says. “I think it has maybe three swings and a slide, half of a basketball court — so that’s about all we have in the Smoketown neighborhood.”
Louisville’s Parks Problem
Louisville is a city that prides itself on its parks, and when you visit many neighborhood parks, you totally understand why. But when you start taking a look at parks all over the city — not just the big ones like Seneca and Cherokee — there are obvious correlations between neighborhood income, and park quality and access.
There are a lot of factors at play, but wealthier neighborhoods tend to have more parks (and more park updates), while poorer neighborhoods have fewer parks, many of which need maintenance.
This is the case in the city’s highest areas of concentrated poverty, in places like Portland, Russell and Smoketown. And for some — like Phyllis Brown and the kids in her Smoketown daycare — it can almost feel like you live in a completely different city from the residents who really love their neighborhood parks.
National nonprofit Trust for Public Land has identified some areas in which Louisville falls short. Charlie McCabe works for the organization’s Center for City Park Excellence.
“The Trust for Public Lands scores city parks systems on several factors, including park acreage, a city’s per capita spending on parks, and the percentage of a population that lives within a 10-minute walk of a park,” McCabe says.
This past year, Louisville was ranked 96 out of the 100 largest cities based on its “ParkScore.” The low rating is based on, among other things, playground availability and park access.
“And the biggest challenge that you have is really in spending per resident,” McCabe says. “What we do is look at all the spending of public agencies and we look at a three-year average. The spending per resident is about $50 per resident which is much lower than say, the highest — Minneapolis — at over $200 per resident.”
These figures don’t factor in spending by the nonprofit parks sector (more on that in a bit) but this tight budget limits what Louisville can spend on park projects and maintenance.
‘Beggars can’t be choosers’
The lack of resources is evident to Danny Seim, especially at Boone Square Park.
“This one is the one we come to most often,” Seim says, parking alongside the small Portland neighborhood park. “I live about two blocks over there. I mean, not to sound like a hero, but we try to come here with our trash bag once a week as our kid plays…”
He trails off, gesturing to a few windblown Grippo’s bags in the play area.
Seim moved to Louisville’s Portland neighborhood about a year ago with his wife and their toddler. He says there are some great parks in the community, like Lannan Park, which recently got a makeover.
But Boone Square Park needs some work.
“Beggars can’t be choosers and I’m sure that my 3-year-old doesn’t recognize that there’s no 80-foot zip line here or anything,” Seim says. “But there are some areas where, you know, instead of repairing the railing they just conveniently tried to hide it with shoe-goo and paint, it looks like.”
He taps his hand on one of the metal railings.
“This was once a corkscrew slide, I’m imagining,” he says. “Looks like a kid’s crib was slapped in here to keep kids from thinking there’s a slide.”
As he’s driving away from the park, Seim says it’s not just about the trash or the outdated equipment. He says the facility also borders on filthy at times, and safety is a concern.
“That bathroom in particular is rough,” Seim says. “Multiple times people have been sleeping in the overhang. And it’s not like we’ve never seen a homeless person before, but they’re pretty obviously coming down from something, some substance. They are kind of being belligerent.”
Parks Department Feels Tight Budget, Too
Like Seim, Louisville Metro Parks Department officials say they also feel the effects of a tight budget, especially spread out over the entire city.
“Total, we say we have roughly 138 playgrounds,” says deputy parks and recreation director Marty Storch. “But in reality, we have about 180 play areas.”
These play areas, he says, range in size and amenities. Some are just a swing set and a slide, others are much larger.
Storch says there is routine maintenance scheduled for both the parks and playgrounds, and about six years ago, the parks department formed a dedicated “playground crew” to focus solely on basic playground inspections.
“And you could tell it made a difference because complaints started to ease down some,” Storch says.
Now, there are 10 different routes through the city that the crew monitors; ideally, every playground in the city will be inspected every two to four weeks.
That takes care of basic safety and maintenance, but it doesn’t solve some of the equipment problems.
“If money was no object you would try to replace playgrounds, you know, every 10 to 15 years — but that can be quite expensive, obviously, doing something of that nature,” Storch says. “So we kind of do the best we can.”
Storch says they keep a running list of the play facilities throughout the metro area that are in need of updates and try to budget accordingly.
But in some parks, the money that could be spent on new equipment instead goes to something else: vandalism.
The Cost of Vandalism
Louisville parks have an average of about 100 vandalism reports each year, with repair costs soaring over $100,000 some years.
“The vandalism that gives me the greatest heartburn, gives my team the greatest heartburn, is the senseless tearing up a property that doesn’t belong to them,” Storch says. “These are community assets, whether it is a shelter, a restroom.”
Another problem is litter, especially in higher-trafficked parks all across the city.
In June, recording artist and Louisville native Bryson Tiller partnered with Nike to renovate basketball courts in South Louisville’s Wyandotte Park. People lined the new facilities screaming for Tiller and taking photos of the courts.
“Every time I’m in Louisville, I just drive past — just drive past on Taylor Boulevard and I used to just see that court and say, ‘that just looks terrible,’ Tiller said at the dedication. “I never thought this day would come and I can’t believe it’s finally here.”
But less than a week later, Louisville activist Christopher 2X posted a photo on social media showing torn nets and trash around the courts.
Storch says this problem is totally preventable.
“Litter is one social issue that we ought to be able to overcome because we have garbage cans and people can put the trash in the container,” he says.
But there are success stories, too.
One is Victory Park in the California neighborhood. Over the summer, the park received a million-dollar investment for a complete redesign that includes a new basketball court, walking course, open fields, trees and new lighting for nighttime security.
The funding came from Louisville Metro government, private donations and the Olmsted Parks Conservancy. The conservancy is a nonprofit dedicated to raising money for the 18 Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks in the city, and this partnership is one way Metro Parks stretches its budget.
Liz DeHart is the conservancy’s marketing director.
“We work together on determining projects that are needed in the parks and then the conservancy will raise funds from a private citizen and foundations and then Metro Parks will match those,” DeHart says. “Or we work together to go in 50 percent on a project in order to make sure that the project can be taken care of.”
Victory Park is an example of this; the million dollar investment was pretty much a 50/50 split, though the parks department takes care of all routine maintenance.
But DeHart says the nonprofit also feels the effect of limited resources. She points to Elliot Square Park in the Russell neighborhood.
“It has some great needs to it,” she says. “Right now we don’t have the funds, but we will work with the neighbors and the council members to make sure we can beautify the park.”
Links Between Parks Access and Child Development
Disparities exist among Louisville’s public parks — big ones — and part of why that matters are the long-term effects that no access to parks can have on kids.
The American Association of Pediatrics has released several comprehensive studies about the importance of play in promoting healthy child development.
Dr. Chris Renjilian is a Philadelphia-based pediatrician who took those findings seriously. His hospital partnered with the parks department of Philadelphia to create a new program called Nature Rx, which encourages doctors to prescribe unstructured outdoor playtime.
“There are probably reams of studies and papers that show these benefits, but I’ll summarize them for you,” Renjilian says.
Renjilian says the first benefit of outdoor play is physical health. Studies have shown that kids who have more access to outdoor play space are more likely to develop active lifestyles, which can lead to them becoming healthier adults.
The second is developmental health.
“That includes motor skills, problem-solving, things like self-control,” he says. “When kids play outside, with each other or with their families, they also develop skills in communication and negotiation with those other people.”
Renjilian says another major benefit is that children who spend more time outdoors have better mental health outcomes.
“It’s clear they experience less stress,” he says. “They also have improvement in their moods, their attention and their behavior.”
Renjilian says a child’s access to safe outdoor play spaces can help start them on the path to becoming socially-adept healthy adults. The kind of people that will make positive contributions to a community.
So, how can Louisville increase access to and the quality of parks across the board? There are already some initiatives in place. A big one is Waterfront Park West, a planned 22-acre expansion west of 10th Street. That will increase access to park land for many Louisvillians in the city’s western neighborhoods.
The Waterfront Park master plan was approved by Metro Council in 2015, and the city allocated $950,000 in last year’s budget for planning and land acquisition. As of this summer, the city has acquired all the land it needs and is currently fundraising for development.
And according to Marty Storch with Metro Parks, there are also some smaller city-led efforts.
“The Jack-o-Lantern Spectacular, our pumpkin show at Iroquois Park, is raising funds for playgrounds and playground replacements,” Storch says. “When they put them in, they are all-inclusive playgrounds which means children of all abilities can use them.”
According to Storch, Metro Parks also receives corporate funding for some playground and parks projects — but perhaps one of the biggest helps is volunteering.
“Probably, all told, volunteerism adds more than a million dollars to our budget if you equate that to work time,” he says.
Moving forward, Charlie McCabe from the Trust for Public Land says an easy step for Louisville is signing agreements with the school system to allow public access to existing facilities.
This would formally allow the public to use school playgrounds after school and on the weekends.
Back at the Spradling Urban Development Center in Smoketown, Phyllis Brown says any of these steps would be helpful in making more play space available for neighborhood kids. She’s here providing her own solutions for some of the kids in Smoketown.
“Because right now you’re just turning them out into open space,” Brown says. “When you walk up the development, you see a lot of teen girls walking in groups, teen guys walking in groups. Even young kids walking in — just — groups.”
Because, she says, they need somewhere to go.