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Public Spaces

Downtown's lack of playgrounds is hard on families

We received this letter from Chinatown resident Caroline Armijo:

Since March, I have been on a quest to find space for a playground in downtown DC. I have been living in Chinatown for six years and now have a two-year-old daughter.

Photo by mdmarkus66 on Flickr.

I was warned that the lack of playgrounds, not the dismal schools, is the primary reason that young families move away from downtown. I did not understand the full impact until this spring when my daughter was in full-force running mode.

Long story short, my husband walks to work and we drive to playgrounds. Furthermore, my daughter gets her exercise in museums, at the library and church—all places I would want to my child to act in a more reverent fashion. Not the case. But what can you do? We live in a 1000-square foot apartment with no outdoor space. Toddlers need to run.

One of the great mysteries is dealing with the [National Park Service]. Numerous people have told me that NPS does not support playgrounds on the parks they control. However all of the parks in Capitol Hill are parks maintained by the NPS and they all have playgrounds. How did this happen? Did Congress intervene?
NPS playgrounds rare and hard-won

To get an answer for Ms. Armijo, I talked to Peter Harnik of the Trust for Public Land. He addresed this very issue in a Washington Post op-ed (pay required for full article) on October 10, 2004:

The almost 7,000 acres of national park land in the District contain a grand total of 11 playgrounds. If you include playgrounds on the 800 acres operated by the DC parks department, Washington's total reaches 71. This compares with 129 playgrounds in Baltimore, 162 in San Francisco and 504 in Chicago.

Each of the 11 playgrounds on national park land has a political history akin to the passage of some major piece of legislation. The newest one, which opened last winter on Capitol Hill, took a group of Lincoln Park mothers six years of campaigning and resulted in an unfenced tot lot rather than the adventure playground they had hoped for.

It's not just a problem for small children: Even counting the wide open spaces and recreational facilities of Anacostia Park, the Park Service provides only 18 soccer fields in the whole city, compared with, for instance, 75 on a smaller land base in Seattle.

Frustration felt citywide

Steve Coleman, of Washington Parks and People, says the challenges of getting NPS to accommodate children goes beyond downtown. He wrote in an email:

Yes, the parks on Capitol Hill tend to have playgrounds. Residents have generally only gotten their concerns addressed through massive community effort. Stanton Park neighbors, for example, had to campaign for years just to make simple safety upgrades to their play area.

For some, the wait is even longer. At Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park, the Park Service approved, ordered, and began to install several play areas in the 1930's, then halted work because of budget cuts for World War II, never to be re-started. As a result, thousands of families living in the densest area of the city have faced the same dilemma as Chinatown residents of whether to give up on the neighborhood because of lack of adequate play facilities.

The Park Service has built some beautiful playgrounds in DC. But sadly, NPS has shown a tendency to build and care for play areas in some more affluent neighborhoods such as Montrose Park in Georgetown while providing far less care or support for the families living in many less affluent areas.

The Park Service's enabling legislation cites its mission as preserving the nation's natural and cultural resources unimpaired for the education, inspiration, and enjoyment of this and future generations. Many dedicated people in the Park Service work hard every day to advance this mission for all, despite budget shortfalls.

There are signs that Park Service leaders may want to finally address the under-investment and shortcomings of inner-city DC parks management. Yet in many under-served parts of the capital, the reality is that the enjoyment of this generation of children has been all too often left by the wayside.

Park Service spokesperson Bill Line did not respond to multiple emails sent over the course of 2 weeks asking for comment on Ms. Armijo's question.
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It's often amused me how we have dog parks & skate parks but forget our own children. If only we could combine them all into one awesome & fuzzy happy place.

by Bossi on Aug 22, 2011 10:58 am • linkreport

This is absolutely the reason why I bought a 2br condo near downtown Silver Spring instead of a similarly dense section of DC. So few DC neighborhoods are able to strike balance between retail/residential/office/park.

by jag on Aug 22, 2011 11:06 am • linkreport

@Bossi, well, the National Park Service hasn't installed any dog parks or skate parks either, that I'm aware of. So at least they're consistent...

by Tim Krepp on Aug 22, 2011 11:09 am • linkreport

It's interesting how Caroline is experiencing some of the very same reasons that drove thousands to move to the suburbs in a previous generation in search of the amenities that a family (vs. single people) seeks. This raises an interesting catch 22.

The suburbs got designed with the parks (and parking lots) and large back yards (and front yards) and ease of shopping (i.e., shopping centers where one can drive their car and stock up on groceries) and a whole other range of amenities which made it easier to raise families. BUT which failed in satisfying the needs and wants of singles, empty-nesters, and others who didn't have those needs. Now we've gone a few generations forward, and those who didn't know the joys of the city have gotten to know them ... BUT some of them are raising a family, and many of these who are raising a family, are expecting to be able to provide the same 'made for a family' amenities which the suburbs were created for. I.e., They want that which they said they were leaving behind when they moved to the city. And now they want the city to be able to provide all that.

The question is though, if the city actually could provide all that, why was there a need a few generations ago to create the sububs whose speciality was catering to 'the family'. Can we really have both the joys of the city and the 'everything a family needs' city? Or will the desire to 'adjust' the city to be able to deliver what the Carolines of the world knew in the suburbs ultimately make our cities more suburb-like ... With bigger yards, more parks (including recreational facilites such as tennis courts, pools, soccer fields, etc. ... for when Caroline's children get older), AND more parking and general ease of transportation as was the hallmark of suburbs for decades?

I suspect we WILL see changes in DC to accomodate for this. And as the inner suburbs become more like us, we will become more like them. And the vision which so many so-called smartgrowthers hold of returning to a 19th-century like existence will slip further away than ever as the effort to increase density (i.e., take away yards for children to play in vs. adding more yard space), introducing commercial into residential areas (where families will care more about their safe and quiet streets AND economical purchases than for ease of access to high priced businesses which also attract traffic ... and potential threats to their children), and other hallmarks of so-called 'smart growth' come into complete opposition with the personal goals of smartgrowth 'families' ...

by Lance on Aug 22, 2011 11:18 am • linkreport

Capitol Hill is where it's at for playgrounds. The ones we use the most are not NPS though.

by Brian White on Aug 22, 2011 11:22 am • linkreport

I see this as poor planning by her if anything.

Step 1 - buy condo without outdoor space in a part of town without many parks or playgrounds.

Step 2 - have child.

Step 3 - complain that condo without outdoor space and not near any playgrounds doesn't have outdoor space and isn't near any playgrounds.

Yeah, it would be nice if playgrounds where everywhere, and every part of every city accommodated every type of person. But that's not how things work. Six years ago she could have bought a rowhome in Capitol Hill or Logan for about the same price and had a small backyard for her eventual child. Her poor planning, however, led to her living in a place that doesn't accommodate her lifestyle.

Is it that hard for some people to think about what might happen five years from now?

by Anony on Aug 22, 2011 11:27 am • linkreport

Public parks are vital neccesities for cities. They are a shared backyard for the city so the more that exisit, with increasing ammeneities, the better.

by cmc on Aug 22, 2011 11:29 am • linkreport

I've seen Caroline at Downtown Neighborhood and ANC meetings. During the Q&A forum of any development presentation she'll always ask developers to create parks on their land. Whether it's City Center, Mount Vernon Triangle, etc. I think she's totally wasting her breath on that. Developers don't acquire land zoned for 130" uses to create a park.

It would be better for her and others to focus on the the parks we do have that aren't programmed and desperately need it to reach their potential. Chinatown park, Mount Vernon Square, the Building Museums lawn, etc.. Those spaces could fit a playground...

by Jason on Aug 22, 2011 11:29 am • linkreport

What about a 70s bus to the Kennedy Rec Center?

by Steve S. on Aug 22, 2011 11:37 am • linkreport

I definitely think that there is merit to adding more playgrounds to accommodate families in the city but I find it hard to believe that, in the words of Caroline Armijo, that the lack of playgrounds and not dismal schools provides a "primary reason" to not live downtown.

by Fitz on Aug 22, 2011 11:37 am • linkreport

Lance, I don't think she asked for a big lawn, just a playground in a local park. That's not incompatible with urban living at all- much denser areas of NYC have lots of little pocket playgrounds.

Anony, the logical result of your argument would be to segregate everyone into different neighborhoods by family type, and require people to move whenever their family situation changes. But why can't we have neighborhoods that accommodate a diversity of people at different stages of life?

by RichardatCourthouse on Aug 22, 2011 11:38 am • linkreport

I should know better than to argue with Lance, but as someone raising three kids in the city, I have to say:
No, the city doesn't provide everything the suburbs do - we don't have a backyard, so we have to take them to a park. But we'll happily trade that for all the other "made for family amenities" that the city offers:
1) we can walk to parks (don't live downtown obviously). We get to use much larger spaces that we would have as a backyard, and we get to meet other families with small kids. The downside is that they can't just run outside to play. We factored that in to our decision about where to live
2) Our kids walk to school. This is huge. We talk with other families on the way, get to know our neighbors, and our kids get (a little bit) of exercise every day. I have friends who live in the suburbs whose kids get wiped walking through the zoo. "my kids just aren't used to walking anywhere" they say. Seriously? That's sad, IMHO.
3) Not as many tennis courts (really, I need a tennis court to raise kids?) and pools, but more museums, festivals, interesting buildings. When my son was two I would take him to ride the Metro just for fun (not going anywhere) because he loved trains.
4) The big high school payoff: I grew up in the suburbs. As teenagers, we were bored. Our main weekend activity was drinking, and plenty of kids drove. I was in my hometown last summer and pointed out all the places where kids I went to high school with died: driving drunk, driving too fast, getting hit by driving drunk. My kids just aren't going to need to do that. While I'm not so naive to think they won't drink, they can take cabs, they can take Metro, they can walk to a lot of places. They have other things to do than drinking every weekend.
5) Independence: Where I grew up in the suburbs, you counted down the days to get your drivers' license so that you could go somewhere without your parents taking you. My daughter can walk to the minimart to pick up milk if we need it. She even walks to Starbucks to get me coffee on Sunday mornings. She takes public transit to school.
6) There is PLENTY of room in downtown to put in a playground (um, Farragut, McPherson, Franklin). Just look at parks in NYC that do this.
Do we urban families want the city to replicate the suburbs for us. No way.

by Urbanette on Aug 22, 2011 11:39 am • linkreport

Roof gardens with playgrounds!

by Neil Flanagan on Aug 22, 2011 11:42 am • linkreport

@Caroline: What about the National Mall? Easy walking distance, and tons of open space. I know it doesn't have playground equipment per se, but it has a lot of space where you can play all manner of games (soccer, tag, etc.), as well as plenty of shaded areas.

by Jim on Aug 22, 2011 11:46 am • linkreport

@Urbanette, thanks for sharing that inspiring comment about your experience with your family. We don't have children yet, but all of those things run through our mind and factored into our decision to buy where we did in the city. Just wanted to say that I find myself Immensely encouraged by your comment. Thanks.

by Steve D on Aug 22, 2011 11:46 am • linkreport

@Urbanette, Thanks for doing the heavy lifting on rebutting Lance's comments! I grew up in the suburbs and points 4 and 5 are exactly why I'm raising my kids in an urban environment.

I think Jason and RichardatCourthouse raised some good points, which goes back to the initial letter Caroline sent. We can have increased density and playgrounds too. No one is talking about paving over the multitude of urban parks, we just need NPS (and others) to be more engaged on creating programmaing. For everyone.

There's no reason we can't have playgrounds, dog parks, Shake Shacks, etc. We have plenty of space, it's just not utilized well.

by Tim Krepp on Aug 22, 2011 11:49 am • linkreport

NPS manages a bunch of little green triangles all over the city that could be ideal playgrounds, dog parks, etc. But it seems to resist having them be anything but little green triangles. and they never mow or weed them.

by lou on Aug 22, 2011 12:05 pm • linkreport

I thought I was through responding to Lance's comments, but here goes.

There are plenty of parks downtown and throughout the city. Indeed, DC has more park land per capita than most major cities! The problem is that most parks are controlled by NPS, which, backed by groups such as the Committee of 100, does not treat them as places to actually be used by people and certainly not as places where (gasp!) children should play. They prefer a strange notion of parks that look exactly as they did in 1910 and look pretty to passing suburban motorists -- a statue of a civil war general, some halfhearted landscaping, a sometimes functioning fountain and a handful of benches suffice in their world view. In other words, they prefer the city as a museum and monumental showpiece rather than a place for people to live. It's kind of how the Committee of 100 loves Constiution Avenue, which to them is the apex of city planning: a six-lane street lined with grandiose government buildings but with little street life or vitality. It looks pretty as you drive by at 35 mph, but it does not make for much of a city.

Simply put: it should not take 6 years to get a playground installed in a public park located in a city neighborhood! As much as NPS and their enablers want a monumental museum city, the reality is people live here and people want things such as playgrounds and businesses. Given their opposition to bike sharing and their opposition to bike paths through their property (think Fort Totten Park) and the beauracratic barriers they erect to a request as simple as a playground in a neighborhood park, NPS stewardship of DC parks leaves a lot to be desired.

Indeed, the best park in my neighborhood is a DC-controlled park: it has two extensive play areas for children of different ages (much larger and nicer than the paltry space that NPS allowed in Lincoln Park), tennis courts, basketball courts, nice landscaping and lots of open space to just relax. Imagine: a neighborhood park that serves the neighborhood and has people in it!

There is no reason that NPS could not add similar amenities to downtown parks. Franklin Square, for example, might be too small for tennis and basketballs courts, but it has TONS OF SPACE for a large and comprehensive children's playground. (I can see the comments re: the homeless now. Stanton Park used to have nothing but homeless people back in the 90s; with its new playground and dog park, it is now full of children and their parents and other neighborhood residents.) So does Logan Circle. Not to mention the Mall (the horror!). Even John Marshall Park, which is very close to Chinatown and is as dismal an open space as I have ever seen, could be reshaped to accomodate more uses other than pavement, concrete and a few sad looking trees.

by rg on Aug 22, 2011 12:07 pm • linkreport

@Urbanette and Tim Krepp, re: Independence,

Didn't you guys have bikes as kids? You noted that there is a lack of transportation options for kids in the suburbs yet read a blog that advocates the greater use and utility of biking for transportation in the city for adults.

I'm not trying to suggest that your living preferences aren't great for you, I just think that sometimes contributors and comments on this blog are a little too zealous in trying to short change life in the suburbs.

by Fitz on Aug 22, 2011 12:10 pm • linkreport

I share Caroline's frustration. To be a world class city DC needs to improve all amenities for families, including schools, parks, and libraries. She has correctly identified a major gap, which is the lack of play structures in the downtown area.

The problem is not just families in condos. Ask the downtown day care centers where they take their kids for outdoor play. Ask tired tourist families trudging around on the Mall where they go to give their youngest a place to play and climb. It's a real problem.

by Ward 1 Guy on Aug 22, 2011 12:11 pm • linkreport

The park in the photo that accompanies this article is District owned. It is not a National Park. The District is free to do what it wants to the space--including adding a playground, dog park, etc.

Certainly it can be put to more productive use than just a homeless hangout.

Rather than complain about what can't be done on National Parks--residents should be working towards accomplishing something on District owned property--like what was done with the 10th Street Park just north of Massachusetts Avenue.

by That Guy in DC on Aug 22, 2011 12:14 pm • linkreport

We should all perhaps be inspired look at what the McMillan report had to say about playgrounds.

On p. 81, in the section dealing with the city's squares, circles, and other minor reservations:

One such special use to which several squares should be devoted in different parts of the city is that of playgrounds; and these, too, should be considered individually and not in any wholesale or uniform way. In some cases they should provide especially for little children, with smooth protected lawns, with swings and teeter boards, and sand courts, and with safe and shallow wading pools in view of sheltered seats for the mothers or nurses. In some there should be outdoor gymnasia, with apparatus for jumping, vaulting, climbing, swinging, and the like, with tracks for running and spaces for the lesser athletic contests, such as putting the shot and quoits [like horseshoes but with rings] and bowling; in others there should be provision for the larger games, whether the schoolboys' games of tag and prisoners-base and scrub, or the organized games of baseball and football between regular teams.

by thm on Aug 22, 2011 12:21 pm • linkreport

I don't think people want the suburbs in the city at all. A better example for Lance would be NYC, where there are hundreds of municipal parks throughout the city. It's considered essential urban planning and not some special benefit bestowed on families.

I could agree more on the dearth of playgrounds in many parts of town, especially downtown. My kid gets so excited at the sight of the Smithsonian ferris wheel, the skating rink/water fountain at the sculpture garden, and the (seemingly) late water feature in the Kogod atrium at the Portrait Gallery. There are so few other inviting features for kids aside from organized planned events at the museums. We just make our own fun with scooters, kites or balls.

by b on Aug 22, 2011 12:27 pm • linkreport

@Fitz: yes, I had a bike and we biked all around the residential streets right near my house (it wasn't a subdivision, but my street joined two dead end streets, so there wasn't any through traffic.) However, the "major streets", i.e. the ones that went to stores, movie theaters, etc, were narrow with no shoulders and (reasonably) high speeds, so my parents felt it was not safe for me to bike on them. In retrospect, I think that they were correct, as I can only remember seeing bikes on them once or twice the whole time i lived there; drivers were surely not looking out for kids on bikes. And no one owned a helmet, but that just says more about my age than anything else...

by Urbanette on Aug 22, 2011 12:30 pm • linkreport

5) Independence: Where I grew up in the suburbs, you counted down the days to get your drivers' license so that you could go somewhere without your parents taking you.

What, you never heard of bikes? Buses?

by Bertie on Aug 22, 2011 12:34 pm • linkreport

Fitz and Bertie,

We had bikes, but the traffic made it unsafe to use them outside of the relatively small confines of our immediate neighborhood. Using them to get to school would have been very unsafe.

Of course, judging from the high numbers of my classmates who were seriously injured and even killed in auto incidents, perhaps having 16 year olds driving around may not be the best plan either...

Regarding the issue of "comments on this blog are a little too zealous in trying to short change life in the suburbs.": Guilty! I can certainly do that. The truth is, many people do like the suburbs, and there are well designed ones that increase social interaction. I did not live in one, and found the experience very isolating as a teenager. And yes, I had heard of bikes. And we had no bus service.

by Tim Krepp on Aug 22, 2011 12:54 pm • linkreport

@thm -- that quote from the MacMillan plan reminds me of an experience my wife and I had walking through Lumpini Park (Bangkok's central park) during a vacation. At 8:00 on a Tuesday morning, there was more activity (and importantly, more varied activity) than you would see.

As we walked around the park's central loop, we passed small and large eating pavilions (some with merchants and some "self-serve," playgrounds for kids and exercise equipment for adults, a pond with swan paddleboats like those in Boston's public garden, a library, a natatorium, and yoga classes going on in the green space.

While I wouldn't expect the Mall or some other central space in DC to take on all of those things at once, it (like NYC's Central Park) made me wish there was a little more of an expanded imagination about how to maximize the great potential of all the green spaces we do have in DC.

by Jacques on Aug 22, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

@fitz, many of us who grew up in the suburbs who now live in or love the city may sometimes just do a bad job of talking about what we loved about growing up in a suburban or rural environment. The city has drawn into sharp contrast some of the drawbacks, and when we talk about the city we often focus on those, at the expense of all the bennies. At least this goes for me, I'm sure.

But I loved many things about the places I grew up (from a small town on a street grid to a rural subdivision to an outlying suburb in a major metro:) The great schools and modern facilities, the well-organized rec sports leagues, the ability to bike inside my subdivision all day long (outside was a different story), the woods surrounding our neighborhood where we played. But as I grew older, I saw many of the trade-offs that my parents made in making that (great!) choice for our family. And there are certainly drawbacks for living in the city, no doubt, that many of us are well aware of.

But my wife and I are making a conscious decision to live in the city, not just because we hate the suburbs or how we grew up, but because we love and enjoy the benefits of living in a city and want my kids to enjoy those benefits. I'm sure they'd be fine growing up in the suburbs — I certainly was — but that life is not worth the trade-offs we'd have to make. But I hold no ill will toward those that do are dare suggest for one minute that I don't see the allure for tens or hundreds of millions of people.

I'm just digging on the city, and want to make it an even better place to live, y'know?

by Steve D on Aug 22, 2011 1:15 pm • linkreport

@Bertie: my town had no buses. Nada. The next town over had a very limited bus system: once an hour, very limited hours, not in the evening at all. We did, however, all take buses to and from school. Another experience I'm happy for my kids to live without.
I've already answered about bikes, same as Tim Krepp.

by Urbanette on Aug 22, 2011 1:17 pm • linkreport

A local non-profit I volunteer with was approached by KaBOOM! which I'm sure many of you know works with high-need communities throughout the nation, helping them build playgrounds through financial support of corporate sponsors. Our center fortunately has a great playground for the after-school program but I know they also approached CM Wells.

They could be a great resource for those campaigning for new parks.

they also have a playground finder on their website:

by beariest on Aug 22, 2011 1:22 pm • linkreport

@thm -- I have another favorite quote from the McMillan Plan, on page 48-49, a section titled "The Washington Common." It refers to the area now known as West Potomac Park.Text:

"The space south of the [Washington] Monument is to be devoted to the people as a place of recreation—the Washington Common it might be called. Here should be constructed a great stadium arranged for athletic contests of all kinds and for the display of fireworks on festal occasions. Ball grounds and tennis courts, open-air gymnasiums for youths, and sand piles and swings for children, all should be provided, as they are now furnished in the progressive cities of this country… The positive dearth of means of innocent enjoyment for one’s leisure hours is remarkable in Washington, the one city in this country where people have the most leisure."

by Christine on Aug 22, 2011 1:27 pm • linkreport

Well, if we're trading anecdotes, I grew up in the suburbs too. I didn't own a car until I was in college. I got around on my bike just fine. Most of my friends lived within a few miles of our school. And when we needed to go further, we took the bus.

If you think that, all things considered, raising your kids in the city is better than raising them in the suburbs, fine. It's your choice. But it doesn't seem to be the choice of most parents.

by Bertie on Aug 22, 2011 1:35 pm • linkreport

Once again, we see GGW-types trying to turn washington, DC into another NYC with all of its "playgrounds" and "neighborhood parks." This isn't New York. DC has a unique history and culture, and we all know that the original L'Enfant vision for DC did not involve children or, for that matter, human beings, so let's try to stick to that vision, ok? If you want to move to someplace with things like "children" and "recreation," you can go to NYC instead of trying to turn our nice southern town into something it's not.

by JustMe on Aug 22, 2011 1:38 pm • linkreport

Oh, but Bertie, I think you are falling into the same trap you accused us of doing: using the label of "suburbs" as all inclusive. Even in the Washington region, we have an incredible diversity of 'burbs. Some, I'm sure, allow you to do exactly what you described and what I've seen elsewhere. Others are more analogous of what Urbanette and I experienced. There are probably greater differences within suburbs than between a "typical" suburb and a "typical" city.

I have absolutely no idea what choice most parents do. But I would say that most parents I know have chosen an urban environment. Of course, I live in a city, so that's circular reasoning if there ever was...

by Tim Krepp on Aug 22, 2011 1:45 pm • linkreport

@Steve D, I think I understand what you're saying and where you're coming from. I grew up in a sprawling-type, mid-size city, so I've seen the advantages and disadvantages of both like yourself.

At this point I definitely prefer urban living too.

by Fitz on Aug 22, 2011 2:03 pm • linkreport


The Census shows that most families with children live in the suburbs. Most Americans live in the suburbs, period.

by Bertie on Aug 22, 2011 2:08 pm • linkreport

@Bertie, That must be horrible! I feel so sorry for them.

by Tim Krepp on Aug 22, 2011 2:11 pm • linkreport

@Bertie, Most people live in the suburbs. This proves that the suburbs are a better place to live! <---please identify the logical fallacy in this argument

by Miriam on Aug 22, 2011 2:42 pm • linkreport

Here's a hopefully non-contentious question - does anyone know why NPS playgrounds never have swings? On the Hill, Stanton and Lincoln are swing-less, but Garfield, which is DC-operated has them. Don't know if it is a policy thing, or just what was in fashion when those playgrounds were built.

by Awshux on Aug 22, 2011 2:54 pm • linkreport

@byRichardatCourthouse, 'Lance, I don't think she asked for a big lawn, just a playground in a local park. That's not incompatible with urban living at all- much denser areas of NYC have lots of little pocket playgrounds.

And I didn't say it wasn't. As someone down the chain correctly points out the McMillan Plan itself advocates for city parks. And I am all for them and for much else that will bring us being closer to what the suburbs have to offer their residents. And I want all that without having to lose the things we have that the suburbs don't. It's all about balance. The problem with the so-called smart growth ideas (at least as they are currently being promulgated in DC and on GGW) is that they are NOT for these very needed amenities. For example, the Office of Planning is currently advancing zoning regs that will result in less open space for people like Caroline. For example, set backs are being reduced and densities increased ... hardly an incentive for developers to include more parks in their projects as Caroline would like to see. Ditto the Office of Planning's recommendations that commercial uses can open up shop in just about any neighborhood irrespective of whether it's zoned residential or not. What incentive is there for a house with a yard to remain in the city when that property not can easily be sold or rented out for more $$$s by applying a commercial use to it? The Office of Planning's actions ... as being advocated by some of the folks on here ... isn't help create the kind of city Caroline wants ... It's helping to destroy it.

Ditto GGW's aversion to automobiles and infrastructure required to support them. Families with children don't use public transport ... And as we've read on here, when they do, they get into arguments with everyone else as to whether they can bring their SUV-sized strollers on board or not.

The so-called smart growthers are their own worst enemies now if they're really hoping to keep the kind of livable, family friendly AND exciting big city which groups like the Committee of 100 have fought for decades to keep. Of course there is hope in all this ... since as the so-called smart growther grow, they're coming to realize that there really is value in having a city that is easy to get around in AND has more to offer than bars and cheap eats. The only worry of course is that in their enthusiasm to make DC more like NYC, they could lay the ground for that to happen (as evidenced by the zoning regs currently being pushed through by the Office of Planning) and be unable to undo the damage they are unwittenly doing. Yes, ignorance is bliss, but it can also come back to bite you ... as Caroline is learning now that she's entering a life stage where a stacked on high condo and a restaruant and bar stacked upon another restuarant and bar with no green space left by developers can be called 'smart' by some, but 'shortsighted' by most of us.

by Lance on Aug 22, 2011 3:05 pm • linkreport

And btw, if Caroline (and others on here) really want to see more playgrounds and other green areas for us here in the city, she may want to do what I did ... vs. complaining. I was a founding member of the Friends of Mitchell Park. It took 10 years, but through lots of fundraising efforts (we raised $500,000) and political action (i.e., visits to our District representatives to get renovation support), we completed a $2M renovation of Mitchell Park some 5 years ago which included a very extensive playground area covering some 40% of the park's area. Now, granted it wasn't easy. It required working with both the District (which owns the western 40% of the park) and the feds (who own the eastern 60% of the park), getting an archeological study done to protect the foundation remains of the original farmhouse there, and forming a garden club (and endowment) for the continued care and maintenance of the park after its renovation. But yes, it can be done.

by Lance on Aug 22, 2011 3:28 pm • linkreport

@ Lance - I can't think of a worse idea than to try to "suburbanize" the urban parts of DC. Like many other commentators, I grew up in the suburbs and was bored to death. Generally, suburbs encourage obesity (through lack of walkability due either to unnecessary distances between businesses and residences or to plain lack of sidewalks, which eventually leads to a fear of walking anywhere), overdependence on oil due to the need to drive everywhere, and ugly architecture in the form of strip malls and design-starved residential cookie-cutter plans. If many Americans love the suburbs, then they can have it, but don't bring it here. I do appreciate Lance's helpful suggestions regarding getting involved to make changes in neighborhoods, though. If people want playgrounds, they might have to do some hard work to get them. That may not be the easiest solution, but it might be the only one.

by The Heights on Aug 22, 2011 5:04 pm • linkreport

So, Lance...

You're arguing that a relaxation of allowable uses in various areas of the zoning code will somehow prevent the installation of playgrounds in already-existing parks?

And you're also arguing that some of the setbacks in the zoning code (i.e. a minimum side yard requirement) is the same as a public park?

Uh, OK.

by Alex B. on Aug 22, 2011 5:18 pm • linkreport

Lance, keep in mind that under the previous zoning regime, which you and the committee of 100 support there has been little support for the kinds of public parks and child-recreation areas that Caroline is seeking.

In short-- if your idea are so great, why haven't is DC so lacking in amenities and why has it been so inhospitable to families?

So if Caroline does have a case that park and recreation amenities are so hard to come by, the fault lies firmly at your feet, and those who supported the same crazy zoning attitudes you have, not at those of GGW.

by JustMe on Aug 22, 2011 6:35 pm • linkreport

@JustMe, That's far from true. Washington is filled with public parks and child-recreation areas. They are just not where Caroline is looking.

Where they are lacking are in the new development areas where this regime (i.e., the Fenty people) has been responsible for development. And we can expect even less as the city develops given the super high density that is being advocated as part of the new zoning. As Alex B. points out, these folks don't consider a set back on a house the same as a public park. I'd personally consider it better given that parents can't spend all day in a public park with their small kids, buy they can send them out to play in the yard ... if there is one. Look to the Chinatown area to understand what's in store for us. No setbacks, no public parks. Just more stacked housing and retail. Mini-NYCs ... Not good ...

by Lance on Aug 22, 2011 7:13 pm • linkreport

@Bertie, Most people live in the suburbs. This proves that the suburbs are a better place to live! <---please identify the logical fallacy in this argument

I'm not sure why you want me to identify a logical fallacy in an argument I did not make. Most people seem to prefer the suburbs. That is, for most people the suburbs are a better place to live. This is especially true for families with children.

by Bertie on Aug 22, 2011 7:30 pm • linkreport

Setbacks *aren't* the same as public parks, and in many cases are considered forbidden for people to "play" in-- this has nothing to do with setbacks, and setbacks have nothing to do with parks or playgrounds. The point of a setback is to create empty space that some people consider aesthetically pleasing, and this has nothing to do with park space for people to recreate in.

It is the NPS which has a problem with playgrounds. But as I said, if you want to turn this place into just another New York City, then by all means, go around making playgrounds for people. But this is DC, where we do not do that-- this is where the spaces are supposed to be quiet and sterile unless people choose the re-create in their own backyards, and to not disturb the public peace or the view, as the NPS, committee of 100, and the original L'Enfant vision always intended! A large problem is related to NPS's hostility to public use of the green spaces under their control and a sclerotic planning establishment in DC that has not concerned itself with human uses of public and open spaces.

by JustMe on Aug 22, 2011 7:49 pm • linkreport

Two things:

1. The flight to the suburbs in the fifties and sixties wasn't simply a cry for more amenities but also the changing social norms in the US where the demographics shifted because of explicit and systemic racism.
2. There is a difference between a suburb and sprawl. I have no problems with suburbs per se. Some suburbs are walkable, bikeable and such and do require the use of a car for every little thing. Some downtown areas are inhospitable to pedestrians and vice versa. So yes some suburbs people grew up in allowed a greater degree of mobility and others didn't. Let's try to shoot for the former in all things.

by Canaan on Aug 22, 2011 7:56 pm • linkreport

While on vacation I encountered a guy at a dog park who when I told him I was from Washington he told me he'd been there recently for the first time and seeing The Mall and the monuments 'made him proud to be an American'. We have to balance both our local needs and wants and the responsibilities of being America's home town.

by Lance on Aug 22, 2011 8:52 pm • linkreport


you're very wrong on L'Enfant's vision for the city. He envisioned a dynamic, bustling urban capital. But L'Enfant's vision and design were overtaken by others, including Jefferson, who absolutely hated the idea of a viable, inhabited capital city. There were very strong forces working in opposition to L'Enfant and his grand plan. But I, for one, believe that L'Enfant would be rather pleased with the lively city we have today, imperfect as it may be. It is far closer to his vision than a barely-inhabited collection of staid federal buildings Jefferson and others pushed for.

by Birdie on Aug 22, 2011 8:52 pm • linkreport

I am curious as to why anyone would think the feds should be providing local amenities to us. Can't we be responsible for our own amenities? As I already talked about, the District allows you to form a friends organization to organize and pay for a park renovation or a simple upgrading of playground equipment. And while yes there may be some federal reservations that make no sense being federal, there really are lots of District owned parcels out there that with a neighborhood's hard work, determination, and fund raising efforts can be greatly improved upon. Why expect the American people to pay for our needs and wants?

by Lance on Aug 22, 2011 9:17 pm • linkreport

Downtown DC is much different now than it was 10 years ago. The residential population has grown immensely, and that growth is expected to continue. This has made it a more interesting city that is attractive to both residents and tourists. I bought a condo downtown almost eight years ago, before I had a child, and I always figured that I would have to move out. When my child started to walk, a move to the suburbs seemed inevitable, and we almost left. When raising a young family, it is hard to see past the immediate hurdles, and at that time, the lack of a playground was the only thing that was pushing us away. We would walk everywhere all week long and then have to drive to a playground on weekends; it made no sense, especially as we can barely keep our child moving through Manhattan because there are so many playgrounds. It was then that I met Caroline and mentioned to her how difficult it was at that age. I thought that I was destined to move, despite my strong desire to live in a downtown area, in a walkable condo. I had no problem with the lack of space or lawn or parking or any of the assumed essentials of the suburbs. I just needed to have a safe place for my child to play, and the downtown area does not an obvious place.

But, I didn't move right away, and as time passed, I started to see how many wonderful places there were for children here. This area is extraordinarily family-friendly in so many respects. As my child has gotten older - she is almost four now - I have realized that there is really no more educational and interesting place to raise a child than here, so we plan to stay. But, the area still needs a playground very badly, for the families that live here, for the thousands of children that go to daycare here, and for the growing number of tourists families.

Caroline and I have spoken about these issues many times, and I assure you that she is neither trying to turn downtown into the suburbs nor just throwing all her eggs in the NPS basket. She has held meetings with various city and federal government officials, she has looked through property maps examining every spot of land that may be available, she has spoken to developers and potential investors, she has spoken to Kaboom and local architects to help develop plans for several potential spaces, she has garnered community support, and we together created a website with the goal of highlighting the many under-utilized family-friendly activities available in this neighborhood - Both the effort and the website are in their nascent stages, but this is not something that can be abandoned. There are spaces, but there are roadblocks. Given the hurdles, we understand this is not an overnight process, but the children need a playground, and thus it should be pursued.

by Danielle on Aug 22, 2011 9:22 pm • linkreport

Sorry for the late response to this lively conversation! I just returned from out of town. And thanks to Danielle for her recent comment.

All of these comments include very interesting insights. I have been pursuing several of the ideas that were included in the comments, but it is great to hear that I am on the right track.

I have been working on this playground project since March. It is sponsored by Washington Interfaith Network. We have had several meetings with various people around the city, including a representative from CM Evans office and the Office of Planning. One person asked for me to look into the history of the playgrounds and NPS. So when I read a previous GGW post about NPS lack of responsiveness, I thought that David might be able to help me find the answers.

Thanks to @Ward 1 Guy for pointing out that this is an issue that also impacts children in day cares and children visiting from all around the DC Metro area, as well as the country. There is nothing quite so sad as seeing all of the little children in their day care stroller buses with no place to play. I am completely aware that my child will likely not benefit from this park because of the length of time involved, but feel that it is worth stepping up and saying that kids need a place to play in Downtown DC.

@Jason, I have only attended one DNA meeting requesting a playground, but I know that there are others out there who have continued to speak up regarding this issue. I agree that asking developers is not the best use of my personal time (not speaking for everyone working on this effort). The Office of Planning, as well as our group, have identified the land at Carnegie Library, Chinatown Park and the National Building Museum as the best options for a playground. I am happy to pass along any other ideas. Thanks for the ones mentioned in the comments.

I do believe that if we were in NYC, there would be a playground in Franklin Park without a doubt. But we aren't. I hope that one day we will recognize that a safe play space is an important component to urban living - young and old. In regards to young families, there is a small window of time when your child has no fear and runs away from you. To that end, there needs to be enclosed spaces for toddlers to play in. But I believe that bringing families to the park will also regenerate interest in their use. Otherwise a lot of them seem forgotten.

As for the comments regarding the suburbs, I actually grew up in North Carolina on five acres of land within a mile of my family's farm. My father's side of the family lived on that land for nine generations. We had to drive 15 minutes to go anywhere. Yes, it was boring. So I have zero personal experience of living in the suburbs, for better or for worse.

I will say that being an urban parent has been an interesting challenge, which I have enjoyed. I think that I have ended up taking exercise a lot more seriously than if I lived elsewhere, because there is little incidental exercise built into the size of my home. And since my daughter has turned two, we have started venturing out without a stroller in order to get more exercise. I believe that this is a trend in most families of toddlers that I know downtown.

Finally, this post is perfect timing. We are having a playground meeting tomorrow night. Anyone is welcome to attend.

Location: Calvary Baptist Church, 8th & H NW
in Shallenberger Hall & Gym

We will meet Tuesday, August 23rd from 5:30 - 6:30 pm.

Children are welcome.

by Caroline Armijo on Aug 22, 2011 10:30 pm • linkreport

@Caroline, It sounds like you're on the right path. And while I think you'd have a lot quicker success if you concentrated on District owned properties vs. federal ones, I can understand you're wanting to avail yourself of all options. Note though that for various reasons, I can't see the feds allowing a children's playground on the grounds of the National Building Museum. The building, and its grounds, are just too historically significant to Washington for you to have an easy time re-purposing them. I.e., The argument you would probably encounter against a playground there would be that a playground is not consistent with the use of that building in its historical context. It would also detract from the appearance of this historic building.

Although you might have some issues with respect to the Carnagie Library site, I believe that that site belongs to DC, and you'll definitely have an easier time of it with DC than with the feds ... Additionallym there you could make the argument that a playground for children is a natural extension of a library's purpose. I.e., your proposed use is consistent with the historic use of the property.

Good luck!

by Lance on Aug 22, 2011 11:26 pm • linkreport


Garfield Park does seem to be a rarity on the Hill, but generally, you're right -- there are very few swings at many parks in the District. Watkins has a new swing contraption, but its not the classic one seat pendulum -- it's like a modified tire swing. My kid likes it.

by b on Aug 23, 2011 10:00 am • linkreport

Families with children don't use public transport

This is simply not true as a general statement. Perhaps well to do families with children don't use public transport, but many of the middle- and working-class people who live in my neighborhood use the bus to get them and their children everywhere, since they don't own cars.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Aug 23, 2011 10:34 am • linkreport

@b Garfield Park does seem to be a rarity on the Hill, but generally, you're right -- there are very few swings at many parks in the District.

When we were dealing with Mitchell Park's renovation we found that because of liability issues lots of 'normal' playground equipment is either disallowed outright (e.g., see-saws) or heavily restricted. If I recall swings were restricted as to which age group they could be intended for (yes, believe it or not, we had to creat 2 areas separated by a fence to keep the different age groups apart), and they required some kind of 'seat belt' and needed minimum spacing between, etc. etc. The resulting playground didn't look much like the playgrounds I knew as a kid. There's very little to do there that you couldn't do in your own living room. And this was back in the late 90s. I can only imagine the restrictions have gotten worse. I couldn't help but think 'how crazy is this? We so over-protective of these youngsters and teenagers ... At least until they turn 18, and then suddenly it's okay to send them off to a war zone ... '

by Lance on Aug 23, 2011 10:35 am • linkreport

Families with children don't use public transport

Actually, they do. In fact, this morning 4 families boarded Metrobus G12 to take their kids to Greenbelt Elementary. It turned out to be faster than waiting on the school bus. And the Metrobus stop is right in front of the school.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 23, 2011 10:38 am • linkreport

@Geoffrey, Wouldn't it be far cheaper to own a car than to pay for multiple fares? Never mind the premium you pay for not having access to bulk shopping areas, etc. Car ownership in the US is relatively cheap. If you're really living without a car, you're paying far more in other ways. Now if you're going without a car because you think it's better for the environment, or are maybe afraid to drive. Then that's a different story. But please, it's not the 'rich' who drive. It's everyone.

by Lance on Aug 23, 2011 10:40 am • linkreport


Poor people with bad credit have a hard time financing buying a car. Not to mention the fact that a car is a big upfront cost, and a cheap used car has ongoing expensive maintenance problems.

A bus pass is $15 a week for an adult ($780 a year if you buy one every week). Children under 4 are free. You can buy student bus tokens that are $0.75 each. So yeah, I don't think owning a car is cheaper. Just registering and insuring a car costs what, $500 minimum a year? And that doesn't even count buying the car, or gas, or maintenance.

by MLD on Aug 23, 2011 10:53 am • linkreport

you're very wrong on L'Enfant's vision for the city. He envisioned a dynamic, bustling urban capital. But L'Enfant's vision and design were overtaken by others, including Jefferson, who absolutely hated the idea of a viable, inhabited capital city.

I was being sort of sarcastic with my "L'Enfant's vision for the city." Certain people/interest groups who have a more suburban mindset and have poor city planning ideas justify their wrong-headed belief systems and pre-existing prejudices by claiming that current layouts, problems, and dysfunctions in DC are in fact, "the original vision for DC as laid out by L'Enfant."

I am curious as to why anyone would think the feds should be providing local amenities to us

If you're saying that it doesn't make sense that NPS is responsible for every single patch of grass in DC and that this interferes with the ability of local interests to serve their own needs, then I agree.

he told me he'd been there recently for the first time and seeing The Mall and the monuments 'made him proud to be an American'.


by JustMe on Aug 23, 2011 10:57 am • linkreport

Most families that live downtown use public transit, regardless of income level. Although I own a car, I rarely drive within the city; it just wouldn't make any sense to do so. We walk, take the bus, use metro, and if all else fails, we take cabs. There are very few occasions in which taking a car within the city would make a lot of sense, and frankly, we usually still use public transit because it is habit at this point. The car is really only for road trips and my husband's work trips to locations outside the city. I, personally, drive approximately 2-3 times a year. I take the bus, with my child, several times a week. This is one of the great advantages to living downtown.

by Danielle on Aug 23, 2011 11:46 am • linkreport

@JustMe, I would like to extend an olive branch for missing your sarcasm. As you might guess, the myth of L'Enfant's "monumental" city drives me a little crazy.

by Birdie on Aug 23, 2011 12:13 pm • linkreport

We used to attend Thomson which takes kids from the Gallery Place area. Those kids desperately needed playground time and they could not get it from the school because of their design. I would love to see some of the squares like those located on L and 12th or even the land by the old Carnegie library include a playground. I went to the Wegman’s by Dulles airport and right in the middle of this huge shopping center there is a small contained playground. It can’t be that hard to fund these playgrounds, it just takes adults that care.

by DCParent on Aug 23, 2011 1:32 pm • linkreport

Somehow, people raised kids in DC before there were suburbs. I doubt that it took much imagination. People even raised kids in the Chinatown area. There have always been places where people with kids usually didn't go to live like large apartment complexes. I doubt that the Kennedy-Warren or the Broadmoor ever had many kids, although nearby residential streets would have had many of them. Urban neighborhoods used to be filled with kids and they made use of available open spaces and did things like play in the street which would horrify the people advocating for playgrounds near Chinatown. I played in the street in the suburbs and kids used to play in the street in my old neighborhood on the edge of Atlanta, but it would horrify the city dwellers and a lot of suburbanites here. My own experience of the DC suburbs is that you rarely if ever see kids outdoors in middle class neighborhoods unless it's in a supervised place. People often don't even seem to make use of amenities for kids in residential neighborhoods. My guess is that people who want "suburban" amenities in the city already have them. They just need to get into a car, as they would in the suburbs, to use them.

by Rich on Aug 23, 2011 11:53 pm • linkreport

DCParent, I completely agree about the Thomson school. There is no place for a playground, and the play area that they do have is ridiculous. I don't think many people would believe how terrible it is; the children get absolutely no outside light. These kids need a playground.

by Danielle on Aug 24, 2011 7:57 am • linkreport

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