James Jackson has voluntarily maintained the neighborhood park across the street from his home in the 6100 block of North Dakota Avenue NW for the last 10 years, planting spreading yews, evergeen bushes, azaleas, tulips and other summer flowers.
"When I started working in the park it was just a grass lot," Jackson said. "The kids around here used to play ball over there and I knew that within a few years they would be grown and moving away and I would have to look at a dirt lot every day. I didn't want to see that."
Jackson said he and his neighbor, University of the District of Columbia instructor Edward Savwoir, "mainly worked on Saturday mornings. We would start early in the morning and work until it started getting hot."
Now, the Department of Transportation has a program designed to encourage just the kind of community participation Jackson and Savwoir have been giving for years: the Public Space Project.
DOT is one of three District government agencies with jurisdiction over public space in the city. Of the 687 parcels of land in its domain, DOT set aside 285 that it determined were suitable for maintenance by citizens and community groups.
"The Public Space Project is designed to give the residents a chance to use public space for their enjoyment," said project coordinator Stefan Harvey.
PSP is made up of two separate programs. The "Beautification Program" provides one or more parcels of land to persons and community groups to landscape, grow flowers or plant vegetables. DOT provides assistance in developing landscaping plans and will provide seed and mulch.
In the "Care for a Park Program", community groups take responsibility for maintaining three neighborhood parks for 10 months. DOT provides information on planting and pruning and will make necessary physical improvements, officials said.
"This is the first project structured for the Washington area," Harvey said. "Our aim is to provide every section of the city with the opportunity to get involved."
Harvey said Reagan administration budget tightening contributed to the program's formation. DOT employes paid for by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which was cut back severely, had been responsible for maintaining the neighborhood parcels previously.
Harvey said $55,000 has been earmarked for the Public Space Program this year for the purchase of supplies, equipment and some greenery, as well as for replacing benches and repairing sidewalks.
As an incentive, Harvey said, "groups earn points for regular maintenance of the neighborhood parks and at the end of the program year awards will be presented recognizing the efforts of the participants.
"We have some departmental operational funds, but we hope to secure contributions to the project from the business community, as well as offerings from individuals," Harvey continued.
To publicize the PSP campaign, Harvey said her office is making use of the many civic and community groups around the city as well as the Advisory Neighborhood Councils.
"We also had posters up this past summer in the various parcels and the response was great."
Although the program has met with general acceptance in the community, a few critics, such as Loretta Newman, president of Neighbors Inc. of the Takoma Park area, said the PSP "has limited applicability and relies too heavily on the public. DOT is very optimistic about what people can do. Too many people don't have the time."
However, DOT director Tom Downs said he is pleased with the program and counts on it being successful.
"I hope that a number of individuals and community groups pick up the idea," Downs said. This is one program that I am aware of that has not generated any negative response."
Before groups and persons can engage in the Public Space Project they must sign DOT's Cooperative Agreement.
"The agreement basically indemnifies the government from suit by persons injured while working at one of the project parcels," said Christopher Bates, another DOT employe involved in the project. "Each parcel is insured and only individuals that have signed the cooperative agreement will be compensated if injured while working at one of the parcels."
The agreement further lists the rights and responsibilities of the project participants.
Interested persons and groups should contact the staff of the Public Space Project at 727-5691 or 727-9639.