Bethesda resident Liza Collery recalls that her neighborhood's playground used to be "awful."
There was an old wooden structure with one slide and a tire swing. There was no bench. The trees were overgrown. "The equipment was terrible," she said.
In 1998, Collery, a lawyer whose children were ages 1 and 5, contacted the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Montgomery County and discovered that the playground would be placed on a list for eventual renovation.
"It seemed like it would take forever," she said.
Instead of waiting, Collery did what a growing number of Washington area parents are doing: She disregarded the county's official schedule and spearheaded a privately funded community effort to improve her playground. Through her Brookmont neighborhood's civic league, she organized a committee of about five people who oversaw a publicity and fundraising drive in 1999 and 2000. The committee collected more than $20,000 from residents and gave the checks to the Montgomery Parks Foundation, which earmarked the money for that playground.
The park commission let Brookmont jump the playground renovation queue and agreed to pay for site work and installation. In 2002, the community got an expanded playground with monkey bars, three plastic slides, a bench, new railroad ties and an improved wood chip surface.
"Before, there was no reason to go there," said Anne LeBeau, another organizer of the effort. "Now it's a destination for people and a big selling point of the neighborhood."
In the Washington area, resident-driven playground renovation initiatives are typically fueled by younger families moving into established neighborhoods where the playground was not a priority for older homeowners, said Kathleen Dearstine, a landscape architect for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Montgomery County. She said that in 2000, the county had two or three requests for privately funded playgrounds, while 10 such requests have already come in this year.
Parents with young children want playgrounds that feature the latest and safest equipment. At a small site, that typically costs $40,000 to $50,000, including installation, Dearstine said.
In some upscale D.C. neighborhoods, residents not only have funded playgrounds, but they also have gotten involved in maintaining them, said Russell Cramer, risk manager for the District's Department of Parks and Recreation. He added a sentiment that park officials in other jurisdictions echoed: "Communities that are involved in their playgrounds tend to take better care of them because they have a stake in it."
In 2001, Howard County began a program whereby any neighborhood that wants to build or renovate a playground can contact the county, which surveys to determine whether a majority of the residents favor the idea. If so, the project can proceed as long as the community pays about $4,000, or 10 percent, of the cost, said John Byrd, chief of the Bureau of Parks and Program Services in the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks. Three playgrounds have been built under this program, Byrd said.
The Fairfax County Park Authority sponsors matching grants of up to $10,000 to supplement resident-driven playground renovation. The John Mastenbrook grants, named after a former Park Authority board member, have been available since 1998, said Jan Boothby, grant coordinator for Fairfax County's Park Authority.
Steve Markle led his community's effort to receive two Mastenbrook grants for a new playground at Lamond Park in the Mount Vernon area of Fairfax County. In the late 1990s, three communities, including Villamay, where Markle lives, jointly decided that a playground should be built on a piece of privately owned, wooded land nearby.
The county purchased the land in 2000 and approved the playground plan a year later. But there was no funding available, so Markle, a father of two young children, joined with seven others to serve on a community park committee. They asked for cash donations from families and businesses, raising $25,000. Then they applied for and got two $10,000 Mastenbrook grants in 2003.
Using all the funds, the county installed new equipment that year. It was a huge effort, Markle said, but one in which he takes pride. "It was a wonderful public/private partnership between the county, the Park Authority and individual homeowners," he said. "It could have ended up as in-fill development but instead it's park land."
Markle said a successful project requires several steps.
Early on, a core group of committed people needs to organize meetings, explore fundraising options, plan fundraising strategies, and serve as liaisons to local government and adjacent communities. Getting neighborhood support is key, as is finding resources in city or county agencies such as grant programs or park foundations that can accept checks for playground renovation.
Of course, not all communities can afford to fund their own playgrounds. That doesn't mean they have to wait for the park department to replace old equipment or build new facilities.
Just ask Alexander Padro, a resident of the District's Shaw neighborhood who was heavily involved in the 10-year community effort to restore the Kennedy Playground. Beginning in the early 1990s, the Friends of the Kennedy Playground, a group of residents, lobbied the D.C. government and reached out to nonprofit organizations that provided expertise in community organizing. The group monitored procurement for construction and equipment, Padro said.
In 2001, a new recreation center opened at the playground. Padro said, "If residents hadn't organized to make something happen, we would still have a glass- and rubber-strewn recreational facility there."
As these projects proceed, persistence and patience are required, Padro said. From start to finish, they can take years, and can lead to frustration and conflict.
But while undertaking a playground renovation can seem daunting to busy parents, the effort not only provides kids with new or expanded and often safer and more accessible play space, but it also gives adults a great way to get to know their neighbors, said Darrell Hammond, chief executive of KaBoom!, a District nonprofit organization that provides play opportunities for children.
He said, "With people not living in places as long as they used to and not working at the same company or even having children in the same school, building playgrounds together creates a common experience that people can have reference to."