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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


As neighborhood parks go, the Columbia playfield on Milwaukee's north side isn't particularly inviting.

A 2-acre fenced lot in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, it is a sea of mostly patched asphalt with a few swings, two overused basketball courts and a weathered playset. But that's about to change.

Columbia and three other playfields operated by Milwaukee Public Schools are in line for major makeovers beginning next fall in the first phase of a multimillion-dollar plan by the district to upgrade its outdoor facilities over the next decade or more.

The work is being driven, not just by the condition of the parks, but a greater understanding of the role play plays in the development of children, and an effort to level the playing field between Milwaukee's poorest children and their more affluent peers.

"There's a tremendous opportunity to really transform these spaces, really bring them back to life," said Lynn Greb, senior director of the district's Recreation Department who commissioned an equity analysis to prioritize improvements at the 52 playfields - small neighborhood parks - throughout the district.

The MPS plan parallels a similar effort by the City of Milwaukee to revitalize 14 city parks, many of those in the central city.

"These kids should have the same type of equipment or better than those, not just in other Milwaukee neighborhoods, but in places like Mequon and Brookfield," said Milwaukee Ald. Michael Murphy, who launched the city's MKE Plays initiative last year.

"It's shocking to see those disparities," he said. "It's totally unfair."

Milwaukee is a city marked by deep disparities among its residents - rich and poor; black and brown and white - and the neighborhood parks where they congregate are no exception. Many of those in its poorest neighborhoods are run down, reflecting years of deferred maintenance and neglect.

A 2014 study by the district recommended $25 million in improvements for those parks over the next decade. Greb said she struggled with how to prioritize the work in light of MPS' ever-tightening budgets.

Inspired by a similar approach in Minneapolis, Greb worked with the district's Office of Accountability & Efficiency to rank the playfields based on a number of criteria. In addition to the condition of the parks, they looked at demographic data - such as poverty, race and the number of children in the surrounding neighborhoods - crime statistics and the availability of other parkland nearby.

The results reinforced what they had seen anecdotally: that the poorest facilities tended to be in low-income, largely minority neighborhoods.

"It just kind of validated that we are putting our resources in the areas with the greatest needs," said Pam Linn, recreation facilities project manager for Milwaukee Recreation.

In addition to the Columbia playfield between N. 13th and N. 14th streets, a block south of W. Burleigh St., the first phase will include work on three other MPS parks:

Custer playfield at 4001 W. Custer Ave.

Burnham playfield at 1755 S. 32nd St.

Southlawn playfield at 3350 S. 25th St., which is being renamed Southgate.

At Columbia, MPS will replace much of the asphalt with grass, renovate its 1920s-era fieldhouse, add two half basketball courts, playground equipment and a splash pad.

The other parks will see similar improvements, but the plans will differ at every site, based in part on input from neighborhood residents.

One emphasis will be adding play equipment geared for children under 5, whose development - social, emotional and intellectual - lays the groundwork for a lifetime of learning. It comes amid an effort in Milwaukee to improve early childhood education.

"Play in that 2 to 5 age range is one of the ways children learn," Linn said. "It helps them build important skills for school readiness."

The improvements are welcome news for residents who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the parks.

"I would love it," said LaVonne Lee, a nurse whose home overlooking the Columbia playfield has been in her family for 30 years.

Lee has spent much of her life watching children play in the park.

"It's really family oriented," she said. "But we could use more things to do in the park, not just basketball."

Milwaukee Rec has already raised an additional $500,000 in outside funding for the upgrades, including a nearly $400,000 federal grant for the Burnham site. That grant illustrates the power local organizations and volunteers have to leverage funding for park improvements.

"We were very fortunate. The Layton Avenue West Neighborhood group had already done a lot of the groundwork at Burnham," Greb said.

"Play in that 2 to 5 age range is one of the ways children learn. It helps them build important skills for school readiness."

Pam Linn, recreation facilities project manager for Milwaukee Recreation

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November 28, 2017


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