“Milwaukee, Wisconsin is the most segregated city in the U.S. One third of Black residents face extreme poverty. It also has the one of the highest rates of Black incarceration,” explained Pamela Zimmerman, FASLA, who runs the Dream Build Play program with Milwaukee Recreation, at the ASLA 2022 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Francisco.
As part of the innovative Dream Build Play program, playground and playfield renovation projects were selected from a data-driven equity map that identified the most underserved communities. The city found that 62 percent of its public play spaces were either in “fair or poor” condition — and all of these were in communities that had experienced a history of redlining and predatory lending. Worst-off play spaces were put first in line for renovation.
“We are tackling playgrounds in communities with high levels of poverty and crime, with growing populations that are adding pressure to schoolyards,” Zimmerman said.
In their tours of the sites, Zimmerman and her team found many of the fair-to-poor sites had no shade and cracked asphalt. “We can’t do our programs, can’t feed kids in these spaces.”
Six years ago, Milwaukee initiated Dream Build Play with a budget of just $1.8 million; today, that’s up to $49 million in completed and in-progress projects.
“We now have four full-time landscape architects, work with 37 landscape architects in six firms, initiated 73 community engagements, completed seven renovation projects, and have eight in the works.”
Looking back on the first years of the redesign effort, Zimmerman also relayed one core lesson: “it’s hard to build credibility but easy to lose it.”
For example, one mailing error for a community engagement flyer meant that community members didn’t receive word until two weeks after the public hearing happened. Zimmerman walked for 10 miles one weekend, going door to door with new flyers to rebuild trust.
She also opened new lines of communication, hiring additional staff to answer phone calls and listen to concerns from community members.
These conversations often go beyond playgrounds. “In a community dealing with trauma from violence, schoolyard renovations become a much different situation.”
Her engagement is also personal: a number of community members Zimmerman has collaborated and engaged with have been murdered in shootings.
Amid the many struggles these communities are facing, “it’s important to keep building something positive,” she said.
Site design group, ltd., a Chicago-based landscape architecture firm, has been designing many of the updated playgrounds for Milwaukee.
ALBA School, one of the first projects from 2017, included a “vivid painted play surface,” explained Brenda Kiesgen, a project manager with the firm.
“While simple and low-cost, it has been successful.” Parents and students participated in the design process, and students use it to play a range of games, Zimmerman said.
For Greenbay Playfield, which was redeveloped in 2019, Zimmerman’s team ramped up community engagement efforts. “We had 125 people in person and showed images of alternatives. We asked the community which they preferred. We found ways to connect and listen.”
As the pandemic started, community involvement in the planning and design process was re-envisioned to ensure equitable engagement. “We were on the phone, used the Internet; we re- crafted our approach.”
At the same time, with the growth in the program’s budget, schoolyard renovations became increasingly more sophisticated, weaving in more equipment, adding texture and materials, and stormwater management systems.
In one instance, community engagement involved back-tracking to maintain that community trust.
Some of the community had wanted a half-court because of concerns about illegal gambling that could come with a full court. But later, other community members argued that a full court was needed for it to be a positive, inclusive space. “So we pivoted and redid the design,” Kiesgen explained.
Worth noting: the renovated public spaces includes Milwaukee’s first court for Tuj Lub, a 5,000-year-old sport played by the Hmong immigrant community. “It is kind of like shuffleboard with hard plastic tops. It had no precedent in Minneapolis. We talked to tons of suppliers and explored samples.”
“People ask us: why so much public work?,” said Bradley McCauley, ASLA, managing principal at site design group, ltd. “We want to do something for communities. But we have to do a lot of public projects to make it work.”
The firm, which was founded by Ernie Wong, FASLA, is focused on sustainable and equitable public spaces. “It’s important that a community loves what we do, because if they don’t, it won’t last.”
This focus on bottom-up design is particularly important with communities that have experienced purposeful disinvestment. Involving these communities can help create a sense of identity and positivity.
McCauley said his firm seeks to “design artful play spaces that weave in exploratory learning,” natural materials, and stormwater management systems.
“Universal access is also a focus. We design for children on the spectrum so they have places of reprieve and get away from the activity. For children who have been traumatized by violence, it’s also important they have a place to go.”
The Q&A brought up a question about how to manage the emotional toll of work in communities grappling with violence and poverty.
“If a community engagement doesn’t work, try something else. What is important is to have relationships in the community,” Zimmerman said.
“Keep the focus on the end goal — the change you are making — or it can rip your heart out. Self care is good,” McCauley added.