Thursday, January 14, 2016

Cummings Park

I’ve lived directly next door to Cummings Park for over 17 years. Cummings Park is a small city-owned playground (also called a tot lot or pocket park). Over that time, there have been numerous competing groups of park users:

• teenagers drinking and vandalizing the playground structures (primarily at night)
• dog owners using it as a dog park so their dogs can exercise and go to the bathroom
• adults shooting heroin (primarily at night)
• young children using it as a playground

As with any public space, there are many individual occasional uses as well: birthday parties, geocaching, people doing yoga or tai chi, adults reading or chatting, etc. The only problematic uses are the ones that are incompatible with the intended primary use as a playground for young children (dog run, alcohol and drugs, smoking, and vandalism) or are incompatible with the park being directly next door to people’s homes (noise at night, fires, or golf balls).

There are signs saying that most of those problematic uses are not allowed, but the signs are largely ignored because they are never enforced. Even the huge new "NO DOGS ALLOWED" signs at both entrance gates are often ignored because there is no enforcement mechanism.

For the first decade that I lived next door to Cummings Park, it was a constant source of problems and was seldom used by young children. One week about 7 or 8 years ago, the city finally repaired the vandalized structures and removed the graffiti, the police started occasionally reminding people that the park is closed at night, and families started donating toys to the playground. A number of significant changes happened:

• young children and families started using the playground in far greater numbers
• vandalism mostly stopped
• drinking and drug use in the playground was greatly reduced (as measured by the far lower number of empty bottles and empty needles left in the playground)

The donated toys were a huge part of that turn-around. They encourage families to use the playground and extend the play options for young children. They helped Cummings Park become a destination playground for families who live closer to other parks. They were an asset to the two separate family day cares that both use the playground. And even when the playground is not in use by young children, the presence of the donated toys sends a clear signal that the playground is actively used by young children.

Local musician Matt Heaton even wrote a song about the donated toys in Cummings Park, titled “Outside Toys”.

If you never saw the range of toys donated to Cummings Park, you might not understand the full range of toys that passed through there: shovels and pails, balls, toy trucks and construction vehicles, ride-on toys, walk-behind toys, Cozy Coupes, scooters and tricycles and the occasional bicycle, several play kitchens and plastic slides, little basketball poles, toy lawnmowers, and most recently a plastic gas pump that allowed kids to pretend to be gassing up the various play vehicles.

Here’s a selection of the smaller toys in Cummings Park last year:

Toys eventually wear out, and several park neighbors took responsibility for periodically sorting through the toys and throwing out the broken ones. We also repaired toys when possible, inflated balls and bicycle tires, and worked with the parks department to report wear and damage to the permanent play structures. Mike Nestor at the parks department has been a real ally for years in working with us to keep Cummings Park in good shape to be used by young children and families.

It was, therefore, horrifying to see that the city last week abruptly removed every single donated toy in Cummings Park. This apparently happened around the same time in many or all city playgrounds. There was no warning, no notification, no opportunity for public input, and apparently no recourse. To replace the toys in Cummings Park alone would cost thousands of dollars, and people will be far more reluctant to donate toys when they expect that the city will arbitrarily confiscate them all again at any moment. Cummings Park is now far less appealing and useful for many families who want to use it as a playground. Instead, Cummings Park now looks barren and abandoned, which is exactly the sort of appearance that will lead to an increase in problematic uses of the playground. In a matter of days, it led to a noticeable increase in the use of the playground as an off-leash dog park.

There is widespread frustration, disappointment, and anger about the city’s removal of the toys from Cummings Park on local family-oriented Facebook groups. Here are comments from the last few days:
What happened at Cummings park??? We went there today and it was all cleared out!!! The kids were so sad!
Oh no! Sarah's park!!!!!
My kids loved using the toys at that park 
Oh, my boys will be devastated!!! So sad!
So sad! I think people generally do a good job of getting rid of broken toys. I think it's more of an eyesore NOT seeing them 
That is terrible, I can't believe they did that! 
Oh no my girls are gonna be sad next time we drive by. My oldest had a favorite bike that she always rode on. 
My son uses the toys more than the structures. 
Ours too! Heartbreaking. 
So sad! My daughter loves that park and used pretty much everything! When she was learning to walk she could still play. It's our favorite park. Awwww... 
So sad. Bring the toys back 
My daughter played more with the toys there than the structures. She will be so upset. I hope they bring them back. 
Devastating.... my son adored the toys 
It kept the kids happy. Now what? 
My other question is why, and is it just going to happen again if the community replaces them? I'd love to know who made the decision and how to make that person aware of just how unpopular it is. 
I can't believe they got rid of everything without any kind of notification or explanation, it seemed pretty obvious that the toys are used and enjoyed by the children who play there. It actually is the reason why we choose to go to Cummings park over other parks the majority of the time! My boys loved the diggers, dump trucks, etc they could use with the sand and all of the different vehicles there. Hopefully the city will bring them back. 
My daughter always bee lines for the cozy coupe and usually followed that with a session of digging and dumping sand in or with any kind of bucket or container. Small slides are a hit with the littlest ones too - less daunting than then permanent ones. I'm happy to help with this adventure come spring. We love this park! I'm just hoping it's not in vain. Is there any news on whether this is going to be happening repeatedly?
People have reported that Mike Nestor only wanted broken toys to be removed. It is unclear who in the city made the decision to remove ALL the toys, but it is very clear that it was a bad decision and a serious error. This error should be addressed openly, the city should issue a clear apology to the community for this error, the city should explicitly state that donated toys in good condition are allowed in the playgrounds, and the city should replace the toys.

There are several stakeholders who the city should include in any major decisions about Cummings Park:

1. The immediate neighbors of Cummings Park.

2. Sarah Volpe, who has brought her family day care to Cummings Park every day for many years.

3. Andrea Breen at Medford Family Network, who has run the playgroups in the park program for years, is very familiar with many of the city playgrounds, and knows that Cummings Park is in better condition than many because neighbors help care for it.

4. Park users, who can be reached through the Cummings Park Medford Facebook group, the Medford Moms Facebook group, the Medford Family Network mailing list, and signs posted in the park itself.

Here is my list of actions the city should take to improve Cummings Park:

1. Establish some practical enforcement mechanism for the park rules, with police enforcement when necessary to remove dogs and to remove people who are using the park at night.

2. Provide a clear way for park neighbors, community members, and park users to report problematic uses of the park at any hour and get a prompt response.

3. Install “no smoking” signs. This is one of the few actual park rules for which there is no sign.

4. Provide better fencing or containment for the basketball mini-court (which is also sometimes used for hockey and lacrosse), or convert that mini-court into a different use more compatible with being just a few feet from a neighboring home.

5. Clear the sidewalks around Cummings Park in the winter when it snow, and clear a single path through the park itself between the two gates (ensuring that the gates can open).

6. Consider installing water for a bubbler and/or the ability to water new plantings.

7. Consider adding a port-a-potty (as exists at Victory Park) in the corner by the intersection, so that little kids don’t have to use the fence line as their toilet. (This may cause more problems than it solves, but it should at least be discussed.)

8. Hire a new landscape contractor who will mow the grass more than once a month in the summer.

9. Establish a maintenance plan and replacement plan for the park structures. The bouncy bridge on the taller play structure has structural connecting links that are almost worn through, and much of the plastic on the climbing structures is now old enough that it is more prone to break and leave sharp edges. The benches under the gazebo are all bent down at the ends, greatly reducing their usable seating area.

10. Establish a maintenance plan and replacement plan for the park trees and landscaping. Many shrubs have died, the tree warden has confirmed that a number of the trees are unhealthy, and new donated plants cannot survive because there is no on-site water access.

11. Establish a community liaison or two for each city park who can help organize needs and wants for the park, and who can help communicate with the appropriate city employees and with residents and park users.

12. Plan to do regular requests on a schedule for graffiti removal by the Middlesex Sherriff’s Graffiti Removal Unit, which costs the city almost nothing to do. This has been a far less frequent problem at Cummings Park since the donated toys started, but it is an ongoing problem at other parks (and around the city).


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