Parents rally to defense of 'creative' playgrounds in Jacobson, Shillito parks

Herald-Leader columnistJuly 1, 2014 

When Rachel Carpenter heard that the huge "creative" playgrounds that more than 2,000 community volunteers built at Jacobson and Shillito parks in 1992 and 1993 are to be torn down and replaced, she was alarmed. So were many of her friends.

The mothers say their toddlers can play for hours on these sprawling wooden structures, with their castle turrets, bridges, slides, chutes and myriad nooks to "hide" in and explore.

They worry that the replacements will be like most new playgrounds they see: designed to be so safety-conscious and risk-averse that they don't inspire creativity and are simply not much fun for kids.

Carpenter said she and her husband, Charles, took their 2-year-old daughter, Corabell, to the new metal-and-plastic playground at Masterson Station Park once. "We're not impressed," she said. "It's flashy. But after 25 minutes, she was bored and left to play in the tall grass nearby."

The recently passed city budget includes up to $300,000 to replace the Jacobson Park playground this year, and Lexington Parks and Recreation hopes to get funding next year to replace the smaller one at Shillito Park.

Carpenter has created a "Save Jacobson Park Playground!" Facebook page and launched an online petition that has attracted more than 300 signatures and the attention of several Urban County Council members.

"I think they underestimate how much people like the park the way it is," said Carpenter, who would rather see taxpayer money used to refurbish and maintain the existing playgrounds. She cited the example of a similar creative playground in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada, that was built in 1993 and restored last year.

Brad Chambers, the city's new Parks and Recreation director, said he wasn't aware of any serious injuries or lawsuits involving the playgrounds. But he said there are safety concerns because the wooden structures have deteriorated with age.

Chambers said the playgrounds do not meet some current safety codes and accessibility rules, and they have become a maintenance challenge because of wood splintering, warping and rotting.

"It's like any wood that has been outdoors for 20-plus years," he said. "Our concern is obviously going to be safety."

But Chambers said officials have made no decisions about the design or materials for the new Jacobson Park playground. He said the department plans to schedule several public meetings later this summer to hear from citizens about what kind of new playground they want and to present options.

The Jacobson and Shillito playgrounds were the largest of four built in the early 1990s. Two others, at the Dunbar Community Center and Picadome Elementary School, were torn down in 2008. At that time, city officials said it was more time-consuming to maintain the unique wooden playgrounds than factory-made play equipment.

Funding for the four creative playgrounds was provided by the city, businesses and foundations, and most of the labor came from citizen volunteers. Jacobson Park's playground was the largest, costing $87,000 and involving 2,500 volunteers. The projects were led by the citizens group Friends of the Parks, then chaired by Sandy Shafer, who was later elected to the Urban County Council.

"I knew there would be this day," Shafer said. "These playgrounds have a life of 20 or 25 years, because they're built with treated lumber just like your deck."

Shafer said the playgrounds have served the community well. But just as valuable, she said, was the community spirit created by the volunteers who built them. She said many volunteers have told her over the years that they took special pride in bringing children, grandchildren and out-of-town visitors to the playgrounds because they helped build them.

"I wish we could do more community-build projects," she said. "They have a value, like the old-fashioned barn-raisings, because you work with and get to know people you might otherwise not come in contact with."

Shafer said she was shopping at a home-improvement store Monday when a woman who lives in the old Dunbar-Russell School area of North Lexington recognized her and spoke to her.

"You're Sandy Shafer, aren't you?" she said the woman asked, adding, "You helped build my community by putting a playground over there."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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