East Falls could have a new play space as early as July!
Not to rehash old neighborhood wounds, but you can’t quite appreciate the importance of McMichael Park’s imminent “nature playspace” without understanding that for many decades, this space has been fiercely guarded from development or attractions of any kind — except those approved by the select private group who tend the park, of course. But still. McMicheal was designated a “passive” park, and as such was meant to simply be unblemished greenspace for neighbors to enjoy.
That was then, though. This is now. Philadelphia’s Parks & Rec commissioner, Kathryn Ott-Lovell has led initiatives to activate municipal parks and engage residents & visitors city-wide (we can thank her for Parks on Tap!). Back in 2016, she came to East Falls for a big meeting with the community and Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. where neighbors debated whether to put a playground in McMichael Park or not.
This January, the commissioner returned for the unveiling of the park’s new “natural playspace” by SALT Design Studio’s architects and representatives from Phila Parks & Rec. She recognized the community’s overwhelming support (including EFCC and Friends of Mifflin) and effectively shut down remaining pushback with grace, logic and good cheer.
Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell’s remarks from January’s EF Community Council meeting have been edited for readability, please click the videos on YouTube for full transcriptions.
When I took the job as Parks and Rec commissioner, one of my first meetings was about this project. And I took it very seriously. I tried really hard to consider the pros and the cons of changing the landscape of McMichael Park. I feel that throughout this entire process we have made some real compromises around how we can keep everybody happy in this process. Keep everybody feeling that what they had hoped to achieve in this process was realized in some way.
But we all know that compromise – even a really really good compromise — means that nobody really gets everything that they wanted. And I know there are people who don’t want to see the park change in any way. And don’t want nature elements or play elements of any kind to enter the park. And we’ve heard you, I want you to understand that.
But I want to be clear that we’ve made a decision that a playground is coming to McMichael. This nature playspace is coming to McMichael Park. In my ten years of doing Parks and Rec work, in my twelve years as a mom, I’m here to tell you that nothing bad has ever happened when a playground has been brought to a community or public space. And that’s my prayer and my hope for all of you. That this playground serves as a way to bring people together. To bring more people to McMichael Park. Bring more stewards to McMichael Park. To bring more families to East Falls.
If we have that for every community in the City – and that’s our mayor’s hope: the Rebuild Initiative is building parks and playgrounds all over the city. It’s gonna lift up our city, it’s gonna make us stronger. And that’s our hope for McMichael. So we are here tonight to present this one more time, and then we’re gonna build it. And it’s gonna come. And we’re all going to enjoy it.
And we’re gonna welcome generations of young people to McMichael Park. They’ll have birthday parties there, and we’re gonna have baby showers there, and it’s gonna be a wonderful place for everybody to enjoy including the people who love the park today and will continue to love the park forever.
I want to make clear to you here that this is still open space. This is just open space that we hope more people – especially more little people – will come to use. There is nothing barricading this space, it is open space. You will be able to see through it, you will be able to sit in it and enjoy your surroundings around the park.
If we were building a building in this space — if there was going to be a structure of some sort, I could absolutely understand your concern… But in this park, by adding a playspace, it is not taking away any open space in the park. It’s just changing the open space so hopefully we’ll attract some young children.
This design choice that was made has been vetted. I personally like the way that it’s laid out and located. I’m sure we could take a poll and have a room of, I don’t know, 75 different opinions. Where they’re located, again, though – there are no barricades to the open space. And the whole idea by creating a natural playspace is using natural elements that reflect the nature that is in the park.
This is very different from a traditional playground –by the way, we have playgrounds in probably 80% of our parks. And we have not had any complaints ever before in the 10 years I’ve been doing Park work where people say a playground is impeding open space. I’ve certainly heard that critique about buildings and structures. But a playground is meant to bring more people to the open space. And that’s what we want!
Yes, the proposed swings are probably 8 feet high. To be clear, though, that swing is not going to impede vision any more than a tree would. In fact, less than a tree would. There are trees all over the property, it’s actually much skinnier and much smaller caliber than some of the trees in the park. So if you want to see beyond the swing, you just move to the right or you move to the left. The same as you would with a tree. It’s just a piece of wood.
No one besides Jim Kenney and perhaps Councilman Curtis Jones cares more about equity than I do. It’s the reason I took this job. And when I hear, “We’re affluent, we’re privileged, we don’t want funding for a playground at McMichael Park,” then to me that means you don’t need funding, period. But you would like money for stormwater management, you would like money for a memorial. All good things, I believe in those things. But equity goes both ways in my opinion.
Don’t ask for money for benches, war memorials, storm water management, if you’re not willing to take it for a playground. I’m not saying other parks don’t need things, every park in our system has needs. But I don’t think the kids in East Falls don’t deserve a playground any less than a kid in West Philadelphia.
Now I want to make clear whether we’re talking about Abbotsford Homes, or whether we’re talking about Mifflin School, everyone will be welcome to use the playground. Our public spaces are open to everybody. And if kids want to use this playground because they don’t have a playground at Abbotsford Homes, or they don’t have one at Mifflin School, we’re going to encourage them: Come to McMichael Park. This space is for everyone. We always want more people to use our parks and open spaces. They should be welcoming for all.
To all the Friends of McMichael, we completely and sincerely thank you for everything you do. We are one of the most underfunded park systems in the country, that is a hard choice of living in a big city like Philadelphia with lots of competing needs. You do not have to do this work, and yet you wake up every day and you do it. And we are incredibly, incredibly grateful.
Anything we can do to express that gratitude to you, we want to make sure that we do. And that includes making sure all of you in the audience know, that this doesn’t end when the ribbon is cut. Your commitment to get this thing built – to everyone who is not currently an active and dues-paying member of McMichael Friends… batter up!
We’ve gone out on a limb – all of us have – for this project. There’ve been a lot of emotions on the table. But the beauty of this – the beauty and the power of parks and public space is what they do to connect people. It’s not about dividing people, folks. Parks and public space are about connecting people. Let the building of this playspace, the ribbon-cutting of this playspace, the children coming to this playspace and the families for this playspace make East Falls and McMichael Park stronger.
Congratulations, neighbors! The groundbreaking this spring will be, literally, ground-breaking for East Falls – and long overdue (in our humble opinion). Cheers for more active parks and more neighborhood meeting spaces!
For more information about McMichael’s natural playspace, visit mcmichaelplayspace.org and @ACTIVATEMcMichael on Facebook and Instagram. Join the East Falls Parents Network on Facebook for even more family-friendly neighborhood scoop.
ABOUT NATURAL PLAY
“Natural play” refers to creating a playspace that complements the rustic features of the landscape as opposed to disrupting them with loud colors and artificial shapes. The idea is to create interactivity with simple, sustainable materials to maintain a pastoral vibe. Such a design also helps foster native ecology, manage stormwater and increase biodiversity. Ideally, McMichael Park would not only be more fun for kids, but a healthier environment for everyone.
Phase One addresses the “North Pod,” located near West Coulter Street, and will include seating, landscaping and an accessible pathway to fun and challenging play elements such as balance logs, stepping stumps, climbing structures, wood cookies and even swings (two regular and one “basket” style). Playground is ADA-compliant.
Pics below of general area in McMichael Park where the new playspace is slated to be built.