Partnership leads to improved play spaces

Several years in the making, neighborhood residents are now able to enjoy completely renovated city play spaces that they had a personal hand in designing. Three such playgrounds were made possible through Greater Milwaukee Foundation investment in the city of Milwaukee’s MKE Plays initiative.

Conceived by Milwaukee 10th District Alderman Michael Murphy, the initiative is a public-private collaboration to reestablish parks as a priority for local government and transform city parks into enriching play environments.

Over the last four years, MKE Plays has helped restore public investment in playgrounds that have been declining over the previous 15 years. Additionally, resident participation in the playground restoration process allowed a community-building experience designed to increase ownership in the space and likelihood of upkeep.

“I saw that many of the city’s public parks were in need of renovation and felt that we were letting down our youth and communities who utilize them,” Murphy said. “In centering parks around the communities who use them, we have been able to leverage play areas into mutigenerational spaces that bring the entire community together.”

Community value

Successful parks are markers of healthy communities and add economic value to the neighborhood. Parks provide a gathering place for families, promote physical activity for people of all ages, and the environment adds to the beauty and public pride of the neighborhood. To remain community assets, parks need adequate funding and a strong connection with residents.

The community-driven approach of MKE Plays made it a good fit for the Foundation. As a permanent gift to the Milwaukee community and in celebration of its 100th year of service in 2015, the Foundation provided a centennial gift of $200,000 to support reconstruction for three parks identified through MKE Plays:

  • Bev & Bill Gardner Park, near 67th & Spokane, opened to the public first in 2016.
  • William Ira Gore Park, near 20th & Olive, opened to the public in October 2018.
  • Foundation Park, near 37th and McKinley, also opened in October 2018.

Both Gardner and Gore parks were renamed for longtime residents of these respective neighborhoods as part of the community engagement process.

Community connection

Gore Park was named after Bill Gore, who lived in the area for over 50 years. He was the first African-American chairman of the Milwaukee Police and Fire Commission and director of the Columbia Savings & Loan, the oldest African-American financial institution in Milwaukee.

Former mayor of Milwaukee, Foundation donor and resident of the neighborhood, Marvin Pratt, remembers Gore as someone in the community from whom he would frequently get advice.

“When I heard they wanted to redo the park, I knew I wanted something to mark Bill’s contribution to the city,” said Pratt. “When you have people who have contributed to the city in a positive way, you acknowledge them if you can. I thought the park would be a good way to remember him when he passed.”

As longtime community residents and activists, Beverly and Bill Gardner were a unanimous selection by the community to be recognized through their namesake park.

Meanwhile at Foundation Park, rubber surfacing was designed to include a colorful pattern that reflects the textile traditions of the neighborhood’s many Hmong residents. The Hmong American Friendship Association was instrumental in helping make the connection to the often underrepresented residents.

“HAFA's really happy that we got to play a development role in the neighborhood we serve. Our youth had the opportunity to create the surface design for Foundation Park. The colors and symbols they picked are similar to regularly used patterns that Hmong people commonly use to embroider onto their clothes,” said Kabntsig Xiong, HAFA receptionist and youth coordinator. “The Hmong community loves it and the youth feel a sense of belonging.”

Each park unique

Today, all three parks offer new features that make them a great space for kids to play and communities to socialize.

  • Foundation Park features new swings with multi-user, toddler and accessible options as well as traditional belt seats. As part of this project, local artist Muneer Bahauddeen was also hired to create “peace posts” to help bridge the cultural gap that exists between Hmong and African-American residents.
  • Gardner Park features more than 8,000 square feet of playground space with modern rope and bar-based equipment. It also includes adult fitness stations and walking paths, which provide an intergenerational experience for park users.
  • Gore Park features a huge, 3D net climber, an 85-foot zip line, adult fitness equipment, and both group and individual swings. More than a dozen new trees have been planted to provide shade and natural beauty for years to come.

“The city did an outstanding job communicating with us, listening to our concerns, and implementing our ideas,” said longtime neighborhood resident, Darnelle Bowles. “I’ve seen an increase in parents bringing their children to the park. The word has definitely spread and other people from different neighborhoods now come and enjoy the new set up as well.”

MKE Plays’ plan is to reconstruct two more playgrounds before the end of the year, according to Joe Kaltenberg, program coordinator for MKE Plays.

“We believe that every kid should have access to a high-quality play experience in their neighborhood park. Our goal with each park reconstruction is to create a space that is an authentic reflection of the needs, interests and identity of the community it serves,” he said. “In doing so, we’ll activate the space for a wide range of users and make it an asset for the community, not a blighting influence.”

To date, MKE Plays has raised more than $2.3 million in private funding from partners including Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Zilber Family Foundation, Bader Philanthropies, Burke Foundation, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, Woman’s Club of Wisconsin, Potawatomi Hotel & Casino's Heart of Canal Street Program, Kohl Philanthropies, Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Bucks, National Endowment for the Arts, Northwestern Mutual Foundation, and the National Recreation and Park Association.