The city is embarking on a monumental investment in our parks and recreation centers with the ReBuild program. Council is currently debating the direction of ReBuild, so now is the time for the public to voice our concerns and suggestions for the proposed improvements and new playgrounds.
Go around Philadelphia and you will see a lot of empty ballfields. Many communities have baseball diamonds where the grass has overtaken the dirt infield, such that the batting cage rises out of a sea of green in an elegy to the death of the sport for many in the inner city. On these fallow fields of yore, I suggest that the ReBuild program build a few running tracks. Currently, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department has no public running track under its purview. Many parks have trails, but a track is compact and can be put into many of the existing playgrounds. Though our city has a few “supersites” connected to public high schools and a track here and there at private locations, nowhere in our town can citizens, no matter their age, go to a track owned and operated by the city of Philadelphia. That’s not to say that the school facilities aren’t open to the public. Most have times when people can use them. Go to Northeast High School or Edison High School’s track on any night and you’ll see dozens of people exercising, from little ones to grandmoms. It’s great to see.
Philadelphia has produced many outstanding track athletes, including Olympic gold medalist Jon Drummond from the Overbrook area and 2016 Rio Olympics silver medalist Nia Ali, who grew up in Germantown. Thousands of students in our high schools participate in meets each spring. In 2014-2015, the National Federation of High Schools certified that over 1 million students nationwide participated in track and field, making it the second most popular high school sport, in terms of participation. Track is a sport for life that teaches self-discipline and promotes personal ambition, even in those who are not burning up the lanes, as they try to meet personal bests. Anyone in Philadelphia can see the running boom that has taken over almost every thoroughfare in neighborhoods. People are willing to go to amazing lengths to get a bib for the Broad Street Run. However, with this running boom, the city has become more crowded, making street running a life-endangering proposition in some areas. Tracks provide safe places for people to get in their miles and train to run to their potential.
This year, some of us got together to start a track program in Fishtown in the Archdiocese’s amazing CYO program, which has over 100 teams from around the region. Like a lot of other communities in our city, we are not very close to a public school track. With more tracks in our city, we can get more kids involved and build more track and field opportunities like the CYO program, which is large enough to have its own night at the Penn Relays, where boys and girls can compete to achieve their best.
Patterns of recreation change. More kids and their parents and single adults are running now, and they are doing it all year long. The kids just aren’t picking up baseball gloves the way they used to. The city has plenty of ballfields to cover the participation level for what we have in town.
Though it’s lamentable that these baseball fields are no longer active, their current emptiness is a vacuum that we can fill with something that provides opportunities for active people from kids to seniors. The city should commit to building five to 10 tracks at recreation centers strategically mapped to maximize use and provide a true public-track option. We have too many monuments to recreation patterns long gone. Placing public tracks in neighborhoods, even if they are not Olympic-sized tracks will get people moving, literally. Let’s try something new, improve the health of our communities and get our city back on the track. Tokyo is only three years away.
A.J. Thomson used to run a lot.