The joyful urban ballet increases public safety

The May 25 community meeting on the Nebinger Elementary playground.

On May 25, I attended a forum at Nebinger Elementary School, on Carpenter Street in Philadelphia, about the school playground project. Most in attendance who spoke ardently defended the plan for playground renovations and for public use after hours.

A few residents who own homes by the playground raised concerns about noise, particularly if the playground were open to the public after school hours. Some stated they hadn’t been notified in advance of the renovations. They were understandably upset that they would have to sacrifice some of the quiet they had become accustomed to outside of school hours.

Almost half of the students at Nebinger are African American, unlike the few homeowners who spoke against the renovations or against opening the playground to public use, and many of the noise concerns revolved around a basketball hoop. The audience murmured about racism. The planners had recently revised plans for placement of the hoop to address some of these concerns. People asked who would be responsible for cleanup, for security after hours, and what the lighting would be like — reasonable questions, ones a well-thought-out plan would address. Those on the panel indicated they are attentive to these considerations.

I was a guest in the Nebinger auditorium that evening, and I stood at the back of the room, listening to those on both sides relay their concerns with an earnest passion. Several friends who are parents at Nebinger, upset at efforts to delay or halt the playground renovations, had invited me. As a resident of the neighborhood whose children attend another public school nearby, Meredith, I have seen the issue of use outside of school hours affect me directly.

I spoke up when a homeowner who opposed the project held up printed copies of research she said came from Temple University that showed that neighborhood parks and playgrounds increase crime. As an urban sociologist, I know that research shows that parks and playgrounds reduce crime. I told the crowd that for every study that shows parks and playgrounds increase crime I can show 10 that say they decrease it.

Perhaps I should have said 100 instead of 10. Or that there are no studies that link playgrounds to crime. As I learned soon after the forum, the study the homeowner had printed was a 2011 article by Elizabeth Groff and Eric McCord. The findings are complex, but the authors studied parks, not playgrounds, and careful reading suggests playgrounds reduce crime. Groff and McCord’s main conclusion is that green space can in some cases increase crime, but that if it has “activity generators” — such as playgrounds! — it does not. I don’t know of a single study that demonstrates reliable evidence that playgrounds increase crime.

Anything that attracts people to a public space increases what the influential urbanist writer Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street” and, therefore, public safety. City dwellers know this instinctively; it’s why we take the crowded street when walking home alone late at night rather than the deserted one. Decades of urban research shows that using public space adds to the vibrant dynamic people love about urban life and creates what Jacobs referred to as a “ballet” — collective use and movement with beauty in its pace and rhythm. Keeping the playground open after school hours for public use would be a crucial component of this.

Playgrounds and parks reduce crime, and permitting use outside of school hours would increase the benefits. Why is it so easy for people to believe the opposite? It is true that a playground or a park with basketball courts or sports equipment attracts noise. If we interpret noisy use as criminal activity, then it is true a deserted, quiet space will seem to have less “crime” — but quiet, deserted spaces are in fact attractive to those who would commit crime. With the right lighting and well-maintained equipment, a playground can be well-used and well-loved, and children running, jumping, and laughing together adds music to the ballet.

We should all use public space more. We should encourage the development of playgrounds — and their use after school hours. School playgrounds are ideal uses of resources, because they serve students and teachers but also the wider community, which can benefit from the space and all it has to offer outside of school hours. And making local public schools even more attractive to parents also encourages the renaissance some Philadelphia public schools have seen in recent years, complete with lotteries, waiting lists, and excitement from parents and students. This in turn helps reverse the population loss Philadelphia witnessed for decades and strengthens the city tax base.

Nebinger is a fantastic school; its new playground will be a very visible sign of its positive attributes. I went to the meeting as a friend, I spoke as an urban sociologist, and I value the playground project both as a resident of Philadelphia and the parent of school-age children.

Once the renovations are complete and the playground is open to the public after school hours, my children will be among those who enjoy it, adding their voices to the joyful noise that is the music behind Philadelphia’s urban ballet.

Joan Maya Mazelis, an assistant professor of sociology and an affiliated scholar at the Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers University-Camden, is the author of Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties Among the Poor (NYU Press). mazelis@camden.rutgers.edu @JoanieMazelis