Q&A With Mayor Rick Baker:

Leading St. Petersburg, Fla. to More Playgrounds and Outdoor Activity

The National Center had the privilege of meeting St. Petersburg, Fla. Mayor Rick Baker at the National League of Cities' National Summit on Children and Families in Boston. We caught up with Mayor Baker to ask a few questions about his "Play 'n' Close" to Home" initiative and for advice for some of you who may be facing similar challenges in your communities.

Background:

St. Petersburg has more than 75 playgrounds located in neighborhoods throughout the city. During his term in office, Mayor Baker created the "Play 'n' Close to Home" program where the city set a goal to have a playground within a half-mile walk of every child's home in the city.

Play 'n' Close to Home Logo

During the past seven years, the number of youth living within a half mile radius of a playground has increased from 49 to 75 percent. There are 25 new playgrounds, including 11 on school properties. Mayor Baker entered into innovative joint use agreements with Pinellas County Schools whereby the city could use school property to build playgrounds that are open to the school when in session, and to the public after hours and on weekends.

"Play 'n' Close to Home" is part of an overall program called St. Pete Outsidewhich includes efforts to improve parks, dog parks, bike paths and trails, recreational programs, blue trails, and other various ways to get people out and active outside.

Q&A Excepts from an interview with Mayor Baker

Q: Where did the idea for the "Play 'n' Close to Home" initiative originate?

A: When I took office, my kids were 4 and 5 years old. I knew a lot about the playgrounds in the city and was lucky enough to be able to regularly walk to my neighborhood park. It was on one of these trips back and forth when I thought "everyone should be able to do this". When you can walk to something you feel differently about it than if you drive to it. You feel more invested in your community, talk to your neighbors, and talk to other adults on the playground.

Q: Who have been your greatest supporters for this project/initiative? Schools? Families? Other community members?

A: All these groups really, plus the neighborhood associations. Everyone likes this idea and our idea of partnering is very appealing for many reasons. Partnering helps keep costs down for everyone and we agree to maintain the playground equipment, which helps with liability concerns. If we had to buy land, we would not have been able to build as many playgrounds as we have.

Q: Can you name a particular challenge you faced in your efforts and how you creatively overcame it?

A: Each playground project pretty much had its own challenges. However, three common issues we faced were lack of land, liability and the perception of safety concerns.

Like most cities, St. Pete has been built out for 35 years. We had to go into existing neighborhoods and figure out how to integrate them there, sometimes in existing parks and sometimes in alternative locations, such as joint use agreements with neighborhood elementary schools and churches.

We also convinced community leaders that you'll always have liability issues, and we just needed to try to make playgrounds as safe as possible. Specifically, we helped encourage a change in liability laws at the state level and we also agreed to maintain the playground equipment we installed.

Improving the perception of community members living in close proximity to playgrounds was another major hurdle. Sometimes the perception is that playgrounds attract bad activities but the reality is that you wind up having a lot of people in the playground — parents and kids — and it becomes a kind of integrated community watch system. Now individuals are bringing their children and grandchildren to playgrounds that were previously not being used. We have also found that no additional calls to the police have been placed, a statistic we have been tracking closely.

Rick Baker with campers

Mayor Rick Baker visits Rio Vista recreation center playcampers on the day America's Promise names St. Petersburg as one the "100 Best Communities for Youth." (Sept. 2005)

Q: Do you have any tips for navigating the joint use discussion with your school system, community, etc.?

A: Patience is important. Any time you have something new, there will be questions.

One thing that was important to our joint-use efforts was the security system we devised to close St. Pete playgrounds from the community during school hours and to open it up when school was out. The system is a very simple "two door" system that restricts public access to the playground during school hours and access to the school from the playground outside of school hours.

We were also very good about including community members, especially neighborhood associations, in our plans. These ongoing relationships and conversations have been integral to our success.

Q: What advice could you provide to individuals working to create an environment and infrastructure that makes it safer for kids to walk and bicycle to school?

A: I'm of the belief that most of what we do is to make it a good place for kids to grow up. That includes all sorts of things — before school, after school — and includes lots of things to increase the quality of life for kids and make it safer for kids to walk on the sidewalk.

As I'm sure you can appreciate this is a multi-component effort with various needs, including pedestrian safety education, enforcement and physical improvements to ensure safety. The biggest thing that happens to kids when they are using sidewalks is broken arms because of broken sidewalks, but we don't have that problem anymore. We've built over 100 miles of additional sidewalks in St. Pete and reduced sidewalk repair time from a 28-month response time to less than one month.

Q: What do you see as your team's greatest achievement with this project/initiative?

A: We've gotten a lot more parents and kids walking around the community and, in their minds, we've increased the quality of life and value of their neighborhoods. A lot of times people are just living their lives and paying the bills, but not focused on what the city is doing for them. This project is a very tangible thing for St. Pete citizens.

This is the first installment of a new "Q&A With:" column of the newsletter. If there is an inspirational person/program in your community that you would like us to consider profiling in a future issue, e-mail Caroline Dickson.