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Newark - New Jersey: Reviving an Urban Playground

Background: A need for safe play spaces

Mildred Helms Park, in Newark’s predominantly African-American and Latino South Ward, lacks playground equipment and suffers from the common urban blight of discarded needles, addicts and street crime. Still, for some 2,400 neighborhood children, including 300 kids from the adjacent elementary school, there’s nowhere else to play. In response to the dire need for safe, healthy places for kids to be active, the Trust for Public Land spearheaded an effort to revitalize the 3.3-acre park.

Changes to the Built Environment: Building a neighborhood landmark

Following an extensive design process and fundraising effort, the new Mildred Helms Park is poised to break ground in 2005. Before the revitalization effort, all that remained of the original park was an old shuffleboard court and some concrete tables. New landscaping will improve visibility throughout the park, while additional lighting addresses safety concerns. There will be a paved exercise path, plaza with gazebo, picnic area with tables, and a dynamic playground with a “teaching garden,” water play area and age-specific equipment, among other features.

Kerry's classKey Players: A team effort, community-led

TPL cultivated a sense of community ownership by bringing local parents, pastors, teachers and school children into the design process from the start. Partnerships were also forged with several city agencies, including the police and parks and recreation departments. The Mildred Helms Resurrection Committee, composed of local activists and volunteers, is helping to steer the effort.

Funding: Forging private-public partnerships

The Mildred Helms Park project is a unique example of successful private and public funding. TPL worked with the city to win part of a $1 million National Park Service grant from the Urban Park and Recreation Recovery program, along with a $175,000 grant from New Jersey’s Green Acres program. Several private organizations provided funding, including the Prudential and Victoria Foundations, For All Kids and the Health Care Foundation of New Jersey.

Kid TallyResults: Changes in spirit

With alliances cultivated, funding secured, and a rigorous planning and design process complete, construction of Mildred Helms Park will soon be underway. And while health outcomes remain to be seen, TPL is building on the success of similar projects, including the creation of six new playgrounds between 1995 and 2003 near local Newark schools. “The facilities that much of Newark’s children had were nothing but asphalt,” says Leigh Rae, executive director of TPL’s Newark office. “More than physical fitness we see changes in spirit. It is stimulating routine activity, and more organized activity.”

Carl Haefner, TPL program director, sees Newark's new playgrounds creating "a sense of place" in their neighborhoods. One has become a venue for lively local BBQs. “Even a playground at a school can be a center for the community,” says Haefner.

Lessons Learned

TPL recognized that creating a vibrant everyday destination hinges on the following:

  • Cultivating a sense of stewardship within the community by creating local ownership through diverse partnerships
  • Engaging the primary users – local school children – in the design process
  • Designating the adjacent school as an anchor and primary steward
  • Developing a strategic plan to build funding partnerships across the local community, city and private sectors

Kids MapAbout the Trust for Public Land

The Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization, has helped complete more than 420 park projects in some 190 cities across the country. TPL recently announced a massive park-building initiative in Los Angeles, where two-thirds of the city’s children do not live near a park or playground.

Learn more at, or email Carl Haefner, program director of Parks for People – Newark:


Images provided by the Trust for Public Land. Photos on this page by Simone Mangili

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