Puma Playfield at Concord International Elementary: Prioritizing greenspace accessibility for the South Park community
By Emi Okikawa
Robin Maxwell doesn’t know how exactly she became involved with the Concord International Elementary School Parent Teacher Association (PTA)—but somewhere between being asked to design posters and write emails, she ended up on the board.
“That’s how the PTA works,” she says with a laugh. “It’s like: Oh, you wanna work on this? How about you’re treasurer now?”
But the Concord PTA might be a bit different from your usual PTA group, Maxwell explains.
“Our PTA is very small and very scrappy,” she says, smiling. “I think our PTA functions almost more like activists than maybe your traditional PTA.”
During the past six years, the activists in the Concord PTA have worked hard to improve the school campus—from installing an Americans with Disabilities Act–compliant ramp to creating a pollinator pathway. These projects have provided more accessibility features and green space for both the school and the South Park community.
Environmental Justice Issues in South Park
Located on the west bank of the Duwamish River, South Park has a strong community spirit, a diverse population, and a rich history. However, it is nestled between industrial activity; the Duwamish River, which was designated an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund clean-up site in 2001; and the highway that bisects the neighborhood. As a result, residents have long suffered from environmental inequities that have led to a lower-than-average life expectancy and significantly less green space than other parts of Seattle. The Duwamish Valley Cumulative Health Impacts Analysis shows that people living in the Duwamish Valley are exposed to more pollution and live, on average, eight years less than residents in other parts of the city.
In addition to the direct health impacts, the study also found that, “residents of South Park only have an average of 40 square feet of accessible open space available to them, versus the average of 387 square feet per resident within [the greater] Seattle City limits and up to 1100 square feet per residents of some wealthier neighborhoods.”
The Link Between Green Space and Health
Access to green space is important because connection to parks, trails, and healthy recreational opportunities correlates to improved health and happier residents, with benefits that start from childhood.
Sports, play, and outdoor recreation are transformative for childhood development. Research suggests that being active outdoors leads to improved grades, self-confidence, and resilience. It also boosts the immune system and provides a space for children to heal from stress and trauma.
Due to these benefits, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that all children have at least one hour of outside recreation per day. However, the 2019 State of Play Seattle-King County report found that only 22% of boys and 16% of girls (19% of youth in total) in Seattle-King County met the recommendation. This was below the national average of 35% of boys and 18% of girls.
Within that 19% average, there are deep stratifications along racial, economic, and geographic backgrounds, which restrict access for specific demographics: girls, Youth of Color, youth with disabilities, and youth who don’t speak English at home.
That’s why the Concord community, with its diverse population and limited green space, is working so hard to bring its improvement plans to fruition: these renovations will provide more access to outdoor recreational benefits for students and neighborhood residents alike.
Greening Concord Plan
These improvement projects were developed as part of the Greening Concord Plan, which was established nearly six years ago through a collaboration among the Concord PTA, Seattle Parks Foundation, Seattle Public Schools, and the landscape architecture and urban design firm, PLACE. The objective was to steward improvements at Concord that would provide the space for physical activity to achieve healthy outcomes for the neighborhood. Through a community-centered design process, their hope is to strengthen relationships and foster a more cohesive school and neighborhood community.
The Greening Concord Plan focused on three main projects: a welcoming main entry, a safe and accessible southwest corner, and the renovation of the Puma Playfield.
Renovating Puma Playfield
To date, the Concord PTA has renovated the main entry, which is called Puma Plaza; added Shade Hill; and constructed a pollinator pathway. Now, the Concord PTA is working to revitalize Puma Playfield with help from Seattle Parks Foundation, the RAVE Foundation (the charitable arm of the Seattle Sounders), and Seattle Public Schools.
Amid a pandemic marked by isolation, anxiety, and stagnation, it is more necessary than ever for children to have a functional and accessible outdoor recreational space. Such spaces facilitate and encourage play, physical activity, and community connection—boosting children’s physical and mental health. Puma Playfield is a unique project because, upon construction, it will be open to all in the community—not just those who attend the school—and will never require payment for use.
“Right now, the field is like this huge resource of space, and it’s just completely underutilized,” says Maxwell, describing the current state of the Playfield. “It’s muddy; there’s several months of the year that it’s just not even worth going down there. I think it’d be so amazing for the school to have something that works for them that they can actually use. I think it’d be beautiful to just ignite the space.”
When asked why the work at Puma Playfield is important to Concord International Elementary, Miguel Sansalone, the former principal, replied that it all came down to asking the students one question: What’s your favorite part of the school day?
“Almost invariably, every student says recess,” Sansalone says with a laugh. “The truth is, is that at recess and at lunch, those are the times in which children get to be themselves. They get to interact with each other, and they get to try on lots of different ways of being in community. And so, what excites me is that the Puma Playfield is the physical location where kids can say: This is my favorite place.”
The Community Design Process
On June 10, a community design workshop for the South Park community was hosted by the Concord PTA, Environmental Works (a landscape architectural firm), the RAVE Foundation, Seattle Parks Foundation, and Seattle Public Schools. The workshop was an opportunity for the community to learn about the playfield project and provide early input.
Personal surveys in English and Spanish were distributed, and Environmental Works facilitated a design game that asked small groups to rank features the new playfield should have and where they should go. To add to the lively atmosphere, the RAVE Foundation also provided raffle prizes and a soccer ball giveaway.
Sansalone had expected 20 to 30 people to show up to their design meeting. But when over 130 folks showed up, he rushed to share the news with his secretary.
“I said, ‘Magda, you gotta go outside. It feels like it used to feel before [the pandemic]. You have to go out there.’”
Even Maxwell was blown away by the turnout.
“[It was] a lot for our community. [There were a] lot of children and their families—it was awesome. It was actually pretty moving to see just everybody back together again.”
The Concord PTA held several South Park summer events to gather feedback from school staff, other educators, and community-led organizations. They also hosted another community design workshop at the beginning of October, where Environmental Works presented the first round of design ideas gleaned from the June workshop and solicited more feedback. From here, Environmental Works will move toward the final iteration of the plan for community input.
Fundraising for phase 2 (final design) and phase 3 (construction) kicked off this fall. The group is anticipating that the design will be complete late this year, followed by permitting, fundraising, and groundbreaking in 2024.
Maxwell is hopeful that this robust community engagement process will lead to a reinvigorated space for children and the community to use and enjoy.
“We are kind of advertising it to the community, like: Hey, this is a space; it’s for you,” says Maxwell. “So I hope they feel like they have some ownership in it when it’s done. Like, this is what we asked for. This is what we wanted. They built it for us.”