Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


As Warmer Weather Approaches, Safety of City Playgrounds Questioned


The Oodle Swing broke at least five kids’ legs two summers ago in a Park Slope playground. Parents rallied, outraged by the apparently botched installation of the large multi-person discus of a swing which was allegedly too close to the ground and trapped the childrens’ legs between the swing and the rubber mat beneath.

“If any responsible inspection would have been made by an intelligent person working for the City, none of these children would be hurt,” said Robert Kelner of the law firm Kelner & Kelner, who is representing three of the injured children.

“I think, shame on them if they are not sufficiently inspecting areas where children are playing,” Kelner said. They are still waiting for the deposition, he said.

As another spring and summer of outdoor activity approaches, playgrounds across the five boroughs will soon be full of children. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation has a few systems in place to inspect and ensure that playgrounds are kept safe. One is the Parks Inspection Program (PIP), which conducts frequent and random inspections of parks and submits regular indicators of the safety levels and cleanliness of park facilities. In the most recent inspection, PIP found that 86.5% of parks had an “acceptable” overall condition.

The Parks Department also has Daily Immediate Attention Systems to respond to safety hazards and provide thorough documentation that it has adequately repaired a problem.

In spite of this, personal injury claims from playground accidents have cost city taxpayers over $20 million over the past 10 years, according to a report from the office of City Comptroller Scott Stringer released March 1. The majority of these claims were due to missing or defective rubber matting, known for burning kids’ feet and skinning their knees. Five percent of the claims were directly swing-related. According to the report, playground injury claims have gone up 53% since 2005.

Most of these personal injury claims paid by the City came from Brooklyn, with 209, compared to Manhattan’s 123, the Bronx and Queens with 111 apiece, and Staten Island with 23. The most dangerous playground has been Mullaly Park Playground in the Bronx, with seven claims and settlements over the span, which included $3.5 million paid to a woman who became paralyzed after hitting her neck on a fence installed too close to the swing set.

The playgrounds in Brooklyn with the most claims were the Stroud Playground in Prospect Heights and Slope Park (of Oodle Swing infamy). Stringer penned a letter to the Parks Department asking officials to get the playgrounds up to safety standards. As the playgrounds atrophy and nails begin peeking through old construction, matting wears thin, and new safety standards become increasingly strident, the City will need to devote extra resources to the maintenance or reconstruction of the playgrounds.

In his report, Stringer recommends that the Parks Department ensure that its facilities are up to date with current safety regulations. The comptroller also recommends boosting the City’s “playground associates” program, consisting of a group of Parks Department employees who, officially, facilitate outdoor programs and maintain comfort stations.

“Our experience with them is that they do play a calming role and generally create a safer environment,” said Manhattan City Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the Council’s parks committee. He also said that the salaries of the playground associates would account for significantly less than the amount that the city is paying in personal injury claims.

“It seems to be pretty clear that this will save the City some money,” he said of increasing the number of playground associates.

At his committee’s March 9 preliminary budget hearing, Levine proposed an increase of $5 million for playground associates on top of the $4.5 million already in the Parks budget. This would add 200 playground associates, on top of the 145 already stationed, who work only during the summer. The addition would edge the number closer to covering the city’s 680 playgrounds with comfort stations (their other job would be maintaining public toilets).

However, Levine said that the problem of playground safety will require more action than just supervision. He said that the real issue is retrofitting parks to meet current safety standards.

In a statement, Stringer added a similar solution. “With claims at their highest point in a decade, it’s clear that the Department of Parks and Recreation must find ways to improve safety in our City’s playgrounds,” Stringer said. “We owe it to our kids to adopt best practices for safety and install state-of-the-art equipment in our playgrounds that reduces the potential for injuries.”

This work would mean costly overhauls of the city’s playgrounds, dipping into a dry well of funding for retrofits or new equipment.

To boot, the Parks Department currently ranks last among city agencies in completing its capital projects, according to a separate report from Comptroller Stringer issued in late February. According to that report, Parks completed only 24% of its capital commitments for fiscal year 2015, while sanitation and education completed 89% and 82% of projects, respectively.

Council Member Levine recently proposed a bill that would mandate a report from each park with its progress in retrofitting toward accessibility to people with disabilities. All new construction has to fit the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the ADA does not mandate retrofitting. Levine said, unlike the bill that is meant to push parks to become more handicap accessible, there is no current movement toward making the city’s playgrounds safer.

However, in the preliminary budget hearing for the Parks Department, Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver made it clear that he has a team devoted to making repairs where they see a safety hazard. “We have a whole team in place where we do certain inspections and prioritize them to make sure our playgrounds are safe,” said Silver. “We’ll sit down with the comptroller to go through his reports so we understand that information a bit more.”

However, there has been no mention in this round of budget negotiations of allocating money to redo hazardous parks that are not in disrepair, but are still not safe. The only funding being proposed to enhance playground safety is the $5 million for the playground associates.

Parents are concerned that more playground supervision might hamper the spirit of free play that the playgrounds represent. While they are glad that the City is concerned about their children’s well-being, they are not completely sold that the playground associates program is the answer to the broken legs and burnt feet.  

Dan Janzen is the president of the PTA for P.S. 295 in Park Slope, directly across the street from “the swing of death,” as he calls it, in Slope Park. He is conflicted about the idea of playground associates.

“I get it in principle. But if your playgrounds are so crowded that they have hundreds of kids and need supervisors, maybe we need more playgrounds,” he said. Janzen said that playgrounds should be preserved as positive and protected spaces for play. It is outside of the playground, on the streets, where supervision is needed most. Playgrounds are safe zones where kids should be encouraged to run, spin, and swing mostly unsupervised, he said. That is ultimately the beauty of the playground.

Janzen added that the money could be better spent on baselining a project to make the facilities less treacherous. “Five million bucks. Think about how many rusty Tetanus shots you could avoid.”

Kelner, the attorney, said that he felt like increased supervision could save the City money and most importantly reduce injuries. But he was also skeptical of the City’s plan to increase supervision without making equipment at old playgrounds safe.

“I don’t know if this is someone who is going to do a very necessary job,” he said referring to playground associates, “or if they are just padding the peril.”

by Samuel Lieberman for Gotham Gazette


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