What the Hyattsville?: How did Hyattsville become such a playground desert?
BY HEATHER MARLÉNE ZADIG
Right off the bat, let’s acknowledge that the City of Hyattsville has a variety of park options, including a respectable amount of undeveloped green space like woods and greenways. Unfortunately, parks do not equal playgrounds. And when playgrounds are far from residents or difficult to see and access (and therefore underutilized, like Dietz Park), children and families suffer.
Especially for the thousands of Hyattsville children living in apartment complexes, there are often no backyard jungle gyms to compensate, and playground deserts can be miserable indeed.
The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child establishes the right to play as a fundamental human right. Its children’s agency UNICEF asserted in 2018 that “play is one of the most important ways in which young children gain essential knowledge and skills,” such as vital motor skills, critical thinking, and social and emotional skills, and called it a “basic human need.”
The data show that Hyattsville has just eight public playgrounds (not including those on school grounds, which are usually only open on weekends) — nine if you include Robert J. King Memorial Park on Gallatin Street that’s currently closed for renovation — all serving roughly 21,000 residents. That’s just 1.9 playgrounds per 5,000 people, and almost all are toward the far periphery of city boundaries (see map below).
For comparison, Riverdale Park’s playground ratio is triple Hyattsville’s, at 5.5 per 5,000. Takoma Park has 4.6 per 5,000 residents, according to city directories (and a close-up review of Google Maps), and Mount Rainier has 4.25.
There are no full-sized public playgrounds in all of Ward 1, two playgrounds in Ward 2, and none within the primarily residential neighborhoods of Ward 3 — Heurich Park is behind Home Depot, the Duck Pond playground to the far north is past the housing there, and while the Prince George’s Plaza Community Center playground is in the vicinity of a couple of condo and apartment towers, its closest neighbors are a giant parking lot, a forest and government office buildings.
Ward 4 has access to Heurich Park but is bound by major thoroughfares, and the northeast part of the ward has almost no access to playgrounds at all. Ward 5 has the most playgrounds: at Kirkwood, Hyatt and 38th Avenue parks, which will be crucial to meeting the demands of the 1,153 new housing units planned there (per the city’s redistricting committee report).
So, what’s contributing to Hyattsville’s public playground shortage? For starters, there are some publicly owned properties that simply don’t have playgrounds on them (yet). There’s ample green space around the Hyattsville Justice Center, off Rhode Island Avenue, but it’s up for bids for potential redevelopment, so no playgrounds there anytime soon.
The city-owned space known as The Spot, just south of the Yes! Organic Market parking lot, has potential and is undergoing a complete redesign. While the city did just hold a promising and engaging event on June 10 for community input, the workshop focused on creating an attractive gathering and entertainment space — a park — with the only mention of play features being hypothetical “kid games” like giant chess and Jenga in lieu of a playground.
But what about all the privately owned public areas we have now for dining and entertainment? There’s nothing for kids in the Busboys and Poets EYA business complex, just a paved patio facing heavy traffic (and exhaust) on Route 1. The public areas of the massive Hyattsville Canvas Apartments going in across from Busboys are going to have — wait for it — a couple of paved courtyards, yet again facing heavily congested Route 1. The Riverfront at West Hyattsville? Courtyards and promenades. The Edition? The newer complexes at Prince George’s Plaza? Residences at The Six? Empty green space — courtyards, courtyards, courtyards.
The lack of playgrounds at such developments exacerbates the problem twofold: Not only is it a wasted opportunity for adding de facto public playgrounds, but those new residents have nowhere to play, thus adding stress to our overtaxed public playgrounds.
If you’re wondering whether the city could just require those developments to include playgrounds, the answer is no — they can’t. The county zoning ordinance supersedes anything the city might require. The county code does require open space set aside as “active recreational areas,” but the code’s definition of these areas can mean, basically, land with grass. Unsurprisingly, developers opt for the cheapest route to compliance, setting aside parks, aka land, with little to no requirement for improving it, or worse — paying a fee to fund parks elsewhere in lieu of adding green space.
So, how could the city improve its playground equity? Conceivably, it could establish guidelines for play structures and require such structures for an apartment complex license. The Hyattsville Department of Code Compliance issues these licenses and inspects apartment complexes.
And who knows? Maybe there are some city-owned properties that could use a second glance with respect to placing playgrounds where people actually are — in public spaces where people live (and dine, shop and gather). Especially for kids who have nowhere else to play.