Slide, Slide, Slippedy Slide

Replaying On Austin's Playscapes

About four years ago,The Austin Chronicle published a complete guide to Austin's playscapes. While counting the number of swings, slides, and monkey bars in the city's 78 playgrounds, we noticed a few things that weren't so fun -- missing railings, sharp edges from rusty nails and protruding bolts, inadequate sand or pea gravel in fall zones -- the list went on.

After consulting with an internationally known expert in playground equipment safety, we discovered that our suspicions were justified: Austin, like many cities, was badly in need of a comprehensive plan to renovate or replace its old playscapes.

Recently, we decided to revisit the subject. While we discovered that there were still safety concerns in several playgrounds, we also found that Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) staff have adopted a long-range improvement plan and were busy at work correcting problems and replacing equipment.

"The playground replacement program has been pretty aggressive," said Jim Halbrook, public information specialist for PARD. "About the time when theChronicle'sarticle came out, we determined that more than 60 of the city's almost 80 playgrounds needed renovations or replacements. Now, we have brought that number down significantly. By this fall, we will have renovated or replaced 32 playgrounds in the last couple of years, 20 in the last year alone."

According to Halbrook, the playgrounds are being renovated as Capital Improvement Projects (CIPs) totaling $2.3 million. Nine projects are in progress, ranging from design to actual construction, and three more will begin in October. These include Bartholomew, Civitan, Clarksville, Eastwood, Garrison, Montopolis, Northwest District Park, Pan Am, Reed, Rosewood, South Austin, and Stacy. Pease Park's upcoming renovation, made possible thanks to a $200,000 grant from The Moody Foundation, will include the construction of three different areas, each for a different age group, while Zilker Playscape's recent replacement was also completed with outside funding.

Between 1997 and 2001, PARD plans to make 31 more renovations, targeting about eight playscapes a year. There simply is not enough personnel, says Halbrook, to make the process go any faster, as the city now maintains close to 90 facilities.

Staff will also address the problem of lead paint on equipment in about 30 playgrounds, which came to light because of a recent investigative report by a local TV station. "Consulting with the Centers for Disease Control, city health officials determined that the equipment was not an imminent health risk," said Halbrook. "But it was a concern, and we want our playgrounds to be as safe as possible from lead. Once the problem was identified, we encapsulated all the pieces of equipment, which ranged from the top bar of a swing set to a ladder on a slide. The encapsulant, which dries up to a rubbery finish, fills in the lead-based paint so that it doesn't chip or peel out into the playground, therefore creating a barrier that protects the user from the surface. We've chosen encapsulation so that there wouldn't be any loss of play time. All the pieces that have been encapsulated will eventually be replaced." Halbrook said the city also checked surrounding soil for lead contamination, but all tests turned out negative.

While staff work to correct safety problems, parents and caregivers may want to watch out for several safety violations at local playgrounds. Also be aware that some playgrounds, because they fall within the jurisdiction of the Austin Independent School District, may not be slated for improvement. Halbrook does say that some school sites, such as Andrews and Norman, will be improved in the near future.

Below is a short list of playscapes thattheChronicle recently revisited. They were originally included in our 1992 guide as a brief sampling of some dangers found in Austin's playgrounds. The dangers cited four years ago are quoted, followed by our updates.

If you're interested in obtaining more information on this subject, a brochure, "A Parent's Guide to Playground Safety," is available from the Association for Childhood Education International for 50cents. The brochure identifies 19 common safety hazards on playgrounds, and includes suggestions on how to make playgrounds safer. Write to: The Association for Childhood Education International, 11501 Georgia Avenue, Suite 315, Wheaton, MD 20902-0240.

For a copy of the Consumer Product Safety Com-mission's Handbook for Public Playground Safety, contact: U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Washington, D.C. 20207, 800/638-2772.

If you have internet access, you might want to look at a website established by The University of Northern Iowa, which, under a grant through the Center for Disease Control, has established a National Program for Playground Safety to address growing concerns over playground safety in this country.

There are a number of other similar sites on the Web -- just try entering "Playground Safety" into your favorite search engine. And if you want to see photos of many of the playgrounds surveyed here, point your browser to /mrpants/playgrounds/.

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