Neighbors breathe new life into local park

Monday, July 21, 2008

When Brown students return to Providence this fall, they will find a newly revamped destination for outdoor play, exercise and relaxation just a brief walk north of the Pembroke campus.

Brown Street Park, at the corner of Brown and Creighton streets, has been rejuvenated by a group of neighbors, aided by community members including the University.

These neighbors came together in 2006 to create Friends of Brown Street Park, a non-profit organization whose mission is to “create the first eco-conscious park in the city with a focus on health and fitness,” according to its Web site.

Just a few years ago, the park, located behind Hope High School, was underused, said Wendy Nilsson and Allison Spooner, co-chairs of the organization. With help from the Providence Parks Department and the local community, they decided to transform the park, which Nilsson described as an “urban jungle” – a small children’s park with an adjacent dog park.

Nilsson said Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design and the Wheeler School donated materials, time and expertise to the effort. RISD architecture students built sculptures and climbing structures out of strapping boards and rope. They also reused materials like old school playground equipment and large tires.

“We’re using almost entirely, where possible, all re-used, revitalized and re-purposed and re-loved equipment and materials in really creative and innovative ways at a low cost or no cost,” Nilsson said.

The University has also added the park to its recycling pick-up route, making it the first park in the city to have a recycling program, she said.

Edward Mullen, senior instrument maker in the Division of Biology and Medicine, helped install a large sail that provides shade to a portion of the park, Nilsson said.

In an e-mail to The Herald, Mullen downplayed his contribution, saying he ended up “doing nothing but talking about the project.” But Nilsson said he helped determine which materials to use and find low-cost options for the sail.

The group also organizes weekly events at the park, including storytelling for children and an adult fitness class, which is like an “outdoor boot camp” sponsored by the YMCA, Nilsson said. The University has also helped sponsor “Celebrate Providence,” a performing arts series that brings dance and musical groups to the park. Nilsson said the first concert on July 8 was attended by several members of the Brown community.

Still to come are the Rubblebucket Orchestra, an Afro-beat band from Boston on July 22; Infusion Experience, a local Latin and jazz band with an Afro-Cuban flair on August 5; and the What Cheer? Brigade, a local roaming brass band on August 19.

Glenda Goldberg, who lives a few blocks away from the park, lauded the organization’s efforts to make the neighborhood a more vibrant community.

“It is such a selfless activity,” she said. “People don’t volunteer like they used to, and I think this is just an outstanding way to give to the community and get the neighbors together and provide some culture in the neighborhood.”

Nilsson said in the future the organization would like to start a program for children to come to the park to learn from and work on projects with local scientists, including Brown professors.

Spooner, the organization’s other chair, said she hopes Brown students will help maintain and improve the park, through gardening, watering plants and helping with construction projects.

She said the group aims to use the park as a lab – a place where it can experiment with different projects to see which ones appeal to the greatest number of people.

“We’re open to ideas and hearing thoughts from other students on how to continue developing it in different ways,” she said.

Brown Street Park is a “glimpse at what an urban park can be,” Nilsson added.