The Southwest Central Durham Quality of Life Project (QOL) has hosted its share of charrettes during its eight years, to solicit community residents’ collective design input on everything from buildings to streetscapes. But few have looked quite like the one held a couple Saturdays ago at West End Community Center.
There, neighborhood residents bent over drafting tables, brows furrowed as they strove to put vision on paper. Most were well under 5 feet tall, and their tool of choice was a Crayola marker.
With the help of Duke student volunteers, West End community children on September 26 drew pictures of what they’d like their new playground to look like. The playground is the latest QOL project, and the drawings were only the latest stage of community input in a building process that’s been grounded in it from the start.
Back in 2006, QOL asked West End community members to list the changes and improvements they’d like to see in their neighborhood. Topping the list were housing for seniors and a playground for local children. Three years later, that goal is in sight: Maplewood Square is set to open in January, with 32 low-cost apartments available for neighborhood seniors; and within view of the apartment’s three wrap-around porches will be a brand-new playground and green space built and landscaped by community and Duke volunteers.
“We couldn’t have done it without the support and equity provided by Duke and the Quality of Life project,” said Self-Help’s Lanier Blum, who helped coordinate city and federal support for the project. Self-Help is one of many partners that helped QOL meet West End’s 2006 request; others include Durham Community Land Trustees, the City of Durham, and Raleigh developer DHIC.
Duke gave about $500,000 to finance the $4.2 million undertaking, and it supported QOL’s efforts to glean the local input that drove each step of the project’s design. The support didn’t end there.
“Just as we were starting to plan the equipment for the playground, another angel stepped in,” she said. “And that was a DukeEngage student named Andrew Ognibene.”
Ognibene is a Duke junior who’s teaching a half-credit course this semester entitled “Beyond DukeEngage.” The course promotes civic engagement, and Ognibene decided to make the West End playground a focus of the class efforts.
First the class helped organize and run the playground design day at West End Community Center. Next, on October 24, the students will volunteer at the site to perform ground maintenance and cleaning. Finally, on November 7, the students will work with neighborhood and other Duke volunteers to build the playground.
“It should be really fun,” Ognibene said of the build. “Usually people bring music, there’s food, and the volunteers get to interact with the community in a pretty meaningful way.”
Ognibene speaks with experience: His family runs a nonprofit, Make Kids Smile, Inc., that has built about 30 playgrounds in the Washington, D.C. area. The nonprofit has contributed expertise and volunteer time, along with $5,000, to the West End playground.
Ognibene said working with QOL offered valuable lessons for him and his class. QOL has a strong background in forming partnerships and empowering community residents, and this project relied heavily on those measures.
“I had no idea walking into it how a coalition like this would work,” Ognibene said, citing the impressive number and diversity of the project’s partners.
“But it’s been great, and the community has really worked with one voice.”
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