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SUNDAY, OCTOBER 30, 2005
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OP-ED

Playground for All Children follows foundersí lead

By Gay Maloney

As a child, I learned about the importance of public planning from the backseat of my family's station wagon. My father, J. Gilmer Blackburn, had a vision for Point Mallard Park. He had high expectations for a park on land that had been set aside by TVA for industrial development. Our family followed that vision in our station wagon, criss-crossing the Southeast in search of quality family recreation facilities. My father's vision subsequently became a reality in Point Mallard Park

In planning for Point Mallard, Dad also shared his vision for a progressive community. To him, the quality of life in a community brought industrial growth. High quality recreation, education and city services were of utmost importance if Decatur was to be a part of the emerging New South. With Operation New Decatur and other planning efforts of the 1960s, Decatur stepped forward.

A look back in Decatur's history reveals a tradition of such progressive planning. In 1887, the Decatur Land Improvement and Furnace Company exhibited similar vision when it planned an industrial center adjacent to the original city of Decatur that would capitalize on both the river and Decatur's two railroad lines. An architectural star of the period, Nathan Franklin Barrett, designed the town to showcase urban living. Delano Park lay at the heart of this town, which we know today as the historic Albany neighborhood. Barrett envisaged Delano Park as a haven of natural green space for city residents accustomed to more rural surroundings.

During the Depression years, WPA labor renewed Delano Park, building a wading pool, stone structures, a bandstand, and Somerville Road School. The park took President Roosevelt's middle name as its own. Throughout the years, it remained a favorite place for gatherings, reunions, and city events. Despite — or perhaps because of — this continued popularity, Delano Park had lost much of its luster by the 1990s.

But since 2000, vision and progressive planning have returned to Delano Park, prompting a rebirth fueled by both public and private support. Thanks to a comprehensive restoration plan, flowers bloom once again in the historic rose garden, the bandstand sports a new slate roof along with freshly scrubbed stone, and a splash pad will soon occupy the site of the earlier wading pool.

As a community, however, we can take this renewal further and leave a lasting mark not only on the appearance of our city, but on its spirit as well. This chance comes with the next step envisioned for the park, a Playground for All Children with an adjacent Children's Garden. The accessible playground will allow children with disabilities to interact on the playground with all children and with their families. Due to improvements in medical care, the percentage of American children with disabilities has quadrupled to 8 percent during the past 40 years. The Playground for All Children will put Decatur at the forefront of municipal responses to this growing trend.

The playground will also build on outstanding programs already in place throughout our public schools. The Decatur City School System was the first Southeastern United States model site for MOVE, the program to encourage children with challenges to move with less support and to gain independence with daily activities. Somerville Road, Decatur High Developmental, Woodmeade, and Cedar Ridge all participate in the MOVE program.

Decatur's progressive stance in caring for children with challenges will benefit the entire community by attracting families to our city. A local mother of a child with disabilities told me that her family moved from Huntsville to Decatur because Decatur opened its heart and expertise to her son. The city schools and others have asked, "What can we do for you?" rather than grumbling about how much such assistance costs.

The Playground for All Children is the next visionary step for our community and its families, following the tradition of progressive public planning in Decatur. As we look to the future of the Playground for All Children at Delano Park, I am reminded of visionaries such as my father and the early founders of New Decatur. Their actions of the past and our plans for the future recall the words of Andre Godin: "The quality of expectations determines the quality of our actions." How wonderful it will be for all of our children and their families to play together!

Gay Maloney is a member of the law firm of Blackburn, Maloney and Schuppert LLC.

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