Pogo Park

720 Elm Ave, Richmond, CA, 94801, USA

What started this project: 

Within the city of Richmond, California, Pogo Park and the Elm Street Playlot are located in a neighborhood called the Iron Triangle, known for devastating gun violence and being named the seventh most violent neighborhood in the country. The neighborhood also experiences the detrimental environmental effects of its bordering toxic oil refineries, which may expose residents to toxins in the air that could harm their health, cause asthma or create mental health issues.20 A third of families in the area live below the poverty line, and 46 percent of residents are unemployed. Children attend the poorest performing schools in the state of California. The population consists of 13,000 residents of which 61 percent are Latino, 24 percent are Black, 7 percent are Asian, and 6 percent are Caucasian. Many of the parks in this community are languishing and do not functionally offer opportunities for recreation, gathering, or celebration beyond their initial opening. As Toody Maher, a Richmond resident with a background as an artist and an entrepreneur, found in 2007 as she explored all 56 parks in her city, many needed reinvigoration and renovation. Maher, who had long been interested in working on a city park renovation project, was particularly struck by eight small playlots in the city. Initially aiming to renovate Selano Playlot, the small lot closest to her house, she found that the Elm Street Play-lot in the Iron Triangle ended up capturing her attention, especially after she met with city officials and explored the neighborhood. Maher then worked with the community and “fought for two years to change this small corner of a poor city’s poorest neighborhood through an organization she founded, Pogo Park.”


This project intended to transform a physical space in a way that could have ripple effects throughout the community. It sought to use the park project as a catalytic entry point to addressing community concerns and needs in a comprehensive way. The Elm Street Playlot was not on the main street and lacked visibility – both in real terms and in how the community perceived the space. Often, communities can feel that small lots or play spaces too easily become forgotten. This type of lot can also appear to be unsafe, and the permeating atmosphere of violence – due to the heavy use of drugs in the community, as well as high crime rates – keeps play spaces like this one from being used. The Pogo Park project integrated a variety of arts experiences and hands-on activities to help reclaim this underused public space and make it safer. A variety of arts and programs were needed to “activate” the sidewalks and support a vibrant pedestrian experience. It was also hoped that arts integration would help to address health disparities and help residents express and create their vision of a healthy, livable neighborhood. Throughout the project, through the pursuit of various art forms, Pogo Park hoped to engage – and ultimately empower –residents with the community. Arts were intended to engage residents, as they worked together to demonstrate their visions and desires for the reclaimed space. Arts helped to explain what activities they wanted to do there, as well as thoughtfully determine what amenities and features were needed to enable this. Furthermore, the activities sought to empower the local community through skill and capacity building, as well as providing opportunities to confront other complex and often contentious issues.


To begin the design process, Maher infused her own money into the project. Once Pogo Park was established as a nonprofit, she wrote grant proposals, raised money from foundations, and solicited donations from community business owners. A $30,000 contract from the city of Richmond was leveraged to start creating some of the planning documents for the play-lot transformation. Through a grant from The Trust for Public Land, and with help from the city of Richmond and guidance from Scientific Art Studio, the Pogo Park team designed and built a large sandbox with a water feature; a 300- foot decorative perimeter fence; four carved benches, sanded and stained from re-claimed wood; and other hands-on features. Ultimately, a $2 million grant was also awarded from the California Parks Department to transform the playlot in the vision defined by the community.


The Elm Playlot has evolved into a community hub for recreation, activities, and services through art. Art is essential because it beautifies neighborhoods and creates a sense of pride among residents. Parks projects can serve as canvases for local artists to show their work and as places for residents to share their culture. The parks showcase various art forms, such as murals, hand-painted signage, graffiti art, mosaics, and sculptures. The incorporation of art serves to celebrate and foster creativity within a community. An essential aspect of this work was bringing various stakeholders together – residents and city government - to work in a collaborative space. The community involvement and relationships built through this project helped to ensure that long-term maintenance and stewardship were continued. At the outset, Maher met with each member of the City Council and the city manager. The city manager gave the community the right to “adopt” the spot; although the lot would remain a city park, the community group pledged to maintain and run programming there. Attending Iron Triangle neighborhood council meetings, making a point of getting to know important figures in the community, and hiring people from that community were also key steps in building local relationships.