Opinion: Let’s learn to share – sports and nature can co-exist in Philly parks

Retaining and preserving open spaces has ecological value, and so does providing space for young Philadelphians participating in sports programs.

The Parkside Saints are a youth football team based in West Philadelphia. (Courtesy of JPG Photography)

The Parkside Saints are a youth football team based in West Philadelphia. (Courtesy of JPG Photography)

My favorite memories from growing up in West Philadelphia are playing football and exploring the woods behind Belmont Plateau after a family picnic. For me and my friends, Fairmount Park was where we went to get lost in the woods or to find a spot to practice or play a pick up game.

As a kid, football taught me responsibility and how to be part of a team. Exploring in the woods under the shade of 100-year-old trees gave me a sense of peace and adventure that is not available on busy city streets.

Now, flash-forward a few decades to today. I coach on the same sandlots and patches of grass I played on as a kid. All of these years later, there has been little investment in our inner city sports fields and public athletic facilities, amid the challenges of maintaining open spaces and tree cover over climate concerns.

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My own kids, and those I coach, are still forced to play with a lack of quality athletic fields that we experienced as children. Meanwhile, demand is growing for more playable fields across the city. Teams from all sports are forced to pay out of pocket to drive out to the suburbs for higher quality gameday-ready fields.

Coaches like me across the city have seen the demand for their leagues growing. As we experience this relentless level of street violence and shootings, the need for youth to join a team and play sports has never been greater. Demand for our league is growing.

But we can only serve as many young people as we have fields to practice on and host games. Since I was coming up, Philadelphia has never had enough fields to serve all the community football, soccer, and other youth sports leagues. How can we engage our youth, and help keep them safe from violence and off the streets, without the most basic need – a place to play?

As a father, coach, and lifelong neighbor of West Fairmount Park, I reject the idea that Philadelphians have to choose between nature and quality fields for youth sports. Children growing up in more affluent areas do not have to choose between nature trails and high quality athletic fields. Why should we? Hiking in the Wissahickon or taking their bikes down to the Lakes at FDR should be an experience open to all Philadelphia kids. I bring my children to Fairmount Park to picnic, explore nature, and go hiking.

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That is why I support plans to address the playing field crisis by building enough athletic fields to serve the needs of all Philadelphia youth and families. We need new fields built both in our communities, and throughout the park system.

I also support the work our city is doing to preserve its trails, woods, wetlands, and natural areas. There are more than 10,000 acres of park in Philadelphia. Our kids deserve to have a small portion of that space dedicated to high quality sports facilities. Adults should be able to share so our kids can play.

The Parkside Saints are a youth football team based in West Philadelphia. (Courtesy of JPG Photography)

Plans to build a new turf field in West Fairmount Park and additional fields in FDR Park are a huge opportunity to expose more inner city youth to the calming effects of time spent in nature. Since the Saints began practicing in West Fairmount Park’s Edgely Fields last year, I have seen firsthand the healing effect green space and time in nature has on kids dealing with stress and trauma.

Being outdoors – whether it is on a playing field or a trail – is what our kids need most. I applaud the city administration’s continued commitment to invest in the green spaces and recreation facilities that young people in Philadelphia so desperately deserve.

Shawn Lewis is coach of the Parkside Saints and a Philadelphia parent.

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