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Park safety concerns linger

Published: Friday, June 28, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Newcomers sometimes know things about a community that longtime residents don’t.

Not having heard stories from relatives and friends, newcomers are more likely to read travel brochures, websites, etc. to make the most of their visit. If they have relocated, they want to make the most of their new home.

There’s a lot that can be learned from such materials, but because they are promotional, they often omit undesirable characteristics – like if a particular site was the scene of a murder.

Last week, I reported on the dedication of a lovely park bench to honor Antinette “Toni” Keller, a Northern Illinois University student killed in DeKalb’s Prairie Park in 2010.

The bench sits on the DeKalb Elks Lodge property, adjacent to Prairie Park. The Elks felt so bad that such an awful crime happened in their “backyard” that the club raised money to pay for the bench.

The brief dedication was heartfelt and uplifting. However, anger about the park’s condition was evident.

Several said Prairie Park is a blight on DeKalb, and its condition was at least partially responsible for the circumstances which resulted in Keller’s death.

Specifically, the foliage is overgrown, visibility is poor, homeless people and criminals squat there in tents, and its proximity to the railroad allows transients easy access to the park.

Generally, the sentiment was that Prairie Park is a bad place to hang out, but the most serious criticism was that everybody who’s been here a while knows this and the deplorable condition of this park has persisted for years.

Jim Anderson, who owns Illini Tire Co., was driving home Saturday when he saw the gathering and suspected what it was. I found it striking that this longtime resident/businessman advocated locals working with college students to know, “Where you can go … where you can’t go … and I know that’s difficult,” he said.

I also remembered one of my best former students saying a few years ago that he grew up near Prairie Park and that his parents forbade him to go near it.

At Saturday’s gathering, there was talk of creating a video about the park, circulating a petition, and demanding that city leaders take action.

As one person noted, the least that could be done is a substantial cutback of vegetation so visibility would be improved.

The park is owned and maintained by the DeKalb Park District, not the city. Park board President Phil Young said no one has complained to the board about the condition of the park.

“We welcome any input from the public about the park district and do take all inquiries seriously,” Philip Young, DeKalb Park District president, said in an email. “ ... To my knowledge, the board has not received any recent citizen complaints about Prairie Park. I am aware of some overgrowth at some of the parks. We will be addressing this shortly through the formation of a new committee that will look into such items.”

According to the DeKalb Park District’s Outdoor Parks and Recreation Open Space Master Plan, in 2011, almost 75 percent of survey respondents rated their satisfaction with DeKalb’s parks as good to excellent.

Also, according to the Open Space Master Plan, Prairie Park, at 102 acres, is technically a conservancy/open area, which the planning document defines as “characterized by the protection and management of the resource. The resource can be either natural or cultural in nature, with recreation offerings as a secondary benefit.”

No one is arguing that parks are unsafe. Indeed, a study by the University of Illinois’ Human Environment Research Laboratory argues that well planned cities use parks to create safer neighborhoods.

“While law enforcement officials have historically recommended removing vegetation to eliminate cover for criminal activity, vegetation that maintains visibility actually fosters feelings of safety,” the study says.

However, the same study is quick to note that park maintenance (including its vegetation) is crucial.

“A well-maintained park or open space sends a message that someone cares about it. In turn, the message that someone cares about the park helps create a perception of safety. The greater the perception of safety, the more likely the park will be used. In addition, maintenance programs that include participation by the users help establish a sense of ownership and promote stewardship of the space.”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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