TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The zip lines rock.
That appears to be the consensus from those who have visited the city’s inclusive all-abilities park behind the New Tampa Recreation Center in Tampa Palms since its late-December debut.
As his mother, Laura Linton, held a tuckered-out Cole, her 4-year-old son whispered in her ear what he had enjoyed most about his two-hour romp on the rubberized surfaces in the 10,000-square-foot playground.
“The big zip line,” Cole announced, proudly.
Linton, 39, who lives nearby, was thrilled for the chance for Cole to interact with children who have special needs. The playground was designed for them, but for Linton, it also serves another purpose: to give all children a chance to learn about what they have in common with those who are different. Namely, a desire to have fun.
“Just for him to be able to be around other children in a fun setting. And to be able to learn about each other,” Linton said, adding her son isn’t a special needs child.
That sentiment is music to Lisa Bunn’s ears. Bunn, a recently retired Tampa Police Department master police officer, has advocated for an inclusive park that is designed for children with a wide range of physical, cognitive, sensory and neurodiverse abilities.
“Any type of education you can spread just makes, to me, the world a better place,” said Bunn, a mother of a child with autism. “It spreads the love.”
Bunn brought her 11-year-old daughter, Elena, to the Dec. 21 ribbon cutting, attended by City Council member Luis Viera and Mayor Jane Castor, and had a blast. Her favorite part? Yep, the zip line.
Zip lines aside, the playground also features multiple play pieces that are wheelchair-accessible, according to a city news release.
Bunn, a member of the Autism-Friendly Tampa Advisory Board, made suggestions about how to make the playground more inviting to children like her daughter.
One tip? That the public art — a colorful mural by Tampa artist Pep Rally — not artificially segment the animals. At one point, Bunn said, an animal’s body had been divided between two panels. That could have upset some autistic kids, Bunn said.
The mural was made with blind children and those who use wheelchairs in mind, with carved grooves at wheelchair height that children with limited vision can touch and interpret, according to the release.
Every city project needs a champion: Creating the city’s first all-abilities park paid for with public funds has been a priority for Viera since he arrived on the council following a special election in 2016. He’s filed for reelection, and is yet unopposed, for the seat representing much of northern Tampa.
“For me, a playground like this, it goes beyond the concrete. A playground like this is about a larger moral message that parks and all of our institutions need to be welcoming to kids with special needs and their families,” Viera said.
The Tampa Palms playground cost $1.6 million, with help from federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars. Tampa congressional Rep. Kathy Castor was instrumental in getting the federal money, Viera said.
Viera first asked for design costs to be included in former Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s last years in office. When Jane Castor was elected in 2019, he continued to push for the park to be completed.
He has made a motion for the city to have all-abilities parks in every one of its eight community redevelopment areas, which cover traditionally blighted neighborhoods. And Viera has asked the city to spend $100,000 to fund $15-an-hour internships for young adults with special needs. That request is slated to be considered next year.
Viera has an older brother, Juan, 51, who is mentally disabled. Growing up with Juan and watching his parents struggle to give him the best possible life stuck with Viera.
“It gives you a sense of empathy,” he said. “It’s part of who I am.”
Elena, Bunn’s daughter, enjoys the park. But she is still innocent, her mother says, and isn’t aware of the prejudice and fear that many still harbor toward children who are different.
This park is an antidote, Bunn, 44, said.
“She enjoys any park,” Bunn said. “I don’t think she has the comprehension to feel left out. Elena doesn’t see the evilness of society. I am grateful. But for me, what I love is how inclusive it will be. It will include every single body.”