After joining Fort Worth’s parks department last summer, parks superintendent Omotayo Ajayi began visiting the dozens of properties under his purview. When he arrived at Glenwood Park in the Historic Southside neighborhood, he was shocked by the number of unhoused people camping outside.
“When I was inspecting the park, I thought: Did I miss the address?” said Ajayi. “This can’t be a park because people were cooking out at a bonfire and had set up camp.”
Ajayi knew he had limited resources to offer the park. That’s why he believes the Fort Worth Climate Safe Neighborhood Coalition – made up of Texas Christian University faculty, Historic Southside residents and other community groups – was “heaven sent” to help revitalize the 37-acre park.
The difference between his first experience and the park’s current state is palpable to Ajayi, who looked on as TCU student volunteers and University Christian Church members flocked to Glenwood for an Earth Day cleanup April 22. Booths offered environmental activities for kids, public health resources and information on plant life.
“You don’t know how happy I am,” Ajayi said. “If you see the pictures from the beginning, you would see how much effort has been involved to bring it to this state. It is community, it is people, it is effort, because people wanted to get involved. It is that passion that built this park.”
Members of the Historic Southside Neighborhood Association have pushed for more investment into Glenwood Park since early 2021, according to James Walker, the association’s president.
The effort took off that fall, when TCU nursing professors Gina Alexander, Vicki Brooks and Tammie Williams began a partnership with the neighborhood association and the Kids Environmental Education Network Group, which offers educational programming to youth in southeast Fort Worth.
The coalition – which now includes nonprofit Community Frontline, the local chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists and Tarrant County’s public health department – became official in May 2022. Since then, the group has achieved a major goal: convincing city officials to spend $75,000 on developing a master plan for Glenwood Park.
After holding their first community meeting about the master plan in March, Walker and fellow residents already have some big ideas for the park. They want a splash pad for kids, a new pedestrian bridge, volleyball courts, new basketball hoops, more trash cans and pavilions for community members to gather.
The city has already purchased new playground equipment that will be installed in the next year, Walker said.
“We just raised hell. How can the kids come to this park? This is not a playground,” Walker said. “At the end of the day, we want our park to be one of the parks that says: ‘Hey, we can have a family reunion here, or church event here, or city event here, because the park is so nice.’”
To Alexander, the park upgrades fit into a larger campaign to draw awareness to climate change and how nature-based solutions – such as preserving open space in underserved communities – can improve public health and give people the chance to spend time outdoors.
“What can we do that really is at the intersection of human health benefits, but also protecting and preserving our natural resources?” Alexander said. “These solutions are bipartisan. It doesn’t have to be everybody taking a different stance. We can see where there’s areas of overlap there.”
TCU partners with neighborhood to tackle park inequity in 76104 ZIP code
Alexander and Brooks’ journey to Glenwood Park, which sits less than six miles from TCU’s campus, began in 2019. Brooks is a family nurse practitioner, while Alexander’s background is public health. They started thinking about how they could prevent illness by encouraging people to make healthy choices that would reduce their chances of developing disease.
They later created RxPLORE, a program that gives participants a “prescription” of spending more time outdoors and exploring the world around them. In fall 2019, their team gave out 70 prescriptions at the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, nursing students lost access to hospitals to complete their clinical rounds, Alexander said. So, using a toolkit developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Park Service, professors sent students outdoors to conduct assessments of how health is impacted by trail systems and parks in Fort Worth.
Students completed about 50 park audits, which collected data and perspectives on amenities offered in Fort Worth. After presenting their findings to the city’s parks advisory board, Alexander and Brooks determined that Glenwood Park would be a key target for significant investment and support.
“We didn’t want to just leave it at that,” Alexander said.
After reaching out to the neighborhood association and other community organizations, Alexander found that everyone – including the parks department – was “equally concerned” about making the park a destination for people living in the 76104 ZIP code.
The ZIP code has the lowest life expectancy in Texas, according to a 2019 UT-Southwestern study. Over the past three years, nonprofit groups have dedicated significant funding to addressing racial inequalities in the area, according to previous Fort Worth Report coverage.
Ross Haynes Jr., a member of the Historic Southside Neighborhood Association’s economic development team, said the area’s success depends on the four C’s: citizens, the chamber of commerce, contractors – including entities like TCU – and the city.
“It’s like a chain reaction,” Haynes said. “When we put those four C’s together, it helps make for a stronger coalition to get things done. It’s community.”
‘The coalition has breathed life’ into Glenwood Park
Walker, who builds and sells homes in the Historic Southside, acknowledged there was pushback from homeless advocates who argued the park cleanup efforts were moving unhoused people out of the area without a long-term solution.
In 2021, a developer proposed a $2 million mental health facility near Glenwood Park. The plan prompted concern that the area’s unhoused population would be displaced, according to previous Fort Worth Report coverage.
Lauren King, executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, said at the time that she understood why business owners don’t want someone sleeping on their front step.
“From our perspective, I will say, if we can get people connected to the services, we can do a lot more for them than if they are not,” King said in 2021. “I see neighborhoods around Fort Worth trying to balance that issue of how do we revitalize our neighborhood and also not displace everyone who’s lived here for generations. I think it’s a hard balance to hit.”
The community is not insensitive to the plight faced by unhoused people, Walker said, but the trash and drug paraphernalia left behind isn’t conducive to what Southside residents want. The park has to be usable for homeowners and businesses, who want to enjoy a “live, work, play” lifestyle, he said.
“Our job is not to, I guess you can say, push them out, but we have to do something different with them because the people in the community that’s paying taxes and paying for this park can’t even utilize it,” Walker said.
Alexander envisions a future where the Fort Worth Climate Safe Neighborhood Coalition takes on challenges in other parks, such as Sycamore Park and Cobb Park, that could be connected with a bike trail. The coalition could also push for expanding the city’s tree canopy and preserving wildscapes in Fort Worth, she said.
For now, though, their focus is on Glenwood Park’s master plan. The coalition’s next meeting – and final spring event – is set for 3:30 p.m. May 11 at Shamblee Library.
“The coalition has breathed life and hope into a lot of people because it’s everybody working together,” Alexander said. “The burden’s not just on one entity. That’s what a true coalition should be – everybody helping and having some consistency and longevity to that commitment.”
Glenwood Park’s future is bright thanks to the hard work of residents, said Ajayi, the parks superintendent.
“The future is great, because I know that by the time we finish the master plan and money is poured into this park, this is going to be one of the (most) beautiful parks in the city of Fort Worth,” Ajayi said.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.