If you've explored Oakland's parks during the pandemic, you may have discovered one of Jack Carlisle's swings, like this one on Mandana Boulevard. Credit: Amir Aziz

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If you want to build a swing in an Oakland park, there are three things to keep in mind as you’re scouting locations, according to Jack Carlisle.

First, the hill should be “steep, but not too steep.”

Next, you should make sure the tree you plan to tie the swing to is sturdy and tall enough to provide room for a smooth ride.

Finally, said Carlisle, the neighborhood you place it in shouldn’t be too swank. “If people have more money, they have more time to worry about stupid things like swings”—and removing them—he explained.

Carlisle, 13, is an eighth grader at Edna Brewer Middle School. He began building swings out of rope and two-by-fours in the fall, and hanging them from trees along Sausal Creek, at the waterfront, in his Lakeshore neighborhood, and in parks in north, east, and downtown Oakland. His goal is to hang 50 swings throughout the city and he’s about halfway there—though, yes, some naysayers have taken a number of them down already.

Why swings? 

“It brings joy to people,” said Carlisle. “I thought it would be good for the community, especially if parents can’t afford a babysitter.”

Carlisle has always loved to build stuff. (“He’s well-known at the local Ace Hardware,” said his dad, Todd Carlisle.) And with the pandemic canceling in-person school and extracurriculars, he found himself with more time to get to work. In addition to swings, Carlisle recently completed construction on a three-level wooden fort on a porch at his house. But he spends most of his free time biking around town with his friend Owen, also known as Fuzzy, looking for the next swing spot.

Carlisle’s now-signature swing design took some trial and error. Using one rope turned out to be uncomfortable, and wobbly, and the way he used to tie knots in the rope prevented the swinger from moving around with ease. Carlisle settled on threading the half-inch rope—which reportedly supports up to 275 pounds—through both ends of a two-by-four, on which he writes in permanent marker, “DO NOT TAKE DOWN.” 

In November, when installing his first swing in Dimond Park, Carlisle encountered his first foe: someone who appeared to be a park “ranger” who prevented him from hanging his contraption. “She told me off,” he said. “I could understand where she was coming from—maybe she thought it wasn’t sturdy enough—but I’m now even more determined to build swings.”

Several days after publication, the city of Oakland responded to questions about Carlisle’s swings, saying they could pose serious safety hazards.

“While we applaud the gesture and the idea of creating amenities, we cannot allow these make-shift swings in City parks,” J. Nicholas Williams, Oakland’s parks director, said in an email. “Swings are designed and installed to specific safety and health guidelines.  They include specifications of weight and required maintenance.” Williams said the city has removed many homemade swings, citing a related recent tragedy. The city is often sued by people who trip and fall on broken sidewalks or other infrastructure, as well.

Thanks to significant trial and error, Jack Carlisle has discovered the perfect homemade swing formula. Credit: Amir Aziz

Carlisle’s parents support his efforts, though: “He and his sisters are so bored during the quarantine,” said the senior Carlisle. “They are energetic, and I’m fully supportive of anything that gets them out and off a device.”

He acknowledged that there’s a “little bit of risk” associated with his son installing homemade swings in public parks, but he said the enthusiasm from the community has outweighed the concerns. “We think a lot of parents are overprotective,” said Todd Carlisle, who grew up biking around the Chicago suburbs with his friends, building see-saws and tree forts. 

Besides the occasional ride from his parents to parks he can’t bike to, Carlisle does everything himself, said his father. “My whole thing is: You have to do it all, except saws and things that will cut your fingers off,” he said.

That includes paying for the materials. The wood planks cost $8, and 50 feet of rope runs about $20—not an insignificant cost for an unemployed 13-year-old aiming to build 50 swings. Once the project got underway, Carlisle launched a crowd-funding campaign, and he’s now raised $500—more than is needed, said Carlisle, who asked that people stop donating. He plans to give any excess funds to a food bank.

But Carlisle is happy to engage with fans of his work. On each swing, he writes his phone number, and invites questions from community members.

Stephen Steinbrink, an Oakland musician, texted Carlisle after coming upon the swing in William D. Wood Park last week.

Carlisle’s swings come with a warning. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

“I appreciated Jack’s openness and willingness to make a connection,” said Steinbrink, who posted about Carlisle’s project on Instagram and received about 100 responses from people excited to learn about the swings.

“The swing was exceptionally smooth and sturdy,” he said. “It felt safe yet exhilarating, and it seemed like real thought went into the construction, installation, and placement.”

Carlisle loves spotting other kids using his swings—when he drives back from the grocery store with his mother and passes the ones hanging on Mandana Boulevard, or when he visits the Manzanita Recreation Center swing, which some other children helped reinstall when they found it destroyed. He can tell how well-used a swing is by how shiny the wood has become.

“If I can make just five people’s days a lot brighter, that’s all I want,” he said. 

And if his swings inspire other kids to build something themselves, they have Carlisle’s encouragement: “There’s really nothing stopping you from doing it,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, you can just try something else later.”

With his swing project, Carlisle has joined the tradition of what’s sometimes called “guerilla urbanism” or “DIY urbanism,” when residents modify their surroundings instead of waiting on the city to provide playgrounds and other amenities and necessities. (Think community gardens on vacant lots, makeshift food stands, and handwritten signs reminding neighbors about street-sweeping day.)

Carlisle said he thinks many Oakland parks could use better infrastructure to help entertain their visitors. 

But if you expect to find Carlisle working in Oakland’s Planning & Building Department in a decade, don’t count on it. He has his sights set a bit farther away.

“I want to work as a rocket scientist,” he said. “I want to work on designing things that would help humankind get to different planets. That would be really cool.”

This story was updated on March 1, to include a response from the city provided after publication.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie grew up in Berkeley and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.