A Place to Play—Land&People

The fifth graders at Community School 66 (C.S. 66) in the South Bronx have a lot to say about what's wrong with their schoolyard. "We play football, but we can't tackle because of the asphalt," a boy tells Mary Alice Lee, program director for the City Spaces Program, a vital part of TPL's Parks for People-New York City initiative.

"Sometimes when we play tag, we're tripping," adds another.

"When we play kickball, the ball goes into the street," a girl says.

"Sometimes people get so bored they sit on the steps."

What about after school or on the weekend? Lee asks, and more complaints spill out.

"People drive cars into the play yard."

"People throw glass in the yard."

"Sometimes in the playground I see someone smoking, and they sneakbeer."

"There's a lot of vandalism," notes fifth-grade teacher Stephen Walton. "It all happens because the current play yard is not inviting for adults who would bring the littler kids. There is no parental supervision."

Crotona Park East, the neighborhood served by C.S. 66, is a low-income community with many recent immigrants from Central America and Africa. The neighborhood--which lies within New York's Community District 3--is slowly recovering from the devastation of the 1970s and early 1980s, when many landlords abandoned and torched their buildings. Tidy row houses now fill most of the once-vacant lots, and the sidewalks are planted with young trees.

Community District 3 has a high percentage of children--nearly a third of its population is under 14 years old. But aside from the bleak C.S. 66 schoolyard, the only nearby place to play is a small city playground beside a highway. The district includes only about two acres of open space for every 1,000 residents, well below the Bronx average of six acres per 1,000 residents and only a quarter of the average eight acres per 1,000 residents in high-density cities nationwide. And nearly all of the neighborhood's open space lies a half-mile distant from the school across busy roads.

With few enticements outside and television and computer games beckoning, kids often spend their free time indoors. "Often our children will go home after school and never go out again that day," says C.S. 66 principal Marilyn Smith.

This pattern of inactivity can place children at a heightened risk for obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. According to the city, more than 40 percent of its public elementary school students are overweight, and the C.S. 66 neighborhood has one of the highest levels of student obesity and asthma. Studies have shown that Hispanic and African-American parents in particular, as well as other parents with low incomes and education, face significant obstacles when attempting to involve their children in athletics or other physical activity. These include the shortage of neighborhood parks and recreation facilities, the difficulty of arranging transportation to and from activities, and the expense of some sports programs.

Except for gym class three times a week, C.S. 66 has been able to offer students little in the way of physical fitness training or team sports. So an attractive, functioning playground becomes even more important to support the health of the neighborhood's children.

A Partnership for Playgrounds

"For too long, New Yorkers have accepted that cracked asphalt suffices as a place for kids to play," says Andy Stone, director of TPL's Parks for People-New York City initiative.

In 1996, building on its work of preserving and supporting community gardens in New York, TPL began working to create more recreational space in neighborhoods. TPL built its first playgrounds on land owned and managed by the city's parks department and then branched out to school play yards. "We felt that schoolyards were really an underutilized asset for the community," Stone says. "As there's less and less vacant land in even the poorest neighborhoods to create new parks and playgrounds, it's more and more important to look at these schools."

To date, with the support of local foundations, TPL has built a total of 12 playgrounds in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, as well as six in Newark, New Jersey.

In November 2004, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, schools chancellor Joel I. Klein, and Caroline Kennedy of the Fund for Public Schools announced a partnership between TPL and the Department of Education to build 25 new community playgrounds in public schoolyards over the next five years. TPL is raising funds for the $25 million project, and the city is contributing $2 for every $1 TPL raises.

"Having quality recreational space is an important part of our children's overall education, health, and physical well-being," Mayor Bloomberg said at the time of the announcement. "These new playgrounds will enhance the school day for children by providing a clean and safe place for recreation, while also making the surrounding neighborhoods more livable."

The effort reflects a new emphasis on the importance of student fitness at the Department of Education, says Leslie Koch, CEO at the Fund for Public Schools, a nonprofit affiliated with the Department of Education that seeks to increase private support for the schools. The department recently hired its first citywide director of fitness; began an initiative to create middle-school sports leagues; and is restoring pools, gyms, and other athletic facilities. From the department's perspective, Koch says, the project provides "great playgrounds, the project management skills of TPL, a track record in the holistic design process, and continuing access and integration with the community."

Similar innovative efforts have taken root in other cities. Since 1996, Chicago has created 250 acres of green space and playgrounds in the yards of public schools. The program, a collaboration among numerous city agencies and the independent park district, has turned the yards of 100 of the city's 500 or so schools into what it calls campus parks. The Boston Schoolyard Initiative, begun in 1995, has built 60 parklike schoolyards all across the city.

In TPL's City Spaces program, an essential element in the long-term success of the playgrounds is participation by the school and the surrounding community. Schools chosen for the program must have an existing partnership with a local sponsor organization that can maintain the new park and provide recreational activities for the children. At C.S. 66, the sponsor is the TASC (The After School Corporation) program of Phipps Houses, a community development corporation that runs an after-school program providing homework help and arts instruction.

"Because we were involved, we'll have ownership," said Jennifer Hernandez, who directs the after-school program. "This is our park, so we're going to make sure it stays clean. We're going to make sure it stays safe."

Designed by Students, for Students

At C.S. 66 and other schools in the City Spaces program, the students get the playground they want because they help with the design. Mary Alice Lee and consultant Paula Hewitt, who specializes in participatory design, meet with students representing several grades and the after-school program to begin planning. Students create surveys to find out what the rest of the school wants in a play yard and then go home and poll their brothers and sisters, parents, grandparents, and neighbors.

At C.S. 66, Stephen Walton turned this step into a math lesson by having his students draw bar graphs of information they had gathered to show which features were most popular. Early on, the students meet with Melissa Ix of Mark K. Morrison Associates, a landscape architecture firm that draws up the actual plans. "We basically go through the fundamental building blocks of a typical design process that we would go through in our office," Ix says. "We talk about scale, programming, grading, stormwater management, maintenance considerations, and climate influences. We talk about using recycled materials and creating a sustainable environment." The students observe and measure the existing yard to create a map. They learn how much space is needed for various activities. They take a trip to another City Spaces playground and view playground plans and ideas from around the world on the computer. (Before this, some of the students have never seen a working swing set.)

Soon the students are arranging colored shapes representing play equipment, trees, benches, turf fields, and other elements. Parents and other community members do the same at a meeting one day a week after school. Decisions have to be made. Should a courtyard be dedicated to quiet activities or basketball? What colors should the playground equipment and the running track be? What about balancing the needs of the boys and the girls?

Then start the lessons in democratic process--though it soon becomes clear that some opinions carry more weight than others. Participants pay special attention to the wishes of principals and custodians, says Ix. "Kids understand that custodians play a key role in maintenance, so they listen to what they have to say." The process also exposes students to different careers. They meet a landscape architect and an engineer. "Inner-city children don't know about employment opportunities besides professional athletics, rap music, and entertainment," says teacher Walton. "Hopefully, maybe just one student will get it into his or her head that they could become a landscape architect."

When the C.S. 66 playground is finished in Spring 2006, it will feature a junior basketball court, a turf field, and two pieces of playground equipment (for ages 2-5 and 5-12). In the sheltered courtyard between the two wings of the building, there will be an outdoor classroom with a jump rope area, a stage, chess tables, a sprinkler set into a map of the world, and trees. A running track will circle the entire yard.

In addition to using the playground during the school day, C.S. 66 plans to offer more after-school sports, including flag football and track. "There will be benches where a grandmother can sit and watch the children play," Walton says. "Children of different ethnicities and races, social and economic status, are going to be playing together and getting to know one another."

Even before the opening, the benefits of the new space have been felt. Creating the playground has given the school and its community a sense of pride, a stronger connection to the world outside the neighborhood, and a belief that somebody cares about residents' lives.

"Somebody is taking the time to do something, and not because we're pledging to vote for someone," says Walton. From a general feeling of gratitude rebounds a desire to give something back. And there is something else: the knowledge that change is possible. "This is what's most important for the community," he says. "That what was doesn't have to be."

Anne Schwartz is a freelance writer specializing in parks and the environment. She is a monthly columnist for www.gothamgazette.com, and her work has appeared in Audubon, Landscape Architecture, and other magazines. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, who attend New York City public schools.