Opening schoolyards to the public during non-school hours could alleviate the problem of park access for nearly 20 million people

August 7, 2019

With back-to-school season approaching, The Trust for Public Land today released a new analysis showing that America’s public school grounds have the potential to solve the problem of park access for at least 19.6 million people, including 5.2 million children.

 

Public school districts are among the largest landowners in almost every city and town across the United States. There are approximately 100,000 public schools in the U.S., but only around ten percent of schools currently provide the general public with formal access to schoolyard sites. 

 

At the same time, more than 100 million people in the United States—including 28 million children—don’t have access to a park within a 10-minute walk of home. New analysis from The Trust for Public Land shows that opening all public schoolyards to the public during non-school hours—including summer break, after school, and on weekends and holidays—would provide access to public open space for at least 19.6 million people, including 5.2 million children, who today do not have a park within a 10-minute walk of home. 

 

“We can make a real difference to millions of kids and families by improving our schoolyards and making them accessible to the surrounding communities,” said Diane Regas, President and CEO of The Trust for Public Land. “Safe, close-to-home places to play outdoors are essential for the health and well-being of communities across the country, yet far too many people lack access to parks. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of acres of public school playgrounds sit locked and unused when school is out. Improving and opening our schoolyards is a win-win that can come at a much lower cost to the city than building a new park.” 

Expand shared use and open access

 

The Trust for Public Land helps communities implement “shared-use agreements.” These are contracts between a school district and a local government that allow schoolyards to remain open to the public outside of school hours. While especially valuable in summer, when school is out and kids and families have more free time to spend outside, shared-use agreements mean neighborhoods can benefit from these de facto public parks year-round. 

 

“Shared use is a cost-effective way to make the most of scarce open space in our cities,” says Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America. “In the best cases, these agreements create a smooth working relationship between a school district and their local city government, to clearly define each partner’s roles and responsibilities. Often, shared-use agreements resolve liability-related responsibilities and shift the burden for increased costs and maintenance away from our underfunded school districts, so the wider community that benefits  can help shoulder the costs.” 

 

The Trust for Public Land analyzed the cities where implementing shared-use agreements could make the biggest difference in improving access to open space. 

 

Here are the top 20 cities where shared-use agreements and/or expansion of existing agreements would create access to open space for the largest number of people who currently don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of home: 

 

 

Rank (#1-20)

 

City

Number of new people served if all schoolyards had shared use agreements

Number of new children served if all schoolyards had shared use agreements

1

Los Angeles 

866,327

213,371

2

Houston 

253,914

74,902

3

Phoenix

198,160

59,293

4

San Antonio 

160,197

45,770

5

Detroit

99,758

28,536

6

San Bernardino

91,571

31,154

7

El Paso

88,862

26,129

8

Louisville/Jefferson County 

85,067

20,926

9

Dallas

81,920

25,773

10

Oklahoma

80,203

21,994

11

Columbus

77,668

20,587

12

Memphis

76,565

20,992

13

Bakersfield

75,256

25,449

14

San Jose

71,568

19,282

15

Fort Worth 

64,934

21,291

16

Austin 

60,245

15,280

17

Riverside

59,835

17,486

18

Indianapolis

56,527

14,582

19

Tucson

55,295

14,481

20

Baltimore

53,284

13,461

 

Here are the top 20 cities where shared-use agreements would increase the total number of residents who have a park within a 10-minute walk of home by the largest percentage points: 

 

 

Rank

 

City/State

Percentage of people who currently have a park within a 10-minute walk of home

Percentage of people who would have a park within a 10-minute walk of home with shared use agreements

 

Percentage point difference

1

Baldwin Park, CA

35.5%

91.3%

55.8%

2

Rialto, CA

24.9%

70.2%

45.4%

3

El Monte, CA

55.4%

100.0%

44.6%

4

Highland, CA

26.2%

69.6%

43.4%

5

San Bernardino, CA

45.2%

86.4%

41.2%

6

South Gate, CA

59.8%

100.0%

40.2%

7

Colton, CA

49.4%

88.8%

39.4%

8

South Whittier CDP, CA

37.0%

76.2%

39.2%

9

Inglewood, CA

62.8%

100.0%

37.2%

10

Covina, CA

54.4%

91.6%

37.2%

11

Perth Amboy, NJ

54.7%

91.0%

36.3%

12

Towson, MD

14.7%

49.6%

34.9%

13

West Haven, CT

7.3%

41.5%

34.3%

14

El Cajon, CA

45.5%

79.4%

33.9%

15

Bradenton, FL

52.5%

86.3%

33.8%

16

East Los Angeles, CA

63.1%

95.3%

32.2%

17

Florence-Graham CDP, CA

68.2%

100.0%

31.8%

18

Allentown, PA

56.5%

87.5%

31.0%

19

Killeen, TX

11.0%

42.0%

30.9%

20

Lake Charles, LA

17.2%

46.4%

29.1%

 

Here are the cities where implementing shared-use agreements would achieve 100 percent park access for all residents. 

 

City/State

Current percentage of people who have a park within a 10-minute walk of home

Percentage of people who would have a park within a 10-minute walk of home with shared use agreements

El Monte, CA

55.4%

100%

South Gate, CA

59.8%

100%

Inglewood, CA

62.8%

100%

Florence-Graham, CA

68.2%

100%

Lynwood, CA

72.0%

100%

East Orange, NJ

73.0%

100%

Compton, CA

74.3%

100%

Hawthorne, CA

74.7%

100%

Paramount, CA

75.5%

99.5%

Huntington Park, CA

76.2%

100%

Clifton, NJ

87.7%

99.8%

Trenton, NJ

88.6%

100%

Plainfield, NJ

90.7%

100%

Elizabeth, NJ

90.2%

99.6%

Union City, NJ

91.8%

100%

 

Unlocking potential

 

“Creating access to public schoolyards is an important first step in closing our country’s gaps in outdoor access. But just because a schoolyard is open to the public doesn’t mean it is best serving the needs of the community. Everyone deserves a great park, and in too many cities, the typical schoolyard is just blank, uninspiring asphalt,” says Danielle Denk, Camden Program Director at The Trust for Public Land.

 

Across the country, cities, school districts and nonprofit organizations are working together to create green schoolyards that provide access to nature, while also making communities more resilient to climate change by cooling the air and reducing flooding. The organizations work closely with schools, local government, and residents to redesign and rebuild schoolyards to suit the needs of the school and surrounding community. These spaces utilize grass, trees, native plants, and shade structures to keep the schoolyard cool, counteracting the urban heat island effect and absorbing stormwater runoff. As part of the process, The Trust for Public Land helps the school facilitate shared-use agreements to create public access to the newly revitalized green space.

 

“Green schoolyards improve the ecology of their neighborhoods and provide the community with green space—while also improving the places where children spend their time on a daily basis. If we can green every school ground, all children will have access to nature every day,” says Sharon Danks.

  

The Trust for Public Land has worked in communities nationwide to build green schoolyards, putting a green schoolyard within a 10-minute walk of more than 4 million people, while capturing tens of millions of gallons of stormwater, increasing tree canopy, reducing the heat island effect and creating access to nature for the surrounding neighborhood. 

 

Here are cities where community schoolyards are making a difference:

 

Dallas: Some Dallas neighborhoods have an average high of 101°F for five months of the year. Parks, trees, and greenspace help cool temperatures in the hottest months, but over 415,000 residents – including 120,000 children – don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of where they live. In partnership with the Texas Trees Foundation, The Trust for Public Land is now working to build parks on public school campuses across the city, focusing on the hottest neighborhoods where these new green spaces can improve climate resiliency, health, and equity.

 

Newark: Over the past 10 years, Newark has experienced a park renaissance that continues to this day. Of the 12 parks and playgrounds The Trust for Public Land has helped bring to Newark, nine are green schoolyards and provide park access to 105,650 residents within a 10-minute walk of home. This has helped Newark achieve more than 93% park access city-wide. The current green schoolyard project will address Newark’s largest area of high-need for a park, bringing access to 9,700 people, 4,780 of which currently do not have access to a park within a 10-minute walk of home. 

 

New Orleans: As part of New Orleans’ climate-smart city efforts, The Trust for Public Land helped Paul Habans School, an elementary school in the West Bank, create a playground for their brand-new school building in a neighborhood that lacks safe, nearby access to green space. Green features like trees, gardens, and stormwater catchment that will help the flood-prone city meet its sustainability goals.

 

New York City: Although 10-minute walk access to parks in the five boroughs is very strong, New York City lags other cities in parkland per person, and more than 250,000 people across New York still don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of home. The Trust for Public Land has helped alleviate this demand for open space by working with communities in high need areas to create more than 200 playgrounds at public schools, serving nearly half of city residents – more than 4 million people – and is working to build dozens more in the next three years. This work is also a key element of the NYC Green Infrastructure Plan to alleviate stormwater and combined sewer overflows, making the city more resilient.

 

Philadelphia: With 94% park access within a 10-minute walk citywide, adding green community playgrounds is making an immediate impact. The Trust for Public Land has completed seven community schoolyard projects in Philadelphia, with six additional schoolyard projects in development. Philadelphia is quickly benefitting from the green schoolyards approach to addressing 10-minute walk access. The School District of Philadelphia contains over 420 acres of blank asphalt schoolyards. The Trust for Public Land has partnered with the School District, Water Department and Parks and Recreation to green schoolyards while managing stormwater and addressing equity. The work in Philadelphia is focused on the communities of greatest need.

 

Oakland: The Oakland Unified Schools District has 122 schools on 505 urban acres, presenting a great opportunity to provide communities access to nature. The Trust for Public Land, in partnership with Green Schoolyards America and the Oakland Unified School District, is beginning its work in Oakland at five pilot schools, and if all the schoolyards were transformed, park access within a 10-minute walk citywide would jump nearly 7 percent.

 

Atlanta: The Trust for Public Land will engage ten Atlanta Public Schools to create community schoolyards over a three-year period, making those schools open to the public during non-school hours. The Trust for Public Land will be finalizing details with the schools and parks department to initiate the program, which would increase help Atlanta improve on its current 71% 10-minute walk park access.

 

Camden: Camden has a poverty rate of more than 40 percent, which is more than double the national poverty rate. The Trust for Public Land’s Camden program addresses equity, climate and health through the development of green schoolyards that manage stormwater runoff from adjacent asphalt roads. The Trust for Public Land is piloting a workforce development green schoolyard to address high rates of unemployment. 

 

Tacoma:  In Washington, Tacoma has the greatest potential to improve 10-minute walk access by advancing community schoolyards. Starting in 2020, The Trust for Public Land is partnering with MetroParks Tacoma and the Tacoma School District to pilot green schoolyards in Tacoma’s eastside neighborhoods. The Trust for Public Land will also work with researchers to evaluate the health improvements gained by creating community schoolyards. If all Tacoma schools gain community schoolyards, 10-minute walk access would increase citywide from 69 percent to 78 percent. 

 

Take Action

 

As a key first step to tapping into the potential of our nation’s schoolyards, The Trust for Public Land is advocating for broader adoption of shared-use agreements, which can make an immediate and significant difference for a neighborhood's access to open space. Read more about how local residents are advocating for shared-use agreements in their communities at tpl.org/schoolyards.

 

The Trust for Public Land is also advocating for public funding to convert asphalt schoolyards to green schoolyards. For example, The Trust for Public Land has worked with Congress to allow schoolyard construction or renovation activities to be included into potential school construction legislation and to be made eligible in a newly authorized community infrastructure program for localities near military installations. 

 

Where to Find More Data on Parks and Park Access

 

The Trust for Public Land has mapped park access in 14,000 cities and towns across the country. The free mapping platform pinpoints where to focus park investments based on need. To see how your city stacks up, please visit tpl.org/ParkScore

 

About The Trust for Public Land

 

The Trust for Public Land creates parks and protects land for people, ensuring healthy, livable communities for generations to come. Millions of people live within a 10-minute walk of a Trust for Public Land park, garden or natural area, and millions more visit these sites every year. To support The Trust for Public Land and share why nature matters to you, visit www.tpl.org.

 

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