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The park access solution that’s hiding in plain sight

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America has a park problem. Nature is essential for healthy, happy communities, but today, 100 million people in this country—a third of us!—don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of home.

The Trust for Public Land is focused on fixing this problem. That’s why we created the world’s most comprehensive geospatial database for park access—and we’re putting it to work to pinpoint where parks are needed most, and where and how to invest for a future in which everyone has nature nearby.

To close our country’s gaps in park access will definitely require the creation of some new parks. But it will also require us to get the most use from the open space we already have, in places like forgotten alleyways, postindustrial waterfronts, and asphalt-covered schoolyards.

A boy plays basketball at a school in NewarkPublic school districts own tens of thousands of acres of open space in the U.S. We're helping cities make the most of their schoolyards.Photo credit: Troy Farmer

Today, America’s schoolyards are packed with potential. Collectively, public school districts own tens of thousands of acres across the country. In a few places, schoolyards are vibrant community hubs, open to the public after school hours and designed to meet the needs of neighbors as well as students. But in too many communities, schoolyards look more like parking lots than playgrounds, and their gates lock as soon as students head home for the day.

The Trust for Public Land has been helping communities make the most of their schoolyards for nearly 50 years. Every school in every neighborhood in every city is different, but over time, we’ve developed a few guiding philosophies:

1. Schoolyards should be designed for the community, by the community

For the most part, schoolyards have been designed—IF they’ve been designed—to meet the needs of students alone. But there’s a better way: we help communities transform their schoolyards using a participatory design process that invites the whole community—from students and teachers to neighbors and other local groups—to weigh in on what the space can be. The result? A place brimming with one-of-a-kind artwork, custom play areas, plenty of space to run around, and useful features for neighbors of every age. When neighborhoods unite to design their schoolyards, they create places that reflect what’s important to the whole community, where everyone feels welcome.

Photos of P.S. 7 in New York City, before renovation (a parking lot) and after (a green park with a track and benches)Photo credit: Nana Taimour

Over a three-month participatory design process, we rounded up ideas from students, neighbors, and staff at a nearby community center to imagine a brighter future for the schoolyard at P.S. 7 in the Bronx—one of the more than 200 playgrounds we’ve created in New York City. The result is a custom play area, plenty of shady benches and tables for families and seniors to hang out, and a running track where anyone in the neighborhood can work out when school isn’t in session.

2. Schoolyards should be shared

If a community comes together to imagine a great schoolyard, they should be able to use it! But it’s not as simple as leaving the gates unlocked: public access can mean more maintenance costs, and raises questions around liability—and public school districts shouldn’t be expected to take on the added burden alone. That’s why The Trust for Public Land helps communities implement “shared-use agreements,” contracts between a school district and other local agencies that can resolve liability concerns and shift the burden for increased costs and maintenance away from school districts.

Two children walk through a decorative iron gateway to a city parkChildren walking through gate at Aliso Park in Los Angeles, CaliforniaPhoto credit: Annie Bang

In Houston, the SPARK School Program works with schools and neighborhoods to develop community parks on public school grounds. In the past 30 years, SPARK has built over 200 parks throughout the Houston metro area, improving access to the outdoors for nearly half a million people.

3. Schoolyards should be green

Opening schoolyards to the public can help fill in some big gaps in the map of park access in America. But access alone isn’t enough. In many cities, the typical schoolyard is a fenced-in expanse of blank asphalt—a featureless space more akin to a prison yard or parking lot than a park. That’s why we help communities imagine, fund, and build schoolyards packed with trees, grass, gardens, and other climate-smart features that capture stormwater. Green schoolyards reduce the risk of flooding, and combat the urban heat island effect, keeping our cities cooler. They’re places where birds and pollinators find refuge, and double as outdoor classrooms where kids can learn about the natural world every day, all year long. And since every green schoolyard we build is open to the public when school isn’t in session, green schoolyards serve as neighborhood parks, where anyone is welcome to pause, breathe, and experience nature’s benefits, even in the heart of the city.

Photos of William Dick School, before renovation and afterPhoto credit: Jenna Stamm

“Right now the typical schoolyard in Philly is just asphalt, and it’s usually in bad shape,” says Helaine Barr, a policy analyst with the Philadelphia Water Department. “But they’re often the only open spaces in dense neighborhoods, so they offer a great opportunity to capture stormwater.”  At William Dick School in north Philadelphia, we helped students design a cooler, greener—and way more fun—schoolyard.

Of the 100 million people in this country today who do not have a park within a 10-minute walk of home, almost 20 million of them do live that close to a public school. That means if every public schoolyard were designed for the broader community, with greener features, and open to the public, we’d already be a fifth of the way to solving the problem of outdoor access for everyone in America. 

Want to learn more about how we’re using data to help connect more people to nature?  Check out tpl.org/parkscore.

Comments

Anonymous
Your message touched a chord in me! My first few years of elementary school were housed in rooms rented from the local college, and our "playground" was the cinder-paved parking lot--not allowed on the campus grass! The upper grades had rooms in the nearby high school building, which had a real playground--swings, see-saws, some other rides--but where no one was supposed to play after school. Although the playground itself was paved, many of us played our version of Prisoner's Base on the grassy part of the school grounds, with trees for bases. Decades later, I lived for many years near an elementary with a well-equipped playground, and although there was apparently no official prohibition against playing there after hours, many of the children I knew were warned by their parents against going there then--it seems that drug dealers hung our there. Bottom line: turning school playgrounds into public parks still seems a great idea!
Hedy Weiss
I think your plan to turn cement lots into green spaces is excellent. In fact, the more trees and others greenery and the less “equipment” the better. Add a small area for a removable stage and use it to introduce kids to classical musicians ....exposing them to the music they rarely hear these days. Sadly, however, security issues would have to be considered, too.
Kathleen Pelley
When I was a child, those of us who lived near the school yard played there in the afternoons after school, on weekends, and all summer long. Now, the school yards near where I live are all locked up. So sad since the children can no longer hang out there.
Dick Gustafson
I'm sympathetic but sure Idon't know how to make it work. As I grew up a good schoolyard in mid town was VASTLY over subscribed ie = used to the point the "GRASS" was dirt/mudd and the schools could not come close to it's upkeep.... even in even "middle class" neighborhoods with perhaps 10 acres... even with pretty good intentions.
Kenneth B. Newman
I would like to work with TPL on this issue. I sit on 5 park advisory councils in Chicago, and also am involved in a school reform group. I have administrative experience for the Chicago Public Schools in sports and athletic related work, , as well as some minor teaching experience. My background in parks includes spending time on the North Miami Parks Commission, as I lived in the Miami, FL area for 15 years. Please get back to me on this issue.
alice b ciuffo
this is a great idea!
Maggie Frazier
This certainly is a better idea than a paved parking lot! Taking this forward in an inner city school seems like a good idea - give the community a place of their own - a safe green place. Many cities are creating community gardens - why not a park?
Jesse Vasquez
I live near a high school that my wife and I used to use three times a week .The track was used by so many people,young old,like myself,pregnant women and children.No more,there is a 20 foot fence surrounding the school.So much for much needed exercise.Hope one day that it can go back to what it used to be.Even better if it were green.
Elisabeth Morgan
This is a reasonable solution to helping to address deficiencies in park access and opportunities, but in this day and age it comes with challenges. As already noted in a comment, some school yards, including some managed as joint community assets for years, are now fenced off due to concerns about school shootings and other security issues and are no longer accessible to the public. In addition, when schools get crowded, their playgrounds and sports fields are the first places administrators tend to look for space, whether to site trailers for extra classrooms or physically expand the school building. Some risk assessment and public commitment to maintaining these sites as parks must precede investment by a community.

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