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Learning to Share: Designing Schoolyards for More Than Just Recess

A sixth excerpt from the recently released book published by Island Press called Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. In this post, we look at some cities who have created parkland by sharing schoolyards with their parks departments.

Schoolyards are large, flat, centrally located open spaces with a mandate to serve the recreational needs of schoolchildren. Great schoolyards–the rare ones that have healthy grass, big trees, a playground, and sports equipment–seem a lot like parks. But they aren’t. For one thing, most have fences and locks. For another, they are closed to the general public. Schoolyards are parks for only a limited constituency. But they have terrific potential to be more than that. Even less-than-great schoolyards (those that are merely expanses of asphalt with few amenities) represent sizable opportunities in key locations. To many observers, schoolyards seem the best, most obvious source of park-like land to supplement the park systems of overcrowded cities. And they are–even if upgrading them into schoolyard parks is more difficult than it might seem.

“Schoolyard park” in this context means a space reserved for schoolchildren during school hours and used by the whole community at other times. In a few cities–New York, Chicago, and Phoenix–schoolyard parks are run cooperatively by the board of education and the parks department. In others, the parks department has no formal role at all.

The pockmarked and cracked asphalt lot before it was developed into I.S. 62-The Ditmas School playground in Brooklyn, NY. Credit: Julieth Rivera.

Most schoolyards originally had grass and trees. But without proper design, construction, and maintenance, grass can’t survive daily trampling by hundreds of little feet. And small trees can’t handle that much swinging and climbing without becoming spindly skeletons. After a few years of frustration with dust, mud, and dead trees, school principals begin to think that laying down asphalt might be a superior solution (and barely any worse ecologically). It’s also a lot easier to sweep up broken glass from asphalt than from dirt and weeds. Then, this being America, the expanse of asphalt starts to attract automobiles; in no time the former school park has a set of parallel white lines and a row of oil stains. Keeping a schoolyard green, clean, car-free, and environmentally productive can be more difficult than operating a regular neighborhood park.

Maintenance can also be thorny. Most school districts are either unable or unwilling to keep schoolyards up to the standards that parks require. After all, money spent on horticulture for the community-at-large is money not spent on the education of children. But school districts also generally balk at turning the maintenance responsibility over to the park department. They worry about losing control over their children’s space.

There are successful programs to refurbish school lands in both Boston (the Boston Schoolyard Initiative) and Denver (Learning Landscapes). Both programs are fully under the direction and control of the school system with no involvement of the park department. The schoolyards are open to the general community except during school hours; they are all fenced. Converting each former space in Denver from what one administrator called “scorched earth that resembled a prison yard” into an irrigated and drained Learning Landscape with a field, two play structures, a hard-surface court and a “community gateway” (an archway that invites the public both symbolically and physically) costs about $450,000. Boston schoolyards, which are considerably smaller, cost about $320,000 each for a new drainage system, plantings, hard surface area, play equipment, fences, decorative art, and an “outdoor classroom” with a micro-meadow, -woodland, and -garden.

As with so many other innovative ideas about the use of urban space, conflicts have arisen about cars. At one Boston site, a bitter battle broke out when some parents proposed converting a school parking lot into a soccer field; ultimately the soccer moms raised $200,000 in private funds and got their way.

Another successful program is Spark (School Park Program) in Houston, where the facilities are called Spark Parks. The program is run by a nonprofit in close cooperation with the mayor’s office. It works only with Houston-area school boards, not with any park department, but it has a strict requirement that the public must have access to the Spark parks after school hours and on weekends. The average Spark park costs between $75,000 and $100,000 and consists of modular play equipment, picnic tables, benches, an outdoor classroom (concrete steps and stage), a butterfly garden, a paved or crushed granite trail, and native trees. Founded in 1983, Spark created 203 parks in its first 25 years. Since 1990 the Spark program has put special emphasis on artwork, often murals or mosaics that the children help with. “It has become extremely popular,” said Spark Director Kathleen Ownby. “We’ve become one of the largest providers of outdoor art in the Houston area.”

The primary users of schoolyards are schoolchildren whose needs predominate. Because of the children, schoolyards are generally locked during school hours. While theoretically a minor issue, locks can cause unending problems, particularly if there is no park attendant or custodian on the premises. The central issue is: Who’s in charge? If the school system, the grounds are likely to be more tightly monitored but not as well maintained. If the park department controls and if the schoolyard is truly open as a neighborhood space, upkeep may be better but oversight of the children might be slightly compromised–there have been complaints of young early-morning users sometimes finding drug and sex paraphernalia in school parks that were open to the community the night before. (Others claim that the increased community use makes them safer than if they are locked.)

Many joint-use agreements break down over what seems to be an issue of legal liability but in fact is a smokescreen for more subjective factors of personality, power, and control. In Houston, the liability issue was resolved when the state of Texas agreed to indemnify schools and cities from certain incidents that occur on public grounds (aside from those due to inadequate maintenance). But in Philadelphia agreement over liability was never reached because there was no higher authority to force deadlocked negotiations to continue. (Until 2009, neither the Board of Education nor the Fairmount Park Commission was under the control of the mayor.) Creating a multiagency urban schoolyard park program succeeds more frequently when all the agencies are under the control of the mayor.

Chicago and New York are among the few cities where, because of mayoral interest, a partnership operates successfully between the board of education and the department of parks. In Chicago, in 1996, Mayor Richard M. Daley set an ambitious goal of converting 100 asphalt schoolyards into small parks. Called the Campus Park Program, it included playgrounds, baseball fields, basketball and tennis courts, and running tracks on a total of 150 acres. It was completed in four years at a cost of $43 million–$20 million each from the school system and the city, plus $3 million from the park district. Design was handled by the park district, construction by the Public Buildings Commission, and the process included community organizations. Ongoing maintenance is handled by the school district with as-needed assistance from the park district for larger properties.

The colorful new school and community playground at I.S. 62-The Ditmas School on opening day in Brooklyn, NY. Credit: Julieth Rivera.

New York City has taken the concept the furthest. There, with the blessing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, The Trust for Public Land entered into a partnership with the Department of Education, the Department of Parks and Recreation and private funders (including MetLife, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, and The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation) to convert scores of decrepit and uninviting schoolyards into showcase parks. The program is simple in concept, complex in practice. The school recreation grounds are owned by the Department of Education, but the renovation work is overseen by the Department of Parks and TPL. Many decisions are made by the principal, the parent-teacher association, and the community. Proposals can be killed by teachers who don’t want to lose parking spaces, by custodians who don’t want to handle park maintenance, or by communities that don’t want kids out late playing basketball.

“This program is community-run,” says Mary Alice Lee, director of TPL’s New York City Playground Program. While all properties are fenced and have locks, in some places it’s the school custodial staff that has the only key, while in others it’s held by the neighborhood sponsoring organization or a block association. A few of the parks are left permanently unlocked. Also, each community sets its own hours. Most common is a schedule of 8 a.m. to dusk seven days a week except when school is in session. In some tougher neighborhoods the community wants the park closed earlier; the most restrictive schedule is 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, and closed on Sundays.

Designing the space itself is a delicate balancing act that can take up to three months. The children themselves are the lead designers, responding to a set of questions and opportunities posed by TPL, but of course there are a bevy of realities that also affect decisions, including liability, equipment breakability, horticultural survivability, cost, and life lessons from previous play-parks. The children learn how to innovate, compromise, and reach a consensus when their initial ideas turn out to be too expensive or require too much space.

“Because of the kids,” says Lee, “we’ve created murals and mosaics, a hair-braiding area, a jump-rope zone, planting gardens, performance stages, outdoor classrooms, rain gardens, and bowling lanes–as well as the usual soccer fields, running tracks, basketball and tennis courts, and play equipment.”

Maintenance is the responsibility of the school custodial staff. Often they turn down a particular piece of equipment; in some cases they have nixed the playground entirely. As for natural grass, it has proven impossible to maintain under intense usage, and TPL now uses only artificial turf for the play-parks’ ballfields. Houston’s Spark program, in contrast, forbids artificial turf and uses only natural grass.

3 Responses

  1. […] (access to green parks for recreation and improved air quality)  – but how might it work?  Peter Harnik for City Parks Blog has drawn together a range of schoolyard sharing initiatives from the USA.  The article is great […]

  2. […] City Parks Blog runs an excerpt of Peter Harnik’s Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities on schoolyard parks, space reserved for schoolchildren during school hours and used by the whole community at other times.  Examples cited include: […]

  3. […] Playground redevelopment […]

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