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Sharing Schoolyards With The Neighbours: Some Examples

Posted in Models, Movements by Kate Archdeacon on May 27th, 2011

Via Sustainable Cities Collective


Photo: South Ozone Park community enjoys the new playground at P.S. 108Q, which opened Spring 2010.

Sharing school grounds and facilities with the surrounding community makes sense as we look at the future of sustainable cities.  It can strengthen networks (increasing resilience through getting to know your neighbours) and improve urban health (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 for getting an idea of what’s already happening, as well as pointers for starting up sharing in your neighbourhood.  Below are some extracts:

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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.

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.[…]

New York City has taken the concept the furthest. There, with the blessing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, The Trust for Public Land (TPL) 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.[…]

“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.” […]

Read the full article by Peter Harnik on City Parks Blog or on Sustainable Cities Collective.

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