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Urban Development

Schoolyards to playgrounds

Unlocking park space by unlocking schoolyard gates

The Doable City Reader

There is so much that can be done to make our cities happier, healthier and more prosperous places. Every day in cities around the world, citizens and city planners alike are showing us how small actions can scale up to have massive impact. And they can in your city too.

That’s what the Doable City Reader is about. In June 2014, 8 80 Cities, in collaboration with the Knight Foundation, brought 200 civic innovators from around North America together in Chicago at the Doable City Forum to share and discover methods for rapid change making. The Doable City Reader is inspired by the rich conversations amongst presenters and participants at that forum. It is a resource for any and all people who want to make change in their cities and is meant to educate, inspire and empower anyone to do so.

In 2007, New York City was faced with a parks crisis. The city had fewer acres of green space per person than almost any other major U.S. city. More than 2.5 million residents had inadequate access to park space. Playgrounds were deeply overburdened, with 97 of the city’s 188 neighbourhoods supporting more than 1,250 children per playground. And it was set to get worse: given the rate of population growth, the city estimated that 50 neighbourhoods would have less than 1.5 acres of open space per thousand people by 2030.

So when New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his goal to ensure that by 2030 every single New Yorker would live within a 10-minute walk from a park, the idea seemed preposterously ambitious — impossible, even.

But by April 2013, the number of New Yorkers with immediate access to a park had already increased by a whopping 500,000. In 2007, 97 neighbourhoods did not meet the New York City standard for adequate playground capacity; by 2011, when the statistic was last updated, that number had halved.

Where, in one of the densest cities in the world, did all this new public green space come from? It turns out it had been there all along, just waiting to be unlocked.

Before Bloomberg’s big announcement, the city had already identified schoolyards as deeply underused resources, used only a few hours per day and only by the school population. The rest of the time — weekends, evenings and summers — most schoolyards were fenced and locked to the surrounding communities.

Images courtesy of the Trust for Public Land.

The parks department conducted a survey that identified 290 schoolyards located in areas with park and playground deficits. The Bloomberg administration directed $111 million to improve the facilities. In some cases, the schoolyards were adequate — the gates simply needed to be unlocked. In most cases, the city needed to upgrade or install equipment, paint or seal pavement, improve landscaping and plant trees. In extreme cases, they also needed to do major upgrades like repaving and safety improvements. The city also allocated $14.5 million annually to reimburse the schools $50,000 each for ongoing maintenance costs by the school custodian. The Trust for Public Land also contributed $8.5 million and managed the participatory design process. These parks are now open Monday through Friday from school closure until dusk, and on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 8 a.m. until dusk.

Cities of all sizes have implemented similar programs. Back in the early 1990s, McAllen, Texas — which now has a population of about 130,000 — implemented a similar school parks program. Today, all elementary school playgrounds in McAllen are open to the public, as well as four junior high schools and one high school, with which the city also shares tennis courts. Michelle Obama has since recognized McAllen schools as setting a healthy standard.

Gil Penalosa worked with the City of McAllen to help make this program happen. He says the same concept needs to expand to cover more public facilities.

“We need to develop different standards in how we measure efficiency in the use of the parks, sports facilities, community centres and so on,” he says. “It is not just school parks, but in general to be sustainable we need to share facilities. All over the U.S. and Canada, the school boards and the municipalities fight each other like cats and dogs, which is crazy. As with everything, people always say that it’s hard, it’s difficult. The school boards always say the municipalities are very stubborn and the municipalities say the school boards are stubborn. The reality is that people always think that it is hard. And it is — that’s why it hasn’t happened before. If it was easy maybe it would have happened before. But the reality is that everything is doable.”

Learn more about New York City's Schoolyards to Playgrounds program here.