Bringing conservation to the playground

There’s an expression among conservation professionals that “asphalt is always the last crop.” Once an ecosystem gets plowed under and the very topsoil scraped off and trucked away, that’s true enough.

By Tom Springer March 28

Except the opposite holds true at 30 public schools in Chicago. There, playgrounds once entombed in asphalt and cement have been reclaimed as park space. This ruin-to-recovery project began in 2014 and is co-managed by Healthy Schools and the accredited Openlands, a Chicago-based land trust.

“Our main driver is to connect people with nature wherever they live,” says Daniella Pereira, vice president of community conservation at Openlands. “We help people to access green space, and if that’s not available then we work with a community’s vision to re-green their neighborhood.”

To qualify for the program, a school must have at least 30,000 square feet of hard surface playground that they want to demolish, places where “kids didn’t even want to go outside because there was no place to sit or be alone. The research shows that there’s more bullying in places like that,” says Pereira. When complete, the resurrected playgrounds include trees, native plants, rain gardens and outdoor learning labs. Most also have tracks and sports fields, clad in permeable surfaces.

But what makes Space to Grow schoolyards far more complex (and expensive) than a typical playground is what lies beneath: a deep gravel substrate that’s engineered to absorb thousands of gallons of rainwater and storm runoff. The sponge-like qualities of green schoolyards helps to reduce the combined sewage overflows that occur when excess stormwater mixes in the same sewer pipes with untreated waste and spills into local waters, such as Lake Michigan.

From the outset, local residents have ample say about their schoolyard’s design and operation. Nonetheless, each schoolyard must meet two conditions: First, provide play equipment and outdoor classrooms; and second, remain open after school and on weekends.

“We just started doing ribbon cuttings for new schoolyards,” Pereira says. “And I’ve had neighbors come by and say, ‘This is so beautiful! If this is where my tax dollars are going, then I’m all for it.’”

This article was originally posted on the Land Trust Alliance website in December 2021.