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This nonprofit is turning empty schoolyards into vibrant public parks

Schoolyards are being converted into parks at a time when many people are desperate for outdoor space.

This nonprofit is turning empty schoolyards into vibrant public parks
An empty New York City school playground in March 2020 [Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images]
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In cities around the world, the pandemic has heightened awareness of the need for parks and natural spaces. After months of lockdowns, with many people spending most of their time inside their homes, something as basic as a patch of lawn or tree-shaded corner park has become a vital urban refuge. But space for urban parks is in short supply, and the time it takes to plan, design, and build a new park can stretch on for years. To meet the need for parks more quickly, some cities are taking advantage of a source of open space they’ve long ignored: schoolyards.

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“Schoolyards are a cost-efficient and a space-efficient way of bringing opportunities and dramatically increasing access to green space,” says Benita Hussain, director of 10 Minute Walk, an effort focused on increasing access to public space in cities.

Most school playgrounds provide acres of open space but are mostly locked behind gates after school hours. 10 Minute Walk works with cities and school districts to develop partnerships for governing and maintaining these spaces as public parks once the school day is over.

Hussain says that as the pandemic drags on, more cities are putting in the work to make these kinds of conversions happen.

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“A lot of the cities that we work with are thinking through how to be really creative with spaces, especially now that urban land is so much more expensive and limited,” she says. “As cities become more dense, the conversion of neighborhood schools into after-hours parks has been critical.”

A program of the parks-focused Trust for Public Land, 10 Minute Walk provides grants and assistance to cities to expand their park offerings. The organization’s goal is to help cities put parks and open space within a 10-minute walk of 100% of their residents by 2050. With its own maps identifying park space and demographic breakdowns for more than 14,000 cities in the U.S., 10 Minute Walk is working to show cities just how badly—and where—they need more parks. Schoolyards are low-hanging fruit, and Hussain says car-free street projects and pop-up bike lanes created during the pandemic have shown that cities are able to act quickly when they want to.

“I think none of us working in parks and green space could have anticipated how important and critical this particular public service has been,” says Hussain, who has been a policy adviser to Michael Bloomberg and also worked under former Boston Mayor Tom Menino. “There’s a lot of understanding, and it’s growing, that parks and green space [are] so central to the health, the resilience, and just the overall well-being of communities. What’s been interesting is the expansion of what it means to be a public space.”

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How cities act now during the pandemic could have long-term benefits for their residents. Hussain points to cities like Tacoma, Washington, where officials pledged late last year to convert five schoolyards into after-hours parks as part of the city’s efforts to achieve 100% park access by the end of this decade.

In addition, 10 Minute Walk has been working in Atlanta to encourage these kinds of conversions, coordinating discussions between siloed city agencies and the school district to iron out who becomes responsible for what when schoolyards take on this additional role. “There’s a lot of work to be done in terms of having school districts and parks departments and other city agencies like city planning all working together,” Hussain says.

These discussions can drag on for months, and under normal circumstances it may still take upward of a year to open a school playground to the public. But with the pandemic increasing demand for parks, Hussain says city agencies and officials can find ways of creating new parks much faster than usual. “Getting them to speak, getting them to come to a mutual understanding, and creating the legal obligation of collaboration under joint use agreements, that is work,” Hussain says. “But it is something that’s replicable across the country.”