Leaders across the nation are creating green schoolyard initiatives that reflect the unique needs and opportunities of their communities. Space to Grow, like many of these programs, draws on a growing body of research and lessons shared by other communities. Space to Grow is also shaped in large part by the unique conditions that exist in Chicago. It was designed to succeed within the unique constraints of this system and to leverage the specific opportunities available here.
New Policies Supporting Recess and PE in Chicago Public Schools
In recent years, CPS has taken significant steps to support the health and long-term wellness of the city’s students with policies that bring back recess, expand PE and support school gardening. Yet facilities at the majority of the city’s elementary schools have remained inadequate for supporting vibrant outdoor recess and PE programs. Many schools lack playgrounds or green space altogether. In other cases, schoolyards were left to disrepair or were paved to create parking lots when recess was phased out across the district years ago. The new recess and PE policies have raised awareness of the need for adequate outdoor facilities and provide an exceptional opportunity to focus on investing in green schoolyards.
Neighborhood Flooding and Stormwater Management Challenges Compounded by Aging Infrastructure
Chicago, with its eastern shore along Lake Michigan and rivers running through its communities, has faced challenges with water quality and stormwater management since early in its history. Today, forty percent of the city is covered with impermeable surface, which contributes to combined sewer overflows and significant neighborhood flooding. These issues are compounded by the effects of climate change, with more intense and sporadic storms that can deposit large amounts of rain in a matter of hours. The City of Chicago and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago’s approach to this challenge necessarily includes a focus on green infrastructure elements that can absorb large amounts of rainwater, thereby diverting the water from overtaxed sewage pipes and preventing it from flooding neighborhood streets and basements. Space to Grow schoolyards represent a part of this effort. The schoolyards feature permeable ground cover and inventive landscape features that beautify the grounds as they capture stormwater runoff. These schoolyards can ultimately become a significant part of the region’s overall stormwater management solution.
Health Disparities Chicago Students Face
Children in low-income communities and communities of color face chronic illnesses—including asthma, diabetes and obesity—at much higher rates than their peers. These illnesses can hinder learning and limit lifetime well-being. The Chicago Public Schools system serves students at particular risk for such disparities: African-American and Latino students comprise 85 percent of the district’s student population, and more than 86 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged.
School wellness—including the opportunities for physical activity and nutrition education that Space to Grow schoolyards support—is a key strategy for addressing health disparities and ensuring all children have the opportunity to learn and achieve their potential.
Limited Access to Parks and Outdoor Play Spaces
Many Chicago residents lack access to green space. Ten percent of the city’s total population does not live within a half mile of a park, the recommended national distance for healthy access to parks. The City of Chicago has only nine playgrounds per 10,000 people, less than half the recommended number of playgrounds for a population of that size. In some cases, heightened crime can limit access to what little park space is available. Those most affected by the lack of parks are in the lowest quarter for median household income.
By responding to these unique factors, Space to Grow supports Chicago’s schools and communities in a meaningful way.