Why School Grounds Are an Essential Part of School Infrastructure Spending

June 24, 2021

While the COVID-19 pandemic directed the nation’s attention to the “dismal state” of older school buildings and the need for adequate ventilation to increase school safety, it also encouraged us to consider how school facilities, including outdoor spaces, can not only support but improve community wellness and resilience.

We are excited that the Biden administration, in proposing more funding for school infrastructure in the American Jobs Plan, outlined the need for equitable investment in making schools healthy and resilient. That means preparing for and protecting schools against the effects of climate change, such as flooding and extreme heat events and, more broadly, considering community and campus-wide health and safety. 

Healthy Schools Campaign has long focused on the connection between school facilities and health. Our Space to Grow program, managed in partnership with Openlands, has become a national model for transforming schoolyards in historically underinvested Black and Latinx communities into vibrant green spaces that encourage outdoor learning, play and exploration while also helping to reduce urban flooding. 

The program demonstrates how investments in addressing climate change such as green schoolyards can benefit the entire school community in multiple ways and should be considered a vital component of school infrastructure. 

Adding Green Space to Reduce Urban Flooding

As temperatures steadily increase, green schoolyards can help cool communities and combat urban heat island effects and urban flooding issues. 

Many large urban school districts paved over outdoor spaces years ago in an effort to streamline maintenance, resulting in schoolyards reaching even higher temperatures than the surrounding neighborhoods and contributing to urban flooding. 

In Chicago, for example, 40 percent of the city is covered with impermeable surfaces, like parking lots and asphalt schoolyards, that were designed to rush rain and melting snow directly to the sewer system. Heavy storms that overwhelm the sewer system can cause significant neighborhood flooding, particularly in low-income communities that have less green space than other parts of the city. 

Before and after photos of Nathan Davis Elementary. The new features include turf field and track, playground equipment for all ages, basketball courts, outdoor classroom, rain gardens and native gardens.

Space to Grow schoolyards use green and natural stormwater infrastructure — rain gardens, bioswales, native landscaping and other permeable surfaces — to capture water where it lands. There are now 30 Space to Grow schoolyards, and collectively they capture more than 17 million gallons of stormwater per year.

With Chicago experiencing more frequent and more intense storms as an effect of climate change, these green schoolyards boost the city’s climate resilience, reducing neighborhood flooding and protecting the water quality of local rivers and Lake Michigan. In partnership with Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Department of Water Management, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Space to Grow leverages public investment in communities where climate change is predicted to have a disproportionate impact.

Building Community Along With Climate Resilience

As part of last month’s Infrastructure Week, the Aspen Institute’s K12 Climate Action initiative hosted a series of conversations spotlighting the importance of investing in school facilities. 

During a panel on green schoolyards, HSC’s community engagement manager, Kenneth Varner, shared the Space to Grow model, including its community engagement process, and noted that many communities face an “opportunity gap” when it comes to outdoor physical activity because the outdoor spaces aren’t safe or inviting. 

Openlands working with school students to plant native plants in the gardens at Corkery Elementary School

School students digging spots for native plants in the gardens at Corkery Elementary School.

Throughout the country, low-income city neighborhoods tend to be hotter than wealthier ones, due to more heat-trapping asphalt and fewer trees and vegetation that can cool the air and provide shade. This is a direct result of racist housing policies that left a legacy of discrimination in which the effects of excess heat — including health complications from asthma and diabetes — disproportionately affect poor people and people of color. 

Schools can add shared community green space just by opening their grounds outside of school hours and improving the campus to meet the needs of the school and neighborhood. Space to Grow schoolyards in Chicago are a welcoming space for neighborhood garden plots, walking clubs, basketball tournaments and more. Together they provide a daily connection with nature for over 10,000 students and safe, shared green space for more than 30,000 community members.

Infrastructure Investment Benefits

President Biden’s infrastructure plan is a starting point for making schools and communities more resilient — especially communities most vulnerable to flooding and other climate change-related weather events. 

Given the necessity of outdoor environments for learning, physical activity and social interaction — and the opportunity to improve school health and climate resilience — we must advocate for a federal commitment to infrastructure spending that includes not only school buildings but vibrant outdoor spaces like Space to Grow schoolyards.

This need is especially urgent in communities where systemic racism and funding inequities have led to greater health disparities and have made it more difficult for children to attend healthy schools and safely enjoy the outdoors. As evidenced by the Space to Grow program, such investment will result in educational, environmental and community benefits that extend well beyond school grounds.