Space to Grow Brings Partners Together for Greener Schools and Communities

October 16, 2014

The power of working together

Space to Grow is an innovative partnership led by Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands to transform Chicago schoolyards into centers for outdoor learning, play and engagement with nature and art. Designed to capture significant amounts of rainfall, Space to Grow schoolyards have the added benefit of protecting the environment and reducing flooding. Construction began in July at four pilot schools and the schoolyards are scheduled for completion this fall. Space to Grow is made possible by the leadership and generous financial support of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the Chicago Department of Water Management (DWM) and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD).

We’re in the home stretch of Space to Grow’s pilot phase, as four Chicago elementary schools officially open their gates to new schoolyards this month. Space to Grow transforms crumbling asphalt lots in flood-prone neighborhoods into “green” schoolyards with more room to run, more places to learn and less neighborhood flooding.

How can one initiative accomplish so much? It’s all about the power of partnerships.

Said Openlands President and CEO Jerry Adelmann: “Space to Grow is an example of the power of what can be accomplished for our communities when multiple partners work together in concert. Instead of looking at the problem of flooding in Chicago neighborhoods as a single issue to be addressed by one organization or agency, this program seizes the opportunity with dynamic solutions that create multiple benefits for students, neighborhoods and natural systems in our city.”

When this idea came about three years ago, Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC) and Openlands hadn’t worked together before. But an HSC board member sparked the initial connection, arranging a meeting for leaders from both organizations. From there, more conversations created additional momentum, as experts doing schoolyard redesigns were tapped in Philadelphia and Boulder. At the same time, the City of Chicago and MWRD were prioritizing stormwater management and investments in green infrastructure, and had the funds to take action. CPS also devoted significant funds as part of its mission to support healthy, active learners.

HSC, Openlands, CPS, DWM and MWRD individually have a diverse range of missions, but with Space to Grow, the alignment was clear. Each partner believes that schools are central to community life, making them an ideal common ground for collaboration. The new schoolyards include spaces for physical activity, such as playing fields, jogging tracks, basketball and tennis courts, and age-appropriate play equipment. The grounds also feature areas for outdoor learning and exploration, such as outdoor classrooms, native trees and plants, vegetable gardens and art installations. Each schoolyard was designed with a variety of features — including rain gardens, permeable surfaces and underground water storage — that absorb large amounts of water, which will result in less neighborhood flooding.

“As the MWRD works to reduce flooding throughout the county, the Space to Grow campaign will help students, teachers and area residents understand the value of stormwater management,” said MWRD Board of Commissioners President Kathleen Therese Meany. “Green infrastructure is important to everyone and is a valuable educational tool.”

Space to Grow pilot schools include : Grissom Elementary School in Chicago’s Hegewisch neighborhood, Leland Elementary School in Austin, Morrill Elementary School in Chicago Lawn, and Schmid Elementary School in Pullman. Each school was engaged in a months-long planning process during which teachers, school staff, parents, students and community members provided a vision for their schoolyard. The schoolyards were then designed and constructed to meet the unique needs and visions of each community. Construction crews broke ground in July at each of the four schools. The projects are scheduled for completion this month.

Other partners involved in Space to Grow include the Kitchen Community, which is planting edible gardens and CLOCC, which is helping measure activity levels and correlation to obesity rates. Once the schoolyards are fully planted, Space to Grow will partner with arts organizations to add even more colors and creativity to the new spaces.

Said HSC President and CEO Rochelle Davis, “Space to Grow is a diverse partnership to improve student health by creating exciting outdoor spaces for recess and PE, and to bring communities together in healthy and active ways. Healthy students are better learners, and it’s imperative that we incorporate student health into all aspects of the school experience. That literally starts with the school grounds.”

Learn more about Space to Grow.