Space to Grow Chicago Has National Implications

November 06, 2014

Space to Grow Chicago Has National Implications

It’s been a busy fall here in Chicago. Throughout the entire month of October, we hosted numerous planting days for our Space to Grow program. The end result was hundreds of students, volunteers and community members helping 30,000 plants and bulbs take root in Chicago schoolyards. The Space to Grow team will be cleaning dirt out from under their fingernails for weeks to come!

If you’re not familiar with Space to Grow, it’s a pilot initiative that we launched this year in partnership with Openlands, that seeks to transform Chicago’s outdated — and in many cases, crumbling — schoolyards into vibrant outdoor spaces that benefit students, community members and the environment. These community assets have the added benefit of reducing flooding and conserving water.

Our first four Space to Grow schoolyards were completed in October in public schools on Chicago’s south and west sides. Renovations included tearing up large sections of asphalt and transforming existing land in flood prone neighborhoods, and installing multifaceted “green” schoolyards. The new schoolyards include space for physical activity, such as turf fields, jogging tracks, basketball and tennis courts, and play equipment. The grounds also feature areas for outdoor learning and exploration, such as outdoor classrooms, native trees and plants, edible gardens and art installations. Each schoolyard was designed to include special surfaces and landscape features that absorb large amounts of water, which will result in less neighborhood flooding.

We’re incredibly proud of the work that has been accomplished in a relatively short span of time, but this is just the start. The vision is to build on the success of the pilot schoolyards and expand Space to Grow to schools across Chicago. Planning is already underway for the next six schoolyard renovations that will take place next year.

While Space to Grow is a Chicago program — one that uses a unique model that brings together funding and leadership from Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Department of Water Management, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago — it has national implications.

In fact, last month, our Space to Grow colleague, Jaime Zaplatosch, director of education at Openlands, presented the Space to Grow model at the North American Association for Environmental Education Conference in Ottawa, Canada, and to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The challenges and opportunities that Space to Grow addresses — specifically around health and wellness, outdoor learning and stormwater management — are not unique to Chicago.

“Those three buckets…pretty much capture all the reasons why we’re doing what we’re doing,” said Zaplatosch.

What can other cities and municipalities take away from Space to Grow?

The Space to Grow model shows how budget-strapped school districts can help increase the value of their own investments by leveraging outside resources, particularly in the area of student health and wellness. It also creates an opportunity for public dialogue around green infrastructure, as well as environmental improvement and conservation.

“Everyone is coming from such a different place, but the main thing is finding the entities that have the expertise and financial support to approach these opportunities,” said Zaplatosch. “It’s the layers of partnerships that make Space to Grow work. You have to have the overarching goal, then leverage your partners’ expertise, leadership and funding to move the project forward.”

Another takeaway is tackling these issues from both sides — the top and the bottom. Zaplatosch points out that while Space to Grow leverages public funding and expertise from large city agencies, success rests in developing the capacity of the individual school communities — from the design all the way to the maintenance and use of the schoolyards.

“We realize that most cities don’t have the ability to be overly flexible and nimble,” Zaplatosch added. “That’s why it’s important to have have flexible and nimble organizations [like Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands] to help convene those partners. Building our framework together, and aligning our priorities, has been instrumental.”

Check out last month’s HSC in Focus: Space to Grow newsletter to learn more about the impact and partnership of Space to Grow.