Space to Grow Relies on Unique Partnerships

April 29, 2015

Space to Grow partners with The Kitchen Community for gardens.

The appearance of a Learning Garden from The Kitchen Community (TKC) is unmistakable: a curved, white planter bed accompanied by a green leaf sign. And there are more than 100 of those gardens in schools across Chicago, including at our Space to Grow schools.

Space to Grow is an innovative public-private partnership co-managed by Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands that transforms Chicago schoolyards into centers of school and community life that support active and healthy lifestyles, outdoor learning, physical education and engagement with the environment. We couldn’t do it without help from our partners, including TKC. The program also receives capital funding and support from Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Department of Water Management, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

TKC was founded in 2011 with the mission of creating community through food, says Tovah McCord, a regional director with the non-profit. “We build community in a variety of ways, and working with other nonprofits is part of that,” she says. “Being a part of a larger project, like Space to Grow, works to help us execute our mission.”

TKC’s Learning Gardens support the Space to Grow vision by providing access to nutrition and helping children understand how food is grown. That contributes to the health and wellness and outdoor learning goals of the Space to Grow program. For example, during the installation process, younger and older children are given various tasks — such as adding soil to the planters, planting the seeds and watering the seeds — but they also why each step of the process is important. Children walk away from this process understanding what makes soil healthy and good for planting. Each school hand picks the specific plants they want to grow, and the choices run the gamut from chives and lavender to spinach and carrots.

TKC education manager Sam Koentopp says including Learning Gardens into Space to Grow schoolyards just makes sense. “When we’re talking about a Space to Grow site that is going to include a lot of green space, it’s a natural fit to include a vegetable garden. The look and the feel of the Learning Gardens really fit in well.”

The Learning Gardens feature a curved planting bed that can be combined to create circular shapes or long, curvilinear designs. The ability to adapt and fit in is especially important for Space to Grow schoolyards because each design is unique to that school, conceptualized from planning meetings with students, parents, teachers, staff and community members. “We can adapt the design to fit a huge number of spaces: big, wide-open playlots or long and linear spaces,” Koentopp says.

And those beds are built to last. Instead of using traditional planter materials like wood or concrete, Learning Gardens are made from recycled polyethylene plastic. A traditional wood planter lasts for five years, while, according to Koentopp, the polyethylene plastic planters can last for 20 years. “We really like to focus on building gardens that have long-term life and a long-term impact on the schoolyard,” he says.

Working in a Space to Grow school is different than how TKC works with other Chicago schools, Koentopp says. Space to Grow lays out a specific two-year support plan that includes workshops and planting days. “The way Space to Grow is able to involve the larger community around the school into the design, the construction and, now that the schoolyards have been in existence for a few months, the maintenance of the gardens really supports our mission and what we’re trying to do.”

The partnership with TKC is just one example of the many partnerships that makes Space to Grow to unique. Just like we involve members of the community in every step of the transformation process, we involve several partners to leverage various strengths and expertise to ensure our program creates schoolyards that will grow with communities.