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Transforming schoolyards into models of sustainable water infrastructure

Allison Fore, Public and Intergovernmental Affairs Officer, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago | July 19, 2017

Investments in water infrastructure projects do more than help improve water quality and services. These critical investments can also transform neighborhoods and advance the local quality of life by supporting the creation of healthy green spaces. Utilities can partner with other organizations and government agencies—such as schools, park districts and nonprofits—to increase the impact and expand the benefits of water infrastructure projects. In Chicago, the nonprofit Healthy Schools Campaign’s Space to Grow program demonstrates just how powerful water projects can be by transforming underutilized schoolyards in low-income communities into attractive, purposeful spaces that capture and store stormwater and also include playground features for students to learn, play, and enjoy the outdoors.

Most public schoolyards in Chicago are covered in asphalt, and 10 percent of the city’s population, primarily in the lowest quarter of median household income, does not live within half a mile of a park. By converting schoolyards into green spaces that absorb stormwater, Space to Grow supports a healthy and active lifestyle by 1) creating spaces for students to play outside, 2) offering educational opportunities for students to learn about the environment, and 3) establishing lively spaces for people to gather as communities after school and on the weekends.

Space to Grow is a partnership between the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the Chicago Department of Water Management, Openlands, and Healthy Schools Campaign. Space to Grow projects have benefitted from the varied expertise of the partner agencies and as a result, each schoolyard incorporates green infrastructure elements to help address flooding by capturing excess water. CPS is one of the largest owners of impermeable surfaces in the city, with an estimated 750 acres of blacktop covering school grounds. Space to Grow provides a previously untapped opportunity for changing the way stormwater is managed on public property by incorporating rain gardens, native plants, water storage under parking lots and turf fields, permeable asphalt, pavers, and rubber play surfaces to capture excess water. These green infrastructure sites provide an array of benefits, including preventing sewage overflows and keeping the water supply clean.

In addition to housing stormwater and green infrastructure elements, Space to Grow schoolyards also include outdoor classrooms, edible gardens, turf fields, tracks, basketball and tennis courts and playground equipment. Since many vulnerable communities in Chicago lack the resources and funding for school facilities, Space to Grow develops these much-needed spaces and works with the communities themselves to make it happen through a months-long planning process. Teachers, parents, and other members of the community are actively engaged in the planning and implementation of Space to Grow projects in their communities, ensuring early buy-in and providing a base of support for using and maintaining the schoolyards in the long term. Space to Grow partners also continue their relationships with these school communities, offering their expertise at workshops geared at rain barrel installation, green infrastructure implementation, gardening events and stormwater management presentations. The partnership’s work shows how water infrastructure can play a central role in creating benefits for Chicago’s students, communities, and the local environment and how these school communities can serve as a catalyst to manage our entire region’s water. 

Space to Grow has received state and national awards:

  • Excellence Award (Honorable Mention) from the Center for Active Design
  • Sustainability Award from the Illinois Association For Floodplain and Stormwater Management
  • Green Infrastructure Award, First Place in the Large Agency Category, from the National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies
  • Champion Award from the National Physical Plan Alliance
  • Best of Green Schools Award for Collaboration from the United States Green Building Council

Want to know more? Watch the Space to Grow schoolyard transformation at Wadsworth Elementary School in Chicago in a time-lapse video that shows three months of construction in three minutes at https://youtu.be/s5Hx3f2CkzM.

Wadsworth Elementary School, before                                                                         

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Wadsworth Elementary School, after

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