A program by the Trust for Public Land lets kids design their own schoolyards.
By Alex Ulam
“There is poop going into the East River,” the teacher says, sprinkling black specks onto a cutaway model consisting of buildings, streets, and sewer pipes. It is week three of design class at P.S. 15, the Roberto Clemente School, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and a group of third graders is participating in the New York City Playgrounds Program, which, led by the Trust for Public Land (TPL), transforms asphalt inner-city schoolyards into community parks.
The teacher, Maddalena Polletta, who is TPL’s participatory design educator, is describing how storms can overwhelm New York City’s combined stormwater–sewer system and cause it to overflow. Seated around Polletta in a semicircle, the children are wide-eyed. “Your playground is impervious, which means that nothing can get through,” Polletta explains, using the model to demonstrate how the school’s asphalt yard contributes to the stormwater runoff, which is one of New York City’s biggest environmental problems.
After the Sewer in a Suitcase lesson (so called because the model is designed to fit into a suitcase for transportation to different schools), the children discuss a list of potential amenities and design features for the new park they are helping to design. The list includes a basketball court, a butterfly garden, a trampoline, and even a Jacuzzi—an amenity that to date has not been installed in a TPL park. The students talk about replacing part of the asphalt schoolyard with a different hardtop surface. “What if we fall and hit our face?” asks a boy dressed in a gray hooded sweatshirt. “What if we fall and scrape our knees?” asks a girl who stands up to address the class. “Okay, so this is a grass class,” Polletta says, summarizing the students’ sentiments.
Since the mid-1990s, TPL has converted about 185 New York City schoolyards into community parks through various partnerships with different city agencies. TPL’s current Playgrounds Program, which includes design services and construction management by the local New York City firm SiteWorks Landscape Architecture, converts about six to 10 schoolyards per year into community parks. To date, about 1.1 million New Yorkers are within a 10-minute walk of a TPL schoolyard park. The organization’s goal is to make community parks out of hundreds of remaining asphalt schoolyards throughout the city so that eventually all New Yorkers will be able to walk to a park in 10 minutes. The program is in the midst of being expanded to Philadelphia and Bridgeport, Connecticut.
TPL’s Playgrounds Program is gathering momentum at a time when the High Line, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and other big New York City park projects have received widespread acclaim for the innovative ways that they have revitalized postindustrial areas. However, recently op-ed articles and some design critics have criticized these new blockbuster parks for being emblematic of the widening divisions in our society. A typical criticism is that this new generation of parks primarily serves tourists and gentrifying districts that are fast becoming unaffordable for all but the wealthiest New Yorkers. As part of his campaign to address inequality, New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, has said that he wants to bring more open space to inner-city neighborhoods.
TPL’s schoolyard parks address the city’s new agenda by providing well-maintained, state-of-the-art green spaces for the many city residents who don’t have the good fortune to live near one of the new destination parks. And considering the benefits of these repurposed schoolyards—to public health, the environment, education, and the community—it’s not an exaggeration to say that there may not be a contemporary open-space project in New York City today that so thoroughly addresses such a wide array of critical public policy goals.
Most New York City schoolyards are still defined by empty expanses of black asphalt. Sometimes a small area is set aside for a lonely looking jungle gym, but in many cases there’s a larger area set aside for school parking lots—a use that dates from the 1960s and 1970s when many inner-city neighborhoods were considered too dangerous for teachers to park their cars on the streets. Many New York City schoolyards are off-limits to people who are not in some way affiliated with the school.
The TPL program takes these under-used urban dead zones and transforms them into neighborhood parks packed with amenities that can include rows of trees, small farms, basketball courts, and green-roofed gazebos with benches that serve as outdoor classrooms. As a condition of participating in the program, schools must commit to keeping their new parks open to the general public from dawn until dusk outside school hours and on weekends.
TPL’s Playgrounds Program uses geographic information system (GIS) mapping technology to identify the communities most in need of parkland. GIS crunches data on population density and neighborhood open-space resources. No trade-offs such as park closings for fund-raisers need to be made at eligible schoolyards in exchange for TPL’s support. And instead of depending upon a well-heeled parks conservancy or a “friends” group with highly paid executives to fund park maintenance, these community parks are primarily cared for by their host communities and by school custodians who receive more pay for their additional duties from the city.
Since 2013, TPL has been designing its parks to capture stormwater. In fact, the community parks situated within designated priority areas are partially funded by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) as part of a multibillion-dollar green infrastructure initiative to control the city’s combined sewer overflows. TPL has taken the DEP’s stormwater program a step further and is mandating green stormwater infrastructure in all of its new schoolyard parks. This new generation of parks, which typically capture between 500,000 and 700,000 gallons of stormwater annually, can include green roofs on storage sheds, rain gardens, and artificial turf fields with a gravel base that allows stormwater to pass through and be absorbed into the ground. “A major component of this design program is not only teaching the students the skills to be landscape architects,” says Melissa Potter Ix, ASLA, a principal at SiteWorks, “but it also is educating them to be the next stewards and showing them how the city actually works—what happens when you flush the toilet.”
One example of a new TPL stormwater community park is P.S. 261 in the city’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, which was completed earlier this year and has been recognized with a design award from the Municipal Art Society. The approximately half-acre site used to be an asphalt yard with generic jungle-gym equipment. The only nature here was five zelkova trees in wood-frame planters next to a temporary classroom unit. When it rained heavily, the stormwater mixed with sewage and drained into the nearby Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site that is costing the city about half a billion dollars to clean up.
Today, the new community park at P.S. 261 is playing a significant role in reducing combined sewer overflows into the Gowanus Canal by capturing about 500,000 gallons of runoff a year. In fact, the entire site, which includes a running track, has been graded to drain the runoff into an elaborate network of underground pipes that irrigate much of the new park’s plantings, which include a diverse selection of trees such as Japanese cherry, Chinese elm, and sweet bay magnolia. Many of the park’s amenities have been optimized to capture stormwater, and colorful signs along one wall of the park inform visitors about how they work. A green-roofed gazebo guides water with a gutter and a hollowed-out support beam into a large wooden barrel, where it’s stored and used for irrigating the roof during dry spells. Attached to the barrel is a large handle that the kids use to pump the stored rainwater back up to the green roof.
TPL’s Playgrounds Program enables classes of schoolchildren to take the lead in custom designing their parks. At P.S. 181 in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, for example, there is a Shakespeare-themed herb garden with a stage and quotes from the bard, selected by the students, painted on the ground. Different New York City schools have markedly different preferences, explains Mary Alice Lee, the director of TPL’s Playgrounds Program, noting that in some neighborhoods basketball is extremely popular, and in others soccer is the more popular sport. “The users of the park should be the designers of the park,” Lee says. “They are the ones playing in it—so we want to make sure that we are representing the needs of the kids.”
One way that these new community parks reflect their distinctive neighborhood identities is through elaborate murals designed by children in conjunction with the fabricators of a product called Color Seal, which is more commonly used for painting the lines for running tracks and tennis courts. Potter Ix from SiteWorks says that her firm regularly pushes the fabricators they work with to customize their new products to address the needs of TPL’s constantly evolving Playgrounds Program. “The Color Seal people, they had never done this kind of work,” Potter Ix says. “We said, ‘Do you want to come along on this ride and work with the student art?’ and they have stepped up to the plate. If they weren’t going to do it, we were going to find someone else who would.”
The schoolchildren’s involvement in the design process is not limited to checklists and art projects; they go out to measure their schoolyards and, back in the classrooms, they figure out what they can afford on construction budgets that average about $650,000 per park. “We don’t sugarcoat anything; it would be a disservice to the students to do that,” says Potter Ix, who has been working on schoolyard projects with TPL since the mid-1990s. “They have to understand that in real life there are real decisions—there are a lot of people with their fingers in this pie. There are approvals that we have to get, and there are a lot of rules and regulations.”
The idea that an asphalt schoolyard in a poor neighborhood could actually be transformed into a park with grass and trees seems so fantastic to many schoolchildren that TPL and SiteWorks incorporate field trips to schools with completed parks to show them what to expect. “We had to start doing the field trips,” Potter Ix says, “because the children did not believe us that we were actually going to [build a park].”
During one such field trip on a brisk November day to a completed TPL playground at a school in New York City’s Bushwick neighborhood, a class of special-needs children from the Robert E. Peary School in Queens rushed screaming with excitement as they tested out the place. One popular activity for several of the boys was running at high speeds and then throwing themselves on the turf field, something they can’t do on their own asphalt schoolyard. Robert E. Peary School’s assistant principal, James Thorbs, who was visiting with the class, told me that the school’s new park would feature special play equipment for children with autism to teach them motor skills. Surveying the scene before us, Thorbs smiled and said, “For these kids, it is like winning the lottery.”
Alex Ulam is a freelance journalist who writes frequently on architecture and design. His work has been published in the New York Times, the Nation magazine, Maclean’s, and other publications.