Breathing new life into schoolyards benefits entire communities

Kindergarten playground design

Kindergarten courtyard designed by Iowa State University landscape architecture students for Houston Elementary School, Philadelphia.

AMES, Iowa -- Millions of American elementary school children are sidelined on barren plots of cracked asphalt that resemble parking lots rather than schoolyards. And despite the educational and health benefits of green landscapes, only two major cities in the United States — Denver and Boston — have renovated all of their public schoolyards.

"Unless a community rallies and says, 'we want a playground and neighborhood park here,' they don't have one," said Bambi Yost, an Iowa State University assistant professor of landscape architecture.

Fortunately, programs are underway in several cities nationwide, including Philadelphia. Yost and her students are part of a collaboration of nonprofits, government agencies, landscape architects, schools, community members and universities. Together they are breathing new life into more than 300 neglected schoolyards in the School District of Philadelphia. They represent a burgeoning national movement to green schoolyards.

Research shows that a well-planned and equipped exterior play area can stimulate educational experiences through enhanced outdoor education opportunities, creative play, challenging age-appropriate equipment, grassy fields, vegetable gardens and colorful artwork.

"Such play areas provide physical and mental challenges leading to improved health and cognitive abilities," Yost said.

"And rehabilitated, community-supported, greened schoolyards also serve as pocket parks and centers of engagement," she said. "So they don't just improve amenities, but they can actually transform a neighborhood socially and economically."

Yost and others maintain that underdeveloped playgrounds are an environmental justice issue. City schoolyards — and their visual cues — reflect on the character of their communities. Poorly maintained or neglected schoolyards send a harsh message to students, teachers and communities: Education, children, play, neighbors and human health are not valued.

"It's a matter of providing equitable amenities and opportunities to people regardless of their social-economic status," she said.

"If you're attending a public school with an asphalt playground, while the private school down the street has a green athletic field, gardens, and every piece of play equipment imaginable, it's not equitable," Yost said.

"You know your social status just walking down the street. You are told that you are not valued enough to get that schoolyard," she said.

A jumpstart for Philly

School kids drawing

Emlen Elementary School kids drawing playgrounds at design charrette led by Iowa State University landscape architecture students.

Last year, Yost's students worked with six schools and their communities as part of Philadelphia's Mt. Airy Neighborhood Schools Coalition. They developed conceptual master plans for each school to use for grant applications, fundraising and future improvements. The 50-page documents include site documentation, data analysis, site plan proposals, illustrative drawings, stormwater management plans and budget estimates. Eventually, local landscape architects and contractors will work with the nonprofits and school communities to implement the plans.

Two of the Iowa State students' master plans won awards from regional and state chapters of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Another master plan generated a $10,000 donation to build a temporary nature play area in August until more funding has been raised for further improvements. The LandHealth Institute, a local nonprofit, will oversee the design-build.

"We're trying to jumpstart a slowly moving schoolyard revitalization initiative in Philadelphia," Yost said. "It's all about building momentum and bringing motivated community members, kids, teachers and others to the table.”

Small things make big changes

At the head of the table is landscape architect Lois A. Brink, pro bono consultant and chief strategist for The Big Sandbox, a nonprofit with offices in Denver and Philadelphia. Brink is also a professor at the University of Colorado Denver (where Yost earned two master's degrees and is completing her PhD). And she is founder of the Learning Landscapes program, which created the interactive, hands-on, multi-generational schoolyards at 96 public elementary schools over a period of 12 years in Denver. Yost served as project manager, community outreach coordinator, grant writer and researcher and was involved with 58 of those schools prior to coming to Iowa State.

Yost and Brink are modifying and replicating the Learning Landscape model in Philadelphia. Brink sees this collaboration as essential in scaling a citywide schoolyard redevelopment effort.

“Schoolyards are Philadelphia’s next great urban spaces,” Brink said. “As the second largest landowner in the city, with facilities and grounds covering every neighborhood, the School District of Philadelphia has a great responsibility and opportunity to impact the water, land, air and living quality of students and communities citywide.”

It takes nothing short of a civic movement to renovate schoolyards in large cities. The process involves a complex tangle of school district, city, state, and federal partners and regulations, as well as significant fundraising efforts. Depending on costs for local labor and materials, the price tag per playground can range between $750,000 and $1.8 million. It can take decades to re-do playgrounds in a major city.

But Yost said such investment can actually "empower underserved and underrepresented children and communities through community-based participatory planning."

“And Iowa State students benefit immensely from working with so many different members of the community and seeing firsthand what inner-city schools are like when educational funding is not a top priority," Yost said. "It makes environmental and social justice something they can see and understand.”

"If you've ever worked with a community on something like this, it's amazing," she said. "People get really invested. Small things make big changes happen and can lead to really big results."

From swings to zoos

Yost and students

Iowa State assistant professor Bambi Yost, left, and her fifth-year landscape architecture students who re-imagined schoolyards in Philadelphia. Downloadable high-res photo by Christopher Gannon.

Yost's students spent five days in the neighborhood. They met with local landscape architects, conducted on-site inventories, observed users in the schoolyards, and evaluated safety, outdoor learning opportunities, accessibility and storm water management.

Much of their time was spent visiting six public elementary schools to gather opinions and data to guide their designs. During community design charrettes at each school, the Iowa State students led the school kids, teachers, school staff and community members through a process to prioritize playground elements that would reflect each school's site and curriculum. Iowa State students and Yost continued to meet with Philadelphia community members throughout the fall and spring to finalize plans, budgets, and phasing making sure to keep kids’ wishes at the top of the priority list.

The children's wish lists ran the gamut from the feasible — playing fields, swing sets, tree houses, basketball hoops, murals, gardens and climbing walls — to the less feasible — a zoo and a full-blown amusement park.

"When you see school kids come up with ideas for their playgrounds and then realize they get to help improve it, it's awesome! I’m just so happy to be part of this initiative and really appreciate everyone who has committed to improving Philadelphia schoolyards. Together we can make a difference," Yost said.

Yost’s studio effort is part of The Big Sandbox #DIGPhilly campaign. #DIGPhilly is a 2015 winner of the Knight Cities Challenge, which seeks ideas to make cities more successful by helping them keep and attract talent, expand economic opportunity and create a culture of civic engagement. Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts.

Additional images

Basketball playground design

Basketball play area designed by Iowa State University landscape architecture students for Houston Elementary School in Philadelphia.

Garden design

Iowa State University landscape architecture students' design for a community garden at Houston Elementary in Philadelphia.

outdoor classroom designs

Iowa State University landscape architecture students' design for outdoor classrooms at A.B. Day Elementary School, Philadelphia.

Kids drawing

Emlen Elementary School children drawing playground ideas for Iowa State University landscape architecture students.