Space to Grow - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Space to Grow

An initiative that creatively retrofits Chicago schoolyards with green infrastructure and gardens both prevents flooding and helps students bloom

Space to Grow

The Space to Grow schoolyard at Wadsworth STEM in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood includes a new turf field and track, rain gardens, a runnel to collect roof runoff, edible gardens, a basketball court and play equipment for all ages and abilities.

The basketball court at James Wadsworth STEM, a Chicago Public School in Woodlawn, used to be unusable. The slides in the playground area were full of holes, and the play surface itself was broken and hazardous. After a transformation through the Space to Grow program, the schoolyard at Wadsworth is a place for the entire community—students, parents, and neighbors—to enjoy.

Space to Grow

Before the schoolyard renovation of Wadsworth STEM in Woodlawn, the outdoor space was a sea of dangerous asphalt and broken play equipment.

Wadsworth is just one example of how Space to Grow is transforming Chicago schoolyards into vibrant spaces that support kids, communities and the environment. The program is co-managed by Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC) and Openlands. Capital funding and expertise come from Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) and the Chicago Department of Water Management (DWM). Each Space to Grow schoolyard gets a $1.5 million transformation, and uses special surfaces and design elements knowns as green infrastructure—such as rain gardens and permeable pavement—to capture rainwater and help reduce neighborhood flooding during the heaviest of storms.

About Space to Grow

HSC and Openlands launched Space to Grow as a way to blend the two organization’s missions: providing all students with healthy school environments and connecting people with nature where they live. Those missions lead both HSC and Openlands to work with CPS on various projects. The opportunity to transform a significant amount of asphalt and other impermeable surfaces using green infrastructure lead the MWRD and DWM to get involved.

Space to Grow

Corkery Elementary School students plant in their new native gardens. Openlands and Healthy Schools Campaign ensure that every student in Space to Grow schools has an opportunity to plant and learn about their new schoolyard gardens.

Chicago has long faced issues with basement backups and combined sewer overflows. MWRD and DWM have been working on a number of strategies to address these issues and have identified green infrastructure as a priority strategy. CPS is one of the largest public landowners in Chicago of impermeable surface—or surfaces that don’t absorb water. Think of all that asphalt and concrete and roofs! It amounts to nearly 1,000 acres of impermeable surfaces in this highly urbanized region. By connecting the dots between all of these things, Space to Grow presents an opportunity to significantly change the way stormwater is managed on public property while providing real benefits to students, schools and communities.

Space to Grow presents an opportunity to significantly change the way stormwater is managed on public property while providing real benefits to students, schools and communities

So far, the partners have together completed nine schoolyard transformations with another six scheduled to start construction in summer 2018; in total, the Space to Grow partners have committed to complete 34 schoolyards during this initial phase. The 15 schoolyards completed or in process have been designed to capture and hold over 2.5 million gallons of stormwater at any given time—the equivalent of over 70,000 bathtubs!—that’s a lot of rain being kept out of the sewers during the heaviest of storms.

What a Space to Grow Schoolyard Provides

Schoolyard transformations prioritize physical activity, outdoor learning and community engagement. The green schoolyards incorporate landscape features that capture a significant amount of rainfall, helping keep the city’s water resources clean and resulting in less neighborhood flooding. It’s a win for students, neighborhoods and our city’s environment.

Space to Grow

Overhead view of the Space to Grow renovation at Grissom Elementary in the Hegewisch community. The transformation included new play equipment, sports courts, a track, an outdoor classroom and gardens as well as permeable pavers, permeable asphalt and rain gardens.

Space to Grow schoolyards provide healthy, engaging places for students to be physically active before, during and after school. Each schoolyard includes spaces for physical activity and recreation, such as turf fields, jogging tracks, basketball and tennis courts, and play equipment for all ages. Space to Grow schoolyards also empower school leaders to put positive new CPS policies for recess and Physical Education into practice, as well as invite neighbors to gather and be active.

The schoolyards serve as a brilliant extension of the classroom for lessons ranging from science experiments to nutrition education. The grounds feature areas for learning and exploration, such as outdoor classrooms, native trees and plants and vegetable gardens. Plus, the boost in energy and focus that students get from running and playing outside helps improve behavior and academic performance in the classroom.

At the cornerstone of Space to Grow is an inclusive process that engages students, school staff, parents and community members in developing the schoolyard design. Parents and community members are also invited to be part of ribbon-cutting ceremonies, planting days, workshops and ongoing events. Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands also engage parent leaders at each school and provide professional development for teachers. Plus, the schoolyards provide a welcoming space for community activity. A shared space in nature where people can sit, relax, play, exercise or gather with friends and family has immense benefits to the fabric of a community. It fosters social interaction, provides a sense of connection and helps boost health and well-being.

Space to Grow

Students from Orozco Community Academy in Pilsen celebrate their new Space to Grow schoolyard!

An initial evaluation of the use of the Space to Grow schoolyards found that the benefits extend beyond the schoolyard itself, to include academic, behavioral and community benefits. Teachers reported using the new schoolyard as an extension of the classroom for a wide variety of lessons and activities. The study also found that schoolyards promote a more positive relationship between the schools and community. In many cases, community members have stepped up to care for schoolyards—including the gardens—during times when school is out of session. Further, initial data collection shows that the sites are performing well for stormwater, capturing and retaining 100 percent of stormwater onsite.

These results show just how transformative Space to Grow schoolyards can be—for students, for schools and for the communities. We look forward to building more schoolyards and watching them bloom.

Visit to learn more, view photos and watch a time-lapse video of Wadsworth schoolyard construction!

Space to Grow partner organizations are members of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative, a diverse group of stakeholders working to improve coordination of knowledge, technology and financial resources across boundaries and jurisdictions to minimize the negative impacts of stormwater in the Calumet region.


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