Space to Grow: Transforming Chicago Schoolyards for Students and Communities

    Mission statement 

    Space to Grow is an innovative public-private partnership to transform schoolyards in Chicago’s low-income neighborhoods into vibrant green spaces for outdoor learning, active play, physical education and environmental literacy. Space to Grow is co-managed by two Chicago-based nonprofit organizations: Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC), which works to ensure that all students have access to healthy school environments where they can learn and thrive, and Openlands, a regional conservation organization focused on connecting people to nature in their daily lives. The program leverages capital funding and expertise from three public agency partners: Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Department of Water Management and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. The green schoolyards incorporate edible gardens and creative spaces for outdoor learning and play—plus 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 Chicago’s environment.

    Core focus area 

    Space to Grow schoolyards are prioritized for selection in low-income communities in Chicago based on persistent basement flooding issues, as well as park and green space deficits and high childhood obesity rates. Most also overlap with areas the city has designated as having a low childhood opportunity index, a measure of access to health services, open space, and other community resources.

    Space to Grow gives students, staff, families and community members in low-income Chicago neighborhoods a real voice in shaping a key neighborhood resource. Through an inclusive community design process; capacity building and training for parents, community members, teachers, and principals; and providing support for long-term community engagement, the program partners ensure that the green schoolyards are integrated into school lesson plans, and are sustainably cared for and utilized.

    The unique funding model and partnership structure allow for multiple community co-benefits and create long term community assets.

    Promoting Equitable Water System and Green Space Investment
    Space to Grow schoolyard renovations utilize green stormwater infrastructure to help address urban flooding and climate change issues. The partners have developed an equity-focused, transparent selection process to ensure schoolyard renovations are prioritized in low-income communities in Chicago that have persistent basement flooding issues and park and green space deficits. The partners have committed to working together to build at least 34 schoolyards, which are anticipated to capture a total of over 5 million gallons of stormwater, keeping that water out of the sewers during the heaviest of storms. Partners are also committed to developing a plan to scale Space to Grow beyond the first 34 schoolyards, and creating a plan for long term maintenance of the green infrastructure that could have the additional benefit of serving as a green jobs and workforce development program.

    Building Community and Parent Engagement to Ensure Schoolyard Success
    Space to Grow partners engage the entire school community to create a schoolyard that meets multiple needs and serves as a source of neighborhood pride. Each Space to Grow school community takes part in a planning process during which school staff, students, parents and other community members provide a vision for their schoolyard. Once schoolyards are built, the program offers parent and community engagement events to ensure continued touch points and help break down any barriers to community use of the new space. This engagement is critical to the long-term success of the schoolyards, ensuring that the schoolyards are viewed as an important school and community resource and that stakeholders are welcomed and engaged in caring for and promoting the use of the schoolyards.

    Building Stewardship Skills and a Culture of Wellness for Teachers and Students
    The Space to Grow partners provide a professional development program that equips teachers with the knowledge necessary to utilize the schoolyards for lesson plans related to environmental sciences, nutrition education, physical activity and other disciplines. Space to Grow partners also provide technical assistance and support throughout the year to school wellness teams and garden teams at Space to Grow schools to build a culture of wellness in the school and to ensure that the edible and native plant gardens can be utilized effectively and sustainably.

    Intended outcomes 

    Space to Grow addresses multiple concerns and challenges to Chicago’s public school students, their families, and communities. The program builds climate resilience, provides safe, green park space and is a powerful educational resource in the heart of some of Chicago’s most disinvested communities. Space to Grow schoolyards strengthen the neighborhood schools and the neighborhoods they anchor.

    Details about intended outcomes for this case study are restricted to members only.