To many New York City kids, it is part of life in the city. Hold a basketball
in one hand, hang on with the other and clamber over a 10-foot tall wire fence.
These kids do not want to do anything wrong â€“ all they want is a little
fun and exercise.
In a city with courts, playing fields, open space and greenery in short supply,
the government has long ignored one key resource: its school playgrounds. Many
school playgrounds are locked after school hours and so unavailable late afternoons
and on weekends. Too many are used for parking, bleak asphalt wastelands without
friendly play space or equipment. And too many school children never get to see
trees and shrubs in their daily environment, or take advantage of their shade
and the wildlife they attract.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s long-term sustainability plan calls for opening
up school playgrounds for community use to help meet the goal of putting every
New Yorker within a 10-minute walk of a park by the year 2030. But is the city
using short-term stopgap measures instead of long-term strategies, creating play
areas that may not last for even a decade? And will these areas really meet the
needs of their communities?
USING UNDERUSED SPACES
In 2006, some 746 school playgrounds stayed padlocked weekends and during the
summer, according to
numbers compiled by City Councilmember Gale Brewer. All together, these areas
totaled 948 acres of unused public land, an area larger than Central Park. (Another
257 were already open last year.) While no one argued New Yorkers would not benefit from
the open space, the schoolyards seemed caught in a kind of limbo between the
Department of Education and the Department of Parks ad Recreation.
That has apparently changed.
The mayor’s Schoolyards
to Playgrounds plan unveiled earlier this year calls for eventually
opening 290 schoolyards for use from 8 a.m. to sundown and on weekends. To finance
this, the mayor put $3.5 million in the 2008-2009 budget and proposed another
$107.3 million in capital spending over a period of eight years. While the playgrounds
are maintained by the Department of Education, private and non-profit sponsors
can contribute to improvements and support recreation programs.
A key partner for the city in all this is the
for Public Land. On October 10, the city inaugurated a renovated playground
at PS 64 in the Bronx, one of 24 to be developed through a partnership with
the non-profit trust. The organization, working with the
education department, hopes to turn 25 schoolyards into new community playgrounds
over the next five years. Money will come from the city, the trust, individuals,
corporations and foundations.
THE QUALITY OF SPACE
The one clear step forward of Schoolyards to Playgrounds is that it will help
meet the city’s enormous deficit in public open space. PlaNYC2030 identifies
many pockets of city-owned property that are now only minimally accessible to
the public. The city’s Department of Transportation, through its Office
of Planning & Sustainability, is taking a hard look at the enormous asphalt
jungle under its jurisdiction to see where there is potential for new public
spaces. Large expanses of city roadway are underutilized, monopolized by small
numbers of private vehicles and turned over to car owners for free parking.
The Bloomberg administration says that the opening of the schoolyards alone will
allow more than 400,000 children and their families to be within a 10-minute
walk of a park or playground by 2030.
But what will be in those parks? Sixty-nine of the playgrounds have opened without
any major improvements. Another 185 were slated for physical improvements
Many of the new parks will have artificial turf instead of grass. According to
the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, the city’s
parks department is one of the biggest consumers of artificial turf in the nation.
Two products, Field Turf and Astro Play, may be found throughout the city’s
By using manufactured turf on many these new parks, greater doses of capital
funding are likely to be required to repair them long before the year 2030 comes
around. And without clear evidence that the artificial materials being used will
have no long-term negative health and environmental effects, the program could
undermine PlaNYC2030’s promise of a healthier and greener New York
The city accepts industry claims that the manufactured products are safe for
children and claims that they are cheaper than natural grass. A 2006 parks department
New Turf War,” claimed that although it costs $675,000 more to install
artificial turf, annual maintenance is $14,000 less than natural grass. Over
the 23-year period of the 2030 plan, the city would thus save $332,000 on maintenance.
Most turf manufacturers, though, only warranty their product for eight years,
and no one can say for sure how long it will last. With natural grass, regular
maintenance means that it is continuously replaced and, in the end, this will probably cost less.
One big advantage of artificial turf is that it can be used year round and almost
continuously. It is ready for use shortly after a rainfall, whereas natural areas
need time to drain and dry out. It requires no use of polluting industrial fertilizers
But there are some big questions about the long-term environmental and health
effects of manufactured turf. Artificial turf increases surface temperatures
dramatically, not only contributing to global warming and the local “heat
island” effect but possibly affecting the health of children using the
fields. Reducing global warming is a major goal of PlaNYC2030. And the fake grass
increases groundwater runoff into the city’s overburdened sewer system.
The long-term effects on soil quality and underground water remain unknown.
Some studies show that the materials used in artificial turf, including recycled
rubber, release volatile organic compounds, chemicals that are known carcinogens.
In the absence of research examining the long-term health effects, many schools
systems and governments have chosen not to use these products. Artificial turf
may also increase the risk of certain types of injuries. There is an ailment
toe,” a sprain where the big toe meets the rest of the foot, that, according
to NYU medical center, is caused by “playing sports on artificial turf.”
PLANNING THE PARKS
The Trust for the Public Land’s model for school playgrounds involving
community-based partners opens up many possibilities for change in city where
neighborhoods often have little say in what goes on in their midst. At P.S.64,
worked with students from the school and residents and staff from the nearby
New Settlement Apartments to plan the new playground. The space, which opened
last month, features a track, sports field, basketball court, swings, play equipment,
maps, trees and benches. The trust also got money to turn a blighted vacant lot
adjacent to the playground into an outdoor classroom and garden.
The group has plans for 24 model playgrounds such as the one at P.S. 64. But,
while it anticipates providing design workshops for people involved in developing
the 161 other playgrounds, they will not necessarily have the same close collaboration that
P.S. 64 enjoyed. The partner—in P.S. 64’s case, the New Settlement
Apartments -- is responsible for organizing after-school programs. Without programming,
the schoolyards could easily lapse into disuse and disrepair.
Beyond Hoops and Swings
The development of the playgrounds could strengthen the role of schools in communities
and encourage neighborhood involvement. This would be a welcome change for a
Department of Education that does not usually embrace the idea of community schools.
Because schools are one of the few city facilities in every neighborhood, they
could become models and training grounds for ecological citizenship. In other
words, they could be a lot greener than artificial turf. This is happening in
school systems throughout the nation and there is no reason why it can’t
New York City schools could become recycling and compost centers. Drinking fountains
could be fixed so that the schools could junk all those machines selling sweetened
water and juices. The schools could have green roofs and develop on-site recycling
of brown water (from rest rooms). They could have a farmer’s market and
community garden producing fresh produce.
While PlaNYC2030 commendably continues the city’s commitment to replace
aging school boilers, there is a long way to go before each building is retrofitted
to maximize energy efficiency and the use of natural sunlight. We can also imagine
solar panels instead of the ancient 20th century technology that relies on fossil
fuels. And if schools become true centers for community activity, they could
also generate more employment for community residents â€“ including people
to maintain the grass and landscaped areas.
In New York City, lots of kids never have the sheer thrill of tumbling in dirt
or mud during a soccer game. That is as important as preserving handball and
stickball wherever there is asphalt or concrete. The Schoolyards to Playgrounds
initiative is a step in the right direction, but it could become the first step
in something far more ambitious and exciting.
Shira Siegel contributed research for this article, and is working on a longer
working paper for Sustainability Watch about the school playground program.
Tom Angotti is Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, City University of NY, editor of Progressive Planning Magazine, and a member of the Task Force on Community-based Planning.Â
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