Inside Take: Philly’s Next Great Public Space? Schoolyards.

Enhanced schoolyards would benefit all. Here's how we can do it.

A vision for the schoolyard at Horatio B. Hackett. | Plan courtesy of Community Design Collaborative.

A vision for the schoolyard at Horatio B. Hackett. | Plan courtesy of Community Design Collaborative.

(This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)

Over the past seven years, Philadelphians have witnessed a public space renaissance. No longer are apocalyptic Hollywood movies choosing Philadelphia as a backdrop because our physical environment perfectly fits the scene (remember Twelve Monkeys?). Instead, dynamic, transformative public spaces—from Spruce Street Harbor Park, Dilworth Plaza, the Porch at 30th Street, Lovett Park in Mt. Airy, and many others—are reflecting a newfound sense of civic pride.

Now that we have built up in-house expertise in creating truly great public spaces, and developed credibility with public, private and philanthropic funders, we should harness that energy and apply it to what I call Philadelphia’s Public Space Initiative 2.0—the redesign of our public schoolyards. Our schools need to become Philadelphia’s next set of great public spaces.

Public schools are widely accessible and deeply integrated into Philadelphia’s. This map, provided by the Philadelphia Water Department, shows the dispersion of schoolyards throughout the City.

School Location Map

Unfortunately, too often schoolyards are in deplorable condition, with pockmarked pavement, aging play equipment and few amenities. And yet they exude potential. There is more than sufficient evidence to suggest that safe, inviting and engaging play areas allow children to get the exercise they need, develop social skills and ultimately perform better in the classroom.

Additionally, given the vast real estate schoolyards occupy, they play a critical role in curb appeal, and curb appeal matters. Colleges and universities don’t invest in fancy gyms and cafeterias because they are mission-critical. They make those investments to draw in the prospective students that pay the bills for everything else. Upwards of 40 percent of the city’s student body now opts for charter schools. I’d argue improving schools’ curb appeal would give parents another reason to give their neighborhood school further consideration.

Most important, I think redesigned schoolyards could strike a blow against one of the biggest structural challenges our schools face. The district’s crisis is not just a financial issue – it is a long-term divestiture of stakeholder interest in public schools. Or put another way, there are too few people in the city who care any longer about district schools.

Fixing public education is, increasingly, left to a dwindling corps of teachers, principals, administrators and parents to fix. If we are really serious about righting the ship, we have to realize that public education is everyone’s issue – irrespective of where you send your children or if you even have children. It is a collective problem.

Like other great public spaces we now have in the city, transformed schoolyards can become a magnet for a diversity of interests. Even if your child attends a charter or private school in another neighborhood, chances are you want the local playground to be safe and inviting so your family can enjoy it. If you have no school age children, but live near a public school facility, a more attractive school would only boost your property values. Environmentalists and park enthusiasts could become proponents of school yards if properly greened and sustainably designed. For those that simply care about improving the quality-of-life in their neighborhoods, irrespective of their attachment to the school district, there is no question that a beautified school yard, designed as a multi-generational gathering place, can play an important role.

The notion of widespread investment in schoolyard improvements is not pie in the sky either. Denver managed to transform every single one of its nearly 100 schoolyards over a decade. Lois Brink, a Philadelphia native, who taught at the University of Colorado’s School of Architecture, led the initiative. It was called Learning Landscapes, and was funding with a mix of philanthropic, private, and public dollars.

Brink recently moved back to Philadelphia with the hope of helping a similar initiative take root here. “The reason why after finishing 100 schoolyards and $50 million dollars in improvements in Denver, we came to Philadelphia was because we believe Philadelphia has the potential to transform each of its schoolyards.”

Brink says that the renovated schoolyards in Denver yielded educational improvements, property crime reductions and increases in nearby real estate values. Additionally, the schoolyards began to be seen as part of a larger public space ecosystem as Denver’s Department of Parks & Recreation embraced the lots as part of its master plan.

One of the most important insights from Denver was that the effort was not led by the School District. It was shepherded by a diverse group of stakeholders. Several other cities from Toronto to Boston to New York are now attempting comparable transformations of their schoolyards.

If you asked Philadelphians even 20 years ago whether they could imagine that the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers would offer dynamic, inviting park space, or that the concrete morass outside City Hall and 30th Street Station could be anything but, they would have likely said no. But now we know the potential.

And, gratifyingly, there is some momentum in Philly for redesigned schoolyards. The Community Design Collaborative has already led conceptual design efforts around eighteen public schoolyards (with another five to six in process) and, working with the Philadelphia Water Department, they will soon issue a public schoolyard design guide which will help stakeholders around these projects strategically design these spaces. With thinking and investment starting to converge around schoolyard improvements, here are a couple of thoughts on what we can do to make this idea a reality across the city:

Recommendations:

  • The SRC needs to figure out a way to give communities a measure of local control over schoolyards to allow planning and investment to occur.
  • The City Planning Commission and Department of Parks & Recreation should begin to integrate these spaces in their master planning efforts. For example, when thinking about where the city can achieve its tree planting/canopy goals, school yards should be viewed as prospective sites.
  • Create “friends of” groups, as the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has done with park spaces. Once the schoolyards are redone, maintenance and sustainability become a key issue and they can’t be left entirely to the school district. “Friends of” groups can be a major part of that plan.
  • Leadership around this has to come from someplace other than the School District, which has more than enough on its plate.
  • Consider a form of tax incremental financing for schoolyard improvements that would allow an authority (e.g., the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development) to issue a bond for schoolyard improvements that would be repaid through the incremental increase in nearby property values.

We know how to create world-class public spaces. Now let’s take that know-how to our schoolyards and create Philadelphia’s next great wave of public spaces.

Design for Lea Elementary's schoolyard. | Rendering courtesy of West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools

Design for Lea Elementary’s schoolyard. | Rendering courtesy of West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools, by Salt Design Studio.

Anuj Gupta is Executive Director of Mt. Airy USA – a non-profit community development corporation that revitalizes sections of northwest Philadelphia through real estate development, small business development and promotion, housing counseling and foreclosure prevention, and strengthening neighborhood public schools. Prior to this position, Anuj served as Chief of Staff of the Department of Licenses & Inspections and a deputy to the Managing Director in Mayor Nutter’s first term.