Schoolyards: An Untapped Community Resource?

By Emma Vinella-Brusher

100 million. That’s how many Americans, including 28 million children, do not have access to a neighborhood park.[1] Despite the seeming abundance of local natural spaces, lack of park access is a problem here in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, too – according to The Trust for Public Land, a combined 23,909 residents (~30%) of both towns live farther than a 10 minute walk from a municipal park.

Parks are an important public resource known to reduce pollution, enhance water quality, increase climate resilience, provide cooling, and improve mental and physical health.[2] In the case of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, thousands of children are not able to experience the improved health and cognitive function, strong motor coordination, reduced stress, and enhanced social skills that having a neighborhood natural environment to play in can provide.[3]

Despite the known importance of the outdoors to child health and well-being, not all families live in a place that provides equitable access to these spaces. US census tracts with large numbers of families with children under 18 are nearly twice as likely to live in nature-deprived areas than families without.[1]And where parks exist, those in nonwhite neighborhoods are on average half as large and nearly five times as crowded as those in majority-white neighborhoods.[2]

So how did we get here? The inequitable access to natural spaces seen today is the direct result of racist city planning policies such as segregation, zoning, and redlining that restricted access to recreational amenities including parks for Black families.[3]Discrimination and racism have profoundly impacted human settlement and natural preservation patterns in the US, leading to the barriers to parks and recreation still present in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and beyond.[4]

Chapel Hill Community Center Park (Source: Town of Chapel Hill, NC)

Fortunately, there is something we can do to ensure every child, no matter their demographics, has access to a neighborhood park to play in. Chapel Hill and Carrboro should follow the lead of New York City’s “Schoolyards to Playgrounds” program, a creative policy solution to limited available space and funding for the creation of new community parks. Launched in 2007 by former mayor Michael Bloomberg, this project included a $111 million investment to “transform 290 schoolyards into vibrant community parks by 2010.”[5]

The city identified schoolyards as both an available and underutilized resource. Only used a few hours a day by just the school population, these recreational facilities offered tremendous potential to improve neighborhood health and well-being.[6]The rest of the time, most schoolyards were locked and closed to the surrounding community during evenings, weekends, and school breaks.[7] Hundreds of existing playgrounds, many only needing minimal renovations, could become a key community resource for physical, mental, and environmental health benefits.[8]

NYC’s program prioritized the immediate opening of 69 schools that already had well-maintained playgrounds to the public, and then focused on improvements to the remaining schools, such as adding play equipment, turf fields, gardens, sports courts, benches, trees, and outdoor classrooms.[9]Between 2007 and 2013, this partnership between the Parks & Recreation department and the school district transformed approximately 150 “part-time schoolyards” into full-time playgrounds open to the entire community.[10]The program also provides a manual for breaking down institutional barriers and practicing successful community participatory design – through a 6 month process, the city enlisted kids and their families to envision an accessible, inclusive, and overall fun space for children.[11]

P.S. 213 Schoolyard Renovation in Brooklyn (Source: Trust for Public Land)

Despite the Schoolyard to Playgrounds program’s promise and initial success, the city is far behind its ambitious goal of 290 newly available public parks and over a decade beyond the initial target date. There are also notable equity concerns, as neighborhoods in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan have not reaped the benefits of the program and still have far too few playgrounds despite experiencing a tremendous increase in population nine years and younger.[12]The anticipated benefits of increased park access, such as improved child physical and respiratory health, student academic performance, air quality, temperature, overall community health, and community safety remain unavailable to far too many young children across the city.[13]

If NYC’s program teaches us anything, it is the importance of dedicated funding for recreational facilities maintenance, whether a schoolyard or a public park. As of 2019, the city ranks 48th in playgrounds per capita among the 100 largest US cities, and 521 park playgrounds have been found to have at least one hazardous feature requiring immediate attention.[14] Since the launch of Schoolyards to Playgrounds, the child population has also grown substantially in neighborhoods across the city, yet the expansion of recreational spaces and opportunities has not kept up. With fewer than five playgrounds per 10,000 children in 15 neighborhoods, as well as over 25 percent of playgrounds in many districts designated “unacceptable” by inspectors, NYC offers a cautionary tale as to the financial support necessary to make a program successful and sustainable.[15] This innovative schoolyards-to-playgrounds model has since been replicated in cities across the US, including Philadelphia, Newark, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.[16] Chapel Hill and Carrboro should consider joining this growing list of cities using creative policy solutions to turn underutilized school playgrounds into parks the entire neighborhood can enjoy. But as we learned from New York City, this program cannot be successful without the widespread support of departments, schools, businesses, and community members across Chapel Hill and Carrboro. It is time for us to work together to make our community healthier, safer, and more fun for all residents young and old.


[1] The Trust for Public Land. (2020). The Heat is On: A Trust for Public Land Special Report.

[2] Bright, R. M., Davin, E., O’Halloran, T., Pongratz, J., Zhao, K., & Cescatti, A. (2017, March 27). Local temperature response to land cover and management change driven by non-radiative processes. Nature Climate Change, 7, 296-302

[3] Strife, S., & Downey, L. (2009, March). Childhood Development and Access to Nature: A New Direction for Environmental Inequality Research. (122, Ed.) Organization & Environment, 22(1), 99.

Rowland-Shea, J., Doshi, S., Edberg, S., & Fanger, R. (2020, July 21). The Nature Gap: Confronting Racial and Economic Disparities in the Destruction and Protection of Nature in America. The Center for American Progress.

[2] The Trust for Public Land 2020

[3] KABOOM! (2021, February 23). Why the Fight for Access to Playgrounds is a Racial Justice Issue.

[4] Rowland-Shea et al. 2020

[5] Trust for Public Land (2007). “NYC Launches ‘Schoolyard to Playground’ Initiative.”

[6] New York City Global Partners (2013). Best Practice: Converting Schoolyards to Community Playgrounds

[7] New York City Global Partners 2013

[8] Cowan, Nicholas (2019). “Prioritizing New York City’s Next Schoolyard to Playground Project.” Medium.

[9] New York City Global Partners 2013

[10] Drake, S. (2018, December 10). How the Trust for Public Land is converting schoolyards to playgrounds. The Architect’s Newspaper.

[11] Cowan 2019

[12] New York City Comptroller, Bureau of Policy and Research (2019). State of Play: A New Model for NYC Playgrounds

[13] Evidence for Action (2021). “Impact of Schoolyards to Playgrounds Renovations on Academic Performance and Health of New York City Students.”

[14] NYC Comptroller 2019

[15] NYC Comptroller 2019

[16] Drake 2018

Emma Vinella-Brusher is a third-year dual degree Master’s student in City and Regional Planning and Public Health interested in equity, mobility, and food security. Born and raised in Oakland, CA, she received her undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies from Carleton College before spending four years at the U.S. Department of Transportation in Cambridge, MA. In her free time, Emma enjoys running, bike rides, live music, and laughing at her own jokes.

Edited by Ryan Ford

Featured image: Playground. Source: RODNAE Productions