Chicago’s Green Schoolyards Program

Case Study
Chicago’s Green Schoolyards Program


In Chicago children from low-income families and communities of color often attend schools with less access to physical activity, healthy food, access to nature, and are exposed to higher levels of environmental toxins in the air and water. Urban areas also face difficulties related to climate change and water management— for example, Chicago experiences profound flooding resulting from hundreds of acres of impermeable surfaces and a combined sewer system that frequently overwhelms the region’s water treatment facilities.

As school districts are some of the biggest urban landowners, and most city neighborhoods are connected to a schoolyard, these spaces present opportunities to provide vibrant green space for everyone, especially for low-income children of color, while also managing storm water aimed at reducing flooding. 

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago has a mandate from the U.S. EPA to install green infrastructure within its geographic area, which aligns with the agency’s desire to be more present in communities. As part of Chicago’s commitment to sustainability—outlined in its Resilient Chicago and Sustainable Chicago 2015 plans—the Chicago Department of Water Management is also committed to supporting the installation of green storm water infrastructure to help offset basement flooding.


Funding Action Plan

Space to Grow is an innovative public-private partnership that builds green schoolyards at public schools in Chicago’s low-income communities of color. The program model leverages public investment of capital resources and expertise from Chicago’s two water agencies, the public school district, the Chicago Mayor’s office, and nonprofit organizations. The three capital partners oversee the financing, and each agency contributes one-third ($500,000) of the $1.5 million cost for constructing each schoolyard. The capital partners have intergovernmental agreements that govern how they work together. 

These unique partnerships form the heart of Space to Grow and generate positive results for the diverse set of partners all with differing, yet complementary goals. Space to Grow maximizes financial investment from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, and the Chicago Department of Water Management, by designing schoolyards with green infrastructure features that absorb large amounts of water and address urban flooding issues. Each site collects a minimum of 150,000 gallons of storm water in each storm event. With more than 760 acres of impermeable surface in a highly urbanized area, Chicago Public Schools schoolyards represent a significant opportunity for changing the way storm water is managed in Chicago. 

All Space to Grow schoolyards include special materials, surfaces and techniques that capture significant amounts of rain, which is especially helpful during heavy storms. These include rain gardens, native plantings and gardens, permeable asphalt, permeable pavers, water storage under parking lots and turf fields, permeable rubber play surfaces and much more. Signage in each schoolyard interprets the green infrastructure process and its value for the school community.


Success Building Upon Success

Since 2014 twenty green schoolyards have been built. Five more are planned for 2021.  Space to Grow’s capital partners initially teamed up because they saw the multiple and connected benefits that would result from an infrastructure investment in public schools in Chicago’s communities of color.

Through community organizing and engagement, the Space to Grow partners connect the school and neighbors with broader community initiatives. The schoolyard becomes an important community gathering space, and a perfect place for the neighborhood walking club to meet, for summer community basketball tournaments to play, for community garden plots, and more.

Partnering with Chicago Public Schools provided a unique opportunity because the school district has a significant need for updating play equipment, but very limited resources to fund them. Making these links to other agencies was instrumental in creating a mutually beneficial opportunity for all partners, while also benefiting communities and schools.



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