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TPL’s Community Schoolyards: Re-envisioning school grounds as public parks

The Trust for Public Land and Delta recently held a build day at Price Middle School. (Photo courtesy of Rank Studios.)

By Hannah E. Jones

In a city with 445 parks, 77 percent of Atlantans live within a 10-minute walk to a greenspace. Although that’s higher than the national average, 23 percent of residents are still left living in “park deserts” throughout the city. 

With hopes of opening more local parks, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) kicked off the Atlanta Community Schoolyards initiative in 2019 in partnership with Park Pride, Urban Land Institute and Atlanta Public Schools (APS). Through this initiative, 10 local schools were chosen to reinvigorate their outdoor spaces and, once completed, open the area as a public park. 

An example of the plans for Price Middle School. (Courtesy of The Trust for Public Land.)

The pilot program was intended to wrap up this summer but due to delay from the pandemic, the efforts will extend to the end of 2022. 

TPL’s primary goal is to ensure each U.S. resident lives within a 10-minute walk of a park and by opening the 10 pilot schools, an additional 6,000 residents have easy access to a park.

The local participating schools include:

In addition to revamping the school grounds and opening the areas as park space, the team also engaged students during the planning process, allowing the kids to give their input and even talk budget.

TPL’s George Dusenbury. (Photo courtesy of Rank Studios.)

“My favorite thing is that we hand out Monopoly-type money and they manage a budget,” said George Dusenbury, TPL vice president Southern Region and Georgia state director. “They use their geometry and measurement skills to design what they want it to be, with the thought of, ‘This is not just for me and my classmates, this is for the greater community.’ A lot of kids talk about how they look forward to bringing their grandparents or their neighbors there.”

Because the schools and their students are so involved in the visioning process, each outdoor space is unique and crafted based on their priorities — like Price Middle School’s garden space and Continental Colony’s outdoor classroom and mini library.

Before and after of Dobbs Elementary. (Photos courtesy of The Trust for Public Land.)

Four of the schools’ playgrounds are completed and open, with several more scheduled to open before the year’s end. Between design, permitting and construction, each site costs around $200,000, which is funded by donors like Delta Air Lines and Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.

“Delta is proud to partner with [TPL] on the Schoolyard initiative to help bring parks and play to communities throughout our hometown of Atlanta,” Delta Managing Director of Community Engagement Tad Hutcheson wrote to SaportaReport. “Through this partnership, we also get to support our long-time partner Atlanta Public Schools to provide their elementary and middle schools with new resources for students while focusing on our commitment to the environment and sustainability.” 

While some may have safety concerns about opening playscapes as parks, Dusenbury said the local schools haven’t encountered any problems. The schoolyards are always closed to the public during school hours and overnight, he added, and many schools have locked fences to regulate access. 

“We’ve not seen any issues here; We’ve not seen any issues nationally,” Dusenbury said. “Generally, when you bring positive activity to a space, you make it safer — you don’t make it less safe.”

As the pilot program nears its end, the TPL team is pursuing ways to reach more schools within APS, and expand its efforts into DeKalb and Fulton Counties. The nonprofit hopes to launch its schoolyards initiative at a new Fulton County school this fall.

If all Atlanta public schoolyards were open to the public, about 40,000 more residents would live within a 10-minute walk to a greenspace. Nationwide, the reach would be around 19.6 million.

“APS has been incredibly enthusiastic. We’re having some conversations with them to see how we can perhaps increase that impact. We’re [also] looking to expand into DeKalb County and Fulton County,” Dusenbury said. “The overall goal is to make it a best practice and expectation that if you build a school, you’re looking at that land around the school holistically, in terms of serving the community.” 

He continued: “On one hand, COVID has shown how important the Community Schoolyard program is, and how important it is to provide greenspace to people living in park deserts,” Dusenbury said. “On the other hand, COVID has made it that much more difficult to deliver those parklands to those communities that so desperately need them.”

If you’re interested in learning more about park access in Atlanta — including size and amenities, local investment and the potential impact of new greenspaces — click here to check out TPL’s 2022 ParkScore.

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Hannah E. Jones

Hannah Jones is an Atlanta native and Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for two newspapers. Hannah managed the Arts and Living section of The Signal, Georgia State’s independent award-winning newspaper. She has a passion for environmental issues, urban life and telling a good story. Hannah can be reached at hannah@saportareport.com.

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