How the Trust for Public Land Is Improving Quality of Life for Millions.

Photo: Trust for Public Land

Turning schoolyards into community greenspaces, and so much more.

Before April 2021, roughly 27,000 residents in a southern Philadelphia neighborhood didn’t have a park (or any greenspace at all) within a 10-minute walk. It’s an issue common to densely populated urban areas around the country. A 2018 study found that 100 million Americans, including 28 million kids, don’t have a park or greenspace within 10 minutes of walking distance. Consider that statistic against the positive impacts that greenspaces have on mental and physical health, and you’ve created a serious need.

What the Philadelphia neighborhood (and many like it) did have, was a public school with a dilapidated playground covered in cracked cement—not to mention some motivated fourth graders. Working with the Community Schoolyards initiative of the national nonprofit Trust for Public Land, Philadelphia’s Southwark School began a massive transformation. 

With input from the students, the revitalized schoolyard space now has brightly colored play structures surrounded by shade trees, community gathering spaces, and rain gardens that sit in front of a giant mural depicting the many cultures of the school community woven together. Like all schoolyards transformed by the Trust for Public Land (TPL), the new space at Southwark stays open after school hours and on the weekends, providing a welcome greenspace for all members of the community. And those fourth graders? They learned a whole lot about climate change and landscape design along the way. 

One Schoolyard at a Time

Southwark’s renovation was the 10th Community Schoolyards project completed in Philadelphia. Beyond that, the program has transformed similar spaces in urban centers across the country, including 200 renovations in New York, where the program started, and many others in Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Calif., and Tacoma, Wash.

“When creating or renovating a public [city-owned] park, we start with a community-first approach,” said Barry Hirsch, TPL’s Senior Director of Marketing. “It’s essential to learn what the community wants to see in a park, and engage them in building their vision.”

Hirsh says that engagement with residents—down to kids spending time with landscape architects to discuss what they might like—strengthens community bonds that last well beyond the park’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“We’ve seen that communities that come together to build a park are more resilient,” he adds, “and achieve multiple benefits like better health, lower crime, and higher voter participation.”

They also help communities become more resilient to weather extremes. When an urban area doesn’t have a park or green space of any sort, it’s more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. “With the schoolyards program,” says Hirsch, “we’re changing cracked asphalt to greenspace, which reduces temperatures.”

Photo: Trust for Public Land

Beyond Schools and into State and National Parks

The Community Schoolyard is just one avenue for positive change that TPL is currently tackling. On a broader scale, it’s helping spearhead a “10 Minute Walk” mission with a 100% Promise, which aims to ensure that 100% of Americans have easy access to parks by 2050. (The campaign was named a finalist in Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards.)

Another way to create more park opportunities? Increase access to public lands that may be blocked to communities by private land. That was the case in Trinidad, a small southern Colorado town lacking public recreation space, despite the 9,600-foot Fishers Peak mesa serving as its backdrop. A private ranch spanning 30 square miles blocked access to the peak and its surrounding trails, until TPL helped Trinidad city leaders acquire the private ranch and turn it over to public management. Recently, Fishers Peak became Colorado’s newest State Park.

It’s not just the state level, either. In its 50 years of existence, TPL has expanded the national park system by nearly 65,000 acres, through 220 land conservation efforts, across almost 70 park sites. Some of these acres provide access to areas blocked by private land, with access dependent on informal agreements with local landowners. In 2019, TPL helped secure an easement for the iconic Zion Narrows Trail in Southern Utah to ensure permanent public access to the trail for generations to come.

Beyond creating new spaces, from the national to the neighborhood level, and preserving and improving access to others, the organization has also worked to save historically significant land from development—recently protecting Meadowood, Conn., from development. Historians say the 288-acre property helped shape Martin Luther King Jr.’s worldview and inspired him to become a preacher.

“We do real things in people’s backyards all over the country,” says Hirsch. “We put community at the center of our efforts with a goal to improve climate, health, and equity outcomes where we work.”

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