How Turning Gray Schoolyards Green Could Help Cities Cool Off

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Project Oasis aims to turn typically gray schoolyards into publicly accessible 'islands of cool.'. (Photo: Tomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

The schoolyard at Washington Elementary, the primary school I attended from second through fifth grade, was without a single square foot of grass or greenery. There were no trees. And looking back, this didn't seem at all unusual.

Aside from the tangle of vines covering the school's sloped perimeter just beyond a high chain-link fence, I remember asphalt, concrete, gravel, metal and rubber, a flat expanse of black and gray hardscapes as far as the juvenile eye could see. And in addition to the unconditioned air of the school itself — an imposing brick edifice from the early 1900s — being oppressively stuffy at the start and end of the school year, I also recall the schoolyard being sweltering with few, if any, places to seek relief.

Schoolyards devoid of vegetation, save for modest patches of turf in some instances, are still the norm at many primary schools. One city, however, is on a mission to turn these drab and heat-absorbing spaces green.

The city in question is Paris, which — as the Guardian recently pointed out in its Resilient Cities series — claims markedly less green space than other European cities. Yes, there are grand parks and leafy boulevards to be found throughout the City of Lights. But when compared to cities like London (33 percent green space) and Madrid (35 percent), the fact that a paltry 9.5 percent of the Parisian landscape is dedicated to parks and gardens does seem problematic.

Running in Parisian schoolyard
Officials believe that schoolyards, which take up nearly 200 acres of land across the French capital, are ripe for the greening. (Photo: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images)

Launched last year as part of Paris' larger 100 Resilient Cities strategy, Project Oasis is a radical plan to increase the amount of public green space by transforming all 800 concrete schoolyards across the city into what Sébastien Maire, the city's chief resilience officer, calls "islands of cool" by 2040. The ultimate goal is to provide all Parisians with a convenient place to seek refuge during summertime heatwaves while also mitigating the urban heat island effect, a phenomenon that greenspace-starved Paris experiences with particular intensity.

"It means less money and more efficiency; it is the way we are thinking of resilience,” Maire told Cities Today last year. "We are ready to transform the school yards: take out the concrete and the asphalt, use other types of materials, put greenery and water in the schoolyards, and use that as an educational program for children about climate change. The second part of this project is to open these 600,000 square meters [nearly 6.5 million square feet] of schoolyards to the public.”

As Maire elaborated to Reuters, Project Oasis demonstrates the "multi-benefits approach of resilience, adaptation to climate change and social cohesion." It's one of 35 plans of action outlined in the nearly year-old strategy that draws its inspiration from Paris' motto: "Fluctuat nec mergitur," translated from Latin to "tossed by the waves but never sunk."

Maire and his colleagues are currently focused one school, École Riblette, in the city's 20th arrondissement, which will serve as a pilot for Project Oasis. The school is fairly typical in its age and layout; recess, or récréation, is held in an inner courtyard walled in by concrete and sporting little vegetation. And that courtyard can get très chaud.

"For three days, school activities stopped," Maire tells the Guardian's Megan Clement, describing the scene at École Riblette this past June. "It was not possible for the children to study, nor to go into the schoolyard. We would forbid them because it's 55 degrees [131 degrees Fahrenheit] — you can fry an egg on the ground."

As part of the pilot to ensure students at École Riblette never have an opportunity to cook omelets en plein air, new features are being added — and nothing too dramatic: "A green wall here, a vegetable planter there, expanded areas of shade and special drainable concrete surfaces that can absorb water when it rains," Clement reports. Two of École Riblette's asphalted yards will remain asphalted for sports.

Another bustling Parisian schoolyard
Project Oasis envisions using existing school infrastructure to help cool frequently overheated Paris. All Parisians live within 200 meters of a local public school. (Photo: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)

Security and cost are top concerns

As mentioned, École Riblette and other schools that receive plant-heavy makeovers under Project Oasis will act as local cool-off zones for all Parisians, especially the vulnerable. And although only students and faculty will have access to the schoolyards during regular school hours, the very notion that just anyone could wander in for a quick breather in the shade when school is not in session is giving some Parisians pause.

As Clement explains, Parisian public schools are, by design, traditionally more cloistered than other schools. Playgrounds and schoolyards largely remain off-limits even during nights, weekends, breaks and summer holidays. What's more, worries of terrorism have led schools to retreat, snail-like, into their sweltering shells even more in recent years. The idea of more accessible schools is inconceivable to some.

"Maire is undeterred," Clement writes, noting that recent Parisian heatwaves have claimed far more deaths that acts of terror. "He says the spaces will be kept safe and clean, and says no one will force a school to open its doors to the public if parents and teachers don't agree to it."

A London schoolyard in the 1970s
No matter the city, most schoolyards have never exactly been lushly planted. (Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images)

On top of raised eyebrows over security, there's also the matter of cost. It costs upward of 300,000 euros to overhaul a typical Parisian schoolyard, and the vegetation-centric revamps envisioned by Project Oasis would cost 25 to 30 percent more. Maire, however, thinks the "multiple benefits" provided by the scheme make the elevated cost worth it, particularly when you consider Paris' density — no one in the city lives more than 200 meters (656 feet) from a school. Proximity here is key.

Others worry Project Oasis simply isn't enough.

Collectively, Parisian schoolyards claim 80 hectares (about 200 acres). It's a decent amount of land, for sure, and as mentioned above, schools are everywhere. But as Vincent Viguié, a research scientist at the International Research Center on the Environment and Development, tells the Guardian, in a city so sprawling and so susceptible to deadly heatwaves, lowering the temperature with greening efforts will require a lot more raw space, especially since many schools renovated through Project Oasis, like École Riblette, will retain some asphalt surfaces.

"Vegetation in schools is one step towards putting more vegetation in the city, which could have an overall microclimate effect and cool the entire city," Viguié says. "It's nice, but it's not sufficient."

Barren Canadian schoolyard
This barren schoolyard in Ontario, Canada, could certainly benefit from some strategically planted flora. (Photo: Enoch Leung/Flickr)

The stateside push for 'living school grounds'

As Paris zeroes in on greening schoolyards as a means of lowering the impact of climate-change-driven heatwaves, some U.S. cities are also striving to add vegetation to spaces that are traditionally asphalt-heavy in nature.

While not necessarily an effort to counter the urban heat-island effect, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation's Schoolyards to Playgrounds scheme, launched in conjunction with the city's Department of Education and the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, has seen several barren outdoor spaces be converted into all-purpose playgrounds that are open for public use during non-school hours. More often than not, trees and additional vegetation play into these renovations.

Los Angeles and San Francisco have also turned formerly gray schoolyards (partially) green. Leading the charge in California is Green Schoolyards America, a national nonprofit based in Berkeley that "inspires and enables communities to enrich their school grounds and use them to improve children's well-being, learning and play while contributing to the ecological health and resilience of their cities."

As Green Schoolyards America notes, public school districts rank among the largest landowners in a majority of cities and towns, collectively managing an estimated 2 million acres of land in the U.S. alone. "Choices made by school districts about how they manage their landscapes profoundly impact their city and generations of local residents whose perspectives are shaped through daily, outdoor experiences at school," the organization writes.

At the core of Green Schoolyards America's mission is the concept of the "living school ground." Sharon Danks, a landscape architect and author of "Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformations" who heads the nonprofit, describes what living school grounds entail:

Living school grounds are richly layered outdoor environments that strengthen local ecological systems while providing place-based, hands-on learning resources for children and youth of all ages. They are child-centered places that foster empathy, exploration, adventure and a wide range of play and social opportunities, while enhancing health and well-being and engaging the community. Well-designed living school grounds model the ecologically-rich cities we would like to inhabit, at a smaller scale, and teach the next generation how to live more lightly on the Earth — shaping places where urbanization and nature coexist and natural systems are prominent and visible, for all to enjoy. When implemented comprehensively and citywide, living school ground programs have the potential to become effective components of urban ecological infrastructure, helping their cities address many of the key environmental issues of our time.

One school, Sequoia Elementary in Oakland, California, has truly taken the living school ground concept to heart. Following a major renovation, the school now has a total of five outdoor gardens that serve an important educational role.

"My goal is for every student to witness something they wouldn't see if this was all blacktop," Trevor Probert, a first-grade teacher at Sequoia Elementary, tells the Los Angeles Daily News. "I want them to understand the work that goes into a garden, the time, the energy and the bounty they get at the end of the season. The goal is for them to develop a sense of empathy and respect for living things."

Separate from the good work of Green Schoolyards America, it would appear that even my old stomping grounds, Washington Elementary, has undertaken a (more modest) vegetative overhaul. Following a major remodel and expansion project, the school reopened in 2014 with several new additions that I missed out on some 30 years ago: greenery-filled planter boxes, a smattering of young trees and a decent amount of grass turf replacing what I remember as a vast expansive of concrete. I hardly even recognize it.