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Let’s turn underused schoolyards into public parks in neighborhoods that need them most

For many Americans, schoolyards are the public open spaces nearest home. America’s public schools sit on 2 million acres of land.

Schoolyard, park

Great parks make great communities. They can make us happier, healthier and more equitable. Yet 100 million Americans, including 28 million kids, don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of their homes. Many that do have parks nearby find that they fall far short of what families and communities need — because they have fallen into disrepair or lack relevant recreational opportunities, beauty or nature.

Trust for Public Land (TPL) has long been working to create new parks and restore underperforming parks where they are needed most. Here in Minnesota and across the country, communities of color and low-income communities have less access to high-quality parks and green space. In our nation’s largest cities, communities of color have access to 43% less space than majority white neighborhoods. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, some of the premier park systems in the country according to TPL’s ParkScore®️ ranking, these numbers are 59% and 32% less respectively.

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Closing the outdoor equity gap — and ensuring all communities can access the health, happiness and climate benefits that parks and the outdoors provide — means supporting communities and local governments to create new parks and to invest in vital green spaces near home.

TPL is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — working nationwide to connect everyone to the benefits and joys of the outdoors. Here in Minnesota, TPL has worked with amazing community leaders and local partners to create vital new parks, such as Midway Peace Park and Frogtown Park and Farm in St. Paul. We continue to look for ways to partner with local community groups and government agencies to bring safer, accessible green space to more residents.

In many neighborhoods, a key to the solution is right in front of us: transforming barren, underinvested and underused schoolyards into vibrant green parks. With kids across Minnesota back in classrooms, this is a moment to think about how schoolyards can better serve our communities, not just during the school year or school day, but year-round.

For many Americans, schoolyards are the public open spaces nearest home. America’s public schools sit on 2 million acres of land. Transforming schoolyards and opening them to the community during non-school hours puts high-quality greenspace and its many benefits within reach of nearly 20 million people.

Nationwide, TPL has already renovated over 300 blank schoolyards into Community Schoolyards(TM) with work underway in 21 states across the country. In August, we launched TPL’s schoolyard program here in Minnesota in partnership with Brooklyn Center Elementary, where students are designing a schoolyard to serve their communities’ needs. Once complete, the schoolyard will put a high-quality outdoor space within a 10-minute walk of 2,500 Brooklyn Center residents.

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Brooklyn Center Elementary is just one of six schoolyards that we will transform in the years ahead. TPL is partnering with school districts and neighborhoods across Minnesota — rural, suburban, urban — that look at their often-empty schoolyards, and dream of something better. We will listen to neighbors’ ideas and dreams, and bring professional support to design schoolyard makeovers.

Improving underused publicly owned schoolyards is cost-efficient. It doesn’t require purchasing land in built-up neighborhoods. It requires smarter, nature and community-centered use of land that we have already publicly set aside for kids and families.

Sophie Harris Vorhoff
Sophie Harris Vorhoff
Currently, public funding for schoolyard makeovers is in its infancy and relies heavily on private donations. Nationally and here in Minnesota, TPL aims to work with federal, state, and local policymakers to grow public funding for smart investments in our Community Schoolyards — creating parks where they are needed most for the health and wellbeing of our communities.

Schoolyards are an important place to do better by Minnesota families. We need to transform schoolyards into better places for kids to learn and grow into stewards of the outdoors. We need to transform them into hubs of community empowerment, improved health and education, and climate resiliency. Renovating our long-neglected public schoolyards is a cost-efficient, common-sense solution to Minnesota’s park equity gap — bringing beauty, joy, outdoor play and resiliency to every neighborhood.

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Sophie Harris Vorhoff is the Minnesota state director and associate vice president for Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit that partners with the communities it serves to connect everyone to the benefits and joys of the outdoors.