After the final bell rings and the kids clear out, schools are basically empty. So are their playgrounds. For cities with low access to parks and open spaces, these areas present opportunities. But for the most part, whether for vague security reasons or merely tradition, the playgrounds of public schools are off limits to the communities around them. They sit there, mockingly empty, and inaccessible to residents.
A new program has just launched in Los Angeles to try to open up these closed spaces for community benefit after school hours. The program is dubbed Jugar – as in the Spanish verb for play – and is starting out in two pilot schools in park-poor parts of town.
The goal is to provide more spaces for exercise and activity in park-poor and obesity-plagued parts of town. The Los Angeles Times reports:
The Alliance for a Better Community, which received federal dollars for the program, worked with public health officials to choose locations that had poor health outcomes, such as high levels of diabetes or obesity, and a community desire for change.
The organization is working with the Los Angeles Unified School District to streamline policies on after-hours campus use and joint-use agreements. The group's executive director, Angelica Solis, said there is no "rhyme or reason" to which schools are locked Saturdays and Sundays.
The Safe Routes to School National Partnership has been a vocal proponent of these types of programs, known as joint use agreements. These agreements can be formed between school districts and municipal governments to open schoolyards and share the costs of maintenance and security. Most states have laws that allow school districts to permit or authorize use of school grounds by the community. Some states have dedicated funding for school projects that requires any playgrounds to be open and accessible to community members after school hours. The National Policy and Legal Analysis Network has a report [PDF] that identifies the related laws in each state.
As Streetsblog L.A. recently reported, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa just announced plans to build 50 pocket parks throughout the city in an effort to close this gap. “Neighborhoods – especially those in the most park-poor areas of the City – will be greener, more beautiful and more livable,” Villaraigosa said.
The 50 park locations won’t be announced until March, but on its face the plan seems smart. At the same time, though, spending money to build parks from scratch is a lot tougher these days than dedicating significantly fewer dollars towards opening up schoolyards for public use. More parks are definitely needed in L.A., and it’s almost a guarantee that any new park would be more attractive and enjoyable than a blacktop-coated elementary school playground. But it seems wasteful to keep what could be open spaces locked up and off limits.
Photo credit: Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters