According to the Trust for Public Land, 50% of Los Angeles County residents lack access to a public park.
The American Psychological Association reports that exposure to nature, particularly green spaces, has been linked to a host of benefits, including improved attention, lower stress, better mood, reduced risk of psychiatric disorders and even upticks in empathy and cooperation.
Given the long list of benefits associated with being close to nature and in light of the fact that the vast majority of school yards in Los Angeles are covered with asphalt, the Trust for Public Land and the Los Angeles Living Schoolyard Coalition conducted a study on health, educational equity, and climate benefits of a Green Schoolyard Initiative for Los Angeles.
The study, which was recently released and is embeded below, underscores how green schoolyards can reduce the harmful effects of climate-related heat, increase park access and access to green space, and address park equity and disparities for millions in Los Angeles.
The Trust for Public Land along with its partners in the Los Angeles Living Schoolyards Coalition released this groundbreaking new study, “Green Schoolyards for Los Angeles: The Smart Policy Solution for Equity, Health, and Climate Resilience,” as part of an overall effort to ensure that students, teachers, staff and the community surrounding the schools have access to public green spaces.
“Transforming asphalt-covered schoolyards into vibrant, green spaces, with natural play structures and outdoor classrooms that are unlocked for public use after school hours can greatly help provide park access for the 1.5 million Angelenos who lack it,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, California State Director for The Trust for Public Land. “Green schoolyards can not only address the park equity gap but students, teachers, and staff will benefit with increased shading that reduces the harmful impacts of increased
heat,” added Rodriguez.
Experts agree that close-to-home access to nature improves the quality of life not just for children, but for all people, especially those in communities with high rates of trauma, and those lacking access to parks and other green spaces.
Trees and gardens improve our mental and physical health. Research shows that connecting with nature helps us feel less stressed, decreases our blood pressure, and elevates our mood. Studies also indicate that physical activity levels increase for people of all ages when they have green space nearby, an important outcome when you consider that physical activity levels can serve as a barometer for overall health and wellness.
Replacing asphalt with trees, soil, plants, and mulch helps schoolyards reduce air pollution and heat, and by extension improves student health and their ability to learn. Beyond simply improving the environment in which children spend much of their day, green schoolyards affect how students of all ages feel, play, socialize, and learn.
“Being around nature relaxes them,” says Heidi Gott, a fourth-grade teacher who worked at Eagle Rock Elementary well before the greening project occurred, and returned in 2019 to a completely changed campus. Gott noticed that the new natural schoolyard led to higher levels of creativity, mindfulness, and better relationships between students in her classroom.
We know that studies show that spending time outdoors in nature can reduce stress, strengthen the ability to concentrate, decrease negative social behaviors, and even improve test scores but the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the urgency of this work, especially from an equity standpoint.
Remote instruction has taken a toll on students. The research shows that after a year of remote instruction, learning loss has disproportionately affected students of color. And the equity gap in park access has only become more pronounced.
In addition to increasing access to public greenspaces, green schoolyards will help combat heat islands, pockets of the city where midday temperatures are up to 20°F higher than those in surrounding areas due to heat-absorbing pavement and rooftops and a lack of tree cover.
Nationwide, data shows that 36 percent of public school students spend their school days in a heat island. In Los Angeles, where air temperatures sometimes exceed 100°F, 75 percent of these students are people of color.
The heat island effect in cities is compounded on traditional schoolyards, where shadeless blacktop absorbs heat from the sun, creating an even more intense island within the larger one. This puts students at risk for heat-related illness and does nothing to contribute to the health of the surrounding community.
To help state and local officials identify a path to park equity, The Los Angeles Living Schoolyard Coalition partners analyzed how public places like schools can not only serve the educational needs of a local community but can also provide more green and natural spaces in communities that lack them today.
Using GIS analysis, the Coalition looked at every California school district and community based on three factors:
- Health: gauged by performance on California physical fitness tests and self-reported physical and mental well-being measures
- Climate: measured by the percentage of schools located in high-temperature “heat islands” and the percentage of school area currently shaded by natural tree canopy
- Equity: determined by California’s Local Control Funding Formula, which measures the number of low-income and other high-need students within each school district
The assessment found a significant need for greener schoolyards statewide. Yet, the highest need in California was in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Over 1 million Angelenos could gain access to a park within a 10-minute walk if public schools were transformed from being mostly asphalt and treeless to green or living schoolyards with accessible, nature-based grounds.
“Due to racist planning practices including historic redlining, access to open space in Los Angeles has long been divided on racial lines,” says Tori Kjer, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust. “It is necessary to reimagine and redefine existing public space in order to address park equity.”
Space itself is at a premium in a city like Los Angeles, making it difficult to create new and expand existing parks. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the second-largest school district in the country and one of the largest public land owners in the United States. To mitigate the negative and harmful impacts of climate change, public spaces can be transformed to provide multiple benefits for the community.
The Los Angeles Living Schoolyards Coalition is calling on the LAUSD to join the community to create a comprehensive and actionable plan for healthier, more equitable, and greener public schools in Los Angeles.
To access additional information about The Los Angeles Living Schoolyards Coalition partners and learn more about the benefits of Green Schoolyards for Los Angeles, please visit: The Trust for Public Land LA Schoolyards, Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, Council for Watershed Health, Los Angeles Beautification Team, North East Trees, Los Angeles Food Policy Council, Claire Latané, Heal the Bay, and Kounkuey Design Initiative.
WHAT LEADERS ARE SAYING ABOUT GREEN SCHOOLYARDS
“Kids are some of the most vulnerable groups. They can’t tolerate as much heat exposure as adults. It affects their concentration and their ability to learn. There have been studies showing that PSAT scores are lower during heat waves, and this predominantly affects lower-income communities. What kids need is shade.”
--Dr. V. Kelly Turner, assistant professor of urban planning and geography, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
“Opening the gates to schoolyards during non-school hours in communities that lack green space represents an important strategy toward increasing equitable park access. But these schoolyards should have shade, should be green, and low-cost recreation programs should be offered, similar to any other community park in the City.”
--Michael Shull, City of LA, Department of Recreation & Parks General Manager About the Living Schoolyards Coalition
The Living Schoolyard Coalition envisions community-led, nature-based flourishing schoolyards, where students and low-income communities of color thrive, play, engage, and explore. We believe that historically disinvested Los Angeles youth, families, and residents should be given power and choice to cultivate and shape their public school campuses while reaping the benefits of community-responsive programs that promote holistic mental health and physical wellbeing.
The Living Schoolyards Coalition includes non-profit and community-based organizations as well as researchers from academic institutions throughout Los Angeles with a shared vision for comprehensive school greening and joint-use.