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Why transforming concrete schoolyards into parks could make for healthier cities

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A large body of research has shown that living near parks can boost people's health and well-being. But residents of low-income, urban communities of color often have less access to green spaces than their wealthier white counterparts. As part of our series Living Better, NPR's Maria Godoy looks at one program that is transforming concrete city schoolyards into welcoming parks where kids in their communities can connect with the outdoors.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: It's a warm, sunny Wednesday morning. I'm outside Add B. Anderson Elementary School in West Philadelphia...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Laughter).

GODOY: ...On the playground.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Whoa.

GODOY: It looks like your quintessential city park. There's a running track, a basketball court, a turf field, picnic tables. In one corner, a bunch of kids scramble onto a giant swing and take turns pushing each other.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Push, push, rocking, rocking everything.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Go faster.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: This is cool.

GODOY: Last year this schoolyard looked completely different. Principal Laurena Zeller says there was nothing here.

LAURENA ZELLER: That yard was literally just concrete. That was it - concrete, broken concrete with a little bit of weeds in between.

GODOY: Now the space has been transformed. Newly planted trees provide dappled shade. There are two new rain gardens with colorful, flowering plants. But here's what's really cool. This transformation here - it was led by third graders.

ZELLER: So having 8- and 9-year-olds kind of navigate that process and to have autonomy and voice and then design it and then get feedback and then present the final project - it's beautiful. I think it's life-changing. I just can't even not get emotional when I think about the impact of that.

GODOY: The kids picked the playground equipment. They also surveyed their teachers, families and neighbors about what they wanted out of a new outdoor space. The project took five years. It was slowed down by the pandemic. But it's had a big impact on the kids' lives. Here's Tamir Parks, who graduated eighth grade this week.

TAMIR PARKS: I felt like I was an adult at third grade. I felt like I was really in charge, and I was happy building and designing it.

GODOY: But the revamped schoolyard isn't just a better place to play and burn off energy. Access to parks and other outdoor spaces also has well-documented physical and mental health benefits. Danielle Denk is with The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit group that's been helping public schools in Philadelphia and across the country transform their schoolyards into green spaces.

DANIELLE DENK: Having schoolyard forests really are providing health benefits. They're improving mental health benefits also from being near the tree canopy. And being outdoors and fresh air truly does reduce stress levels.

GODOY: They also increase physical activity, and they're linked to a lower risk of obesity and of dying prematurely. And the benefits can also extend into the classroom.

DENK: We're seeing trends in academic performance improvements. We're seeing students attend school - so the increases to the attendance rate. We've seen schoolyards have suspension rates drop down to zero after the schoolyard is transformed.

GODOY: And it's not just students who benefit. During non-school hours, the revamped schoolyard remains open to the whole community - for picnickers, parents pushing strollers or just people looking to enjoy outdoor exercise within a short walk from home. Andrea Lett lives a couple of blocks from Anderson Elementary. She says her son Tasheed is often at the schoolyard well into the early evening.

ANDREA LETT: Oh, my son Tasheed - he loves the schoolyard. I mean, it gives him and other children an outlet, a safe place to go and have fun because a lot of children in our community - they don't have nowhere to go.

GODOY: Danielle Denk says that's why The Trust for Public Land has helped transform nearly 300 schoolyards across the country. They want to give more people easy access to outdoor greenspace.

DENK: You know, for us, this is a game-changing solution that is needed everywhere across the country. And it is so doable, right? This can be done everywhere.

GODOY: According to the group's analysis, if every schoolyard in the country was revamped and open after hours to the community, it would put 80 million people within a 10-minute walk of a park. Maria Godoy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.

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