By Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant.
The city of New York has an interesting new way of dealing with its
water-quality challenge. Nope, it’s not more storage tanks or deeper
tunnels, it’s sixth graders.
Sixth graders at Stephen A. Halsey Junior High School are learning about
techniques to prevent stormwater runoff into an antiquated combined
sewer system that overflows during heavy rains, spilling raw sewage
straight into the Flushing Bay. A partnership between five city schools
and the Trust for Public Land enlists
the schools’ students to help design and construct new eco-playgrounds
that will capture and retain stormwater in order to reduce combined
Replacing the existing asphalt schoolyards at these schools with more
eco-friendly surfaces and ground cover, will indeed help the city with
its water quality problem, but this project also has benefits for the
They’re learning environmental science. They’re learning about the
drawbacks of impervious surfaces and the importance of using permeable
pavers; the ability of trees, shrubs, and other ground cover with deep
root systems to draw water deep into the soil; the benefits of
collecting water in rain barrels; and the importance of having clean
water. They’re learning how to apply the theoretical science they’ve
learned from their textbooks to real world problems.
They’re also learning something else, something much, much harder to
teach, something that, with our focus on test scores and performance
records, we seem to no longer see as under the purview of overburdened
public schools and teachers: they’re learning to be better citizens.
They’re learning to pay attention to and get involved in projects that
will help make their community a better place to live, work, and grow
up. They’re learning that little changes that are easy to incorporate
can make a big difference both environmentally and socially. School
officials and local leaders are empowering these kids to effect change
in their communities, showing them that they can use their knowledge and
problem solving skills to make a difference.
An important concern of economic development (and urban planning more
generally) is the development of tomorrow’s community leaders. I think
projects like these are a great place to start. Projects like these
involve kids at a young age in community beautification and development
efforts, they have tangible effects that kids can be proud of having a
hand in producing, and they have the potential for positive impacts on
lifelong community participation.
I first read about this project in Tuesday’s New York Times.
It’s part of a larger collaboration between the Trust for Public Land
and New York City to provide safe places to play within a ten minute
walk of every child in the five boroughs. That collaborative program is
on target to develop 185 playgrounds and parks over the next few years.