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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

New South Side Playgrounds Have An Added Benefit — They Help With Flooding

The outdoor spaces and classrooms coming to several South Side schools can store up 250,000 gallons of storm water.

A rendering of the outdoor play area at O'Keeffe School of Excellence, 6940 S. Merrill Ave. in South Shore. The $1.5 million project includes a soccer field, playground and outdoor teaching space, among other amenities.
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SOUTH SHORE — Five South Side elementary schools are getting renovated schoolyards this fall, bringing kids playgrounds, sports facilities and outdoor classrooms while reducing stormwater flooding in their communities.

Play areas at O’Keeffe School of Excellence in South Shore, Arnold Mireles Academy and Horace Mann Elementary in South Chicago and Daniel Wentworth Elementary in West Englewood are expected to be complete in early October. Another at John Whistler Elementary in West Pullman opened last week.

Each includes an athletic court, a track and turf field, a playground, outdoor classrooms and perennial, edible and rain gardens. The schoolyards are being built through the Space to Grow program, which will have created 30 such spaces across Chicago by the time the latest round is complete.

The schoolyards are meant to serve as community parks when school is not in session, CPS spokesperson James Malnati said. Hours of operation will be posted at their entrances.

They’ll also include spaces teachers and students can use as open-air classrooms or for for quiet, reflective time.

“There are academic and health and wellness … benefits from these spaces, and we do our best to convey those to the schools — particularly during these COVID times, where the best ventilated classroom is an outdoor classroom,” said Meg Kelly, Space to Grow program director for the Healthy Schools Campaign.

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A rendering of the Space to Grow play area at Mireles Academy in South Chicago.

Though there are standard amenities for the play areas, each schoolyard “has a very different design and different elements,” Kelly said. They were developed with input from students, staff parents and other school community members.

For example, the kids at Mireles Academy repeatedly said they wanted a zip line for their playground since none exist at nearby parks, Kelly said. Officials initially didn’t think that was feasible, but the site designer drafted a plan using the students’ input to make the zip line a reality.

“It’s an example of when folks have a chance to weigh in, we figure out how to get it done,” Kelly said.

Sherwood Elementary in Englewood, Niños Heroes Elementary in South Chicago and James Wadsworth Elementary in Woodlawn are among the schools with existing Space to Grow playgrounds.

Their locations were selected in part based on the risk of flooding in their surrounding communities. They incorporate rain gardens, permeable surfaces and other infrastructure to capture rainfall and keep it off neighborhood streets.

O’Keeffe in South Shore will be able to hold up to 250,000 gallons of rainwater, while Mireles in South Chicago will redirect up to 208,000 gallons from the sewers at any given time, Kelly said.

“Basement flooding is a big issue in Chicago all over the place,” Kelly said. The schoolyards are part of a “broad solution” to prevent flooding by capturing the water “right where it falls using more natural elements. The idea is to keep it out of the sewer system, so it doesn’t overwhelm it.”

Persistent flooding and erosion in South Shore and elsewhere along the south lakefront have led residents to organize a task force to address the issue, alongside local elected officials.

Residents in South Chicago’s ZIP Code, 60617, reported 1,280 flooding complaints to the city from 2018 through last June — the third-highest total in the city, according to the Sun-Times.

The Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands are the Space to Grow project’s managing partners. Schools are now applying for the next round of Space to Grow play areas, which will begin next summer and build four spaces, Kelly said.

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