Barrington Elementary School in Austin, Texas, looks much like any other elementary school: solid walls adorned with colorful art (created by budding artists), traditional classrooms and assembly spaces, and happy children and caring adults getting on with the important business of educating and learning. An ample playground and athletic field area are located behind the school; most visitors wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary there.
Looks can be deceiving, however. Something subtle yet extraordinary is happening behind the school: “green infrastructure” is taking root. The green infrastructure at Barrington Elementary School includes a large rainwater cistern, two small but lovely rain gardens, a “nature discovery path” (a landscape of native plants—located just outside the school, adjacent to the athletic field—with a footpath running through it), and more than 100 young (and therefore small) shade trees planted approximately two years ago. Over the coming years, as the small trees become large trees, this schoolyard will be completely transformed, from a largely barren blacktop playground and grass athletic field to a well-shaded, multi-faceted, outdoor activity nature space.
More than just a schoolyard, this space is actually a public park: Barrington School Park. Before and after school, and on weekends, the park is open to everyone in the community. Located in a primarily low-income, Hispanic neighborhood, the idea behind this park—which is a collaboration between the Austin Independent School District and the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department , with active participation by community members in its planning—is that children and all members of the community need safe, pleasant places to be physically active and to connect to nature. Having access to such spaces is well known to promote physical and mental health. However, as a result of years of disinvestment, lower-income neighborhoods are often devoid of such spaces. The City of Austin is working to turn that around with their Green School Parks program, of which Barrington is one.
The case for Green School Parks, however, is becoming more compelling with each passing year as a result of climate change. In Austin, like in most other communities across America, global climate change is making it hotter, and increasing the number of uncomfortably—and even dangerously—hot days. This is especially true in cities—and even more true in most low-income inner-city neighborhoods—because hotter temperatures are amplified by the “heat island effect.” Green infrastructure can reduce this effect by shading building surfaces, deflecting the sun’s rays, and releasing moisture into the atmosphere.
In theory, Green School Parks should help to reduce the number of uncomfortable and dangerously hot days at Austin’s elementary schools. This, in turn, should create conditions where students—and other community members—can safely spend more time outdoors being physically active and connecting with nature.
The City of Austin’s Health and Climate Solution project, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is putting this theory to the test. The project is a collaboration between the school district, the Parks and Recreation Department, and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health in Austin, Texas, that will monitor the outdoor temperatures and use of the outdoor spaces at three elementary schools located in low-income, predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods: Barrington, Cook and Odom. Each of these schools is similar in many ways, yet distinct with regard to the amount and dispersion of the tree canopy in the school “park.” The hypothesis, essentially, is that more shade cover will lead to lower temperatures and more time spent outdoors being physically active. The hope is that this, in turn, will increase children’s connectedness to nature and emotional well-being—and even raise standardized test scores.
The leaders of this project—Melody Alcazar at the City of Austin, Anne Muller at Austin Independent School District, and Kevin Lanza at the school of public health—are excited that this project has the potential to accelerate the full adoption of the Green School Park program throughout Austin. They are also keenly aware of the fact that their work may inspire other American communities—especially other communities in the South, where the number of dangerous heat days is growing most rapidly—to follow suit. As such, this project is an example of what Robert Wood Johnson Foundation hopes to accomplish with its Health and Climate Solutions program: build the evidence for effective solutions, so that all communities across the country can effectively rise to the health and climate challenges that they face in an equitable manner.