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Tacoma's Community Schoolyards

"Before and after" view of Community Schoolyard developed in California. Photo from The Trust for Public Land.

Tacoma’s Community Schoolyards: A step toward better mental health?

One way to ensure all residents are within a 10 minute walk to a park

There is, it turns out, a relationship between mental health and how far people live from parks. 

According to a study published several years ago in The Journal of Mental Health Economy, people who live within a quarter-mile of a park – about a 10-minute walk – have better mental health scores than those who live farther away. 

A question of equity

The City of Tacoma has been looking for ways to address mental health disparities among its neighborhoods. One part of the solution? Park equity. Tacoma is moving forward with a plan to ensure all residents — not just those in high-income areas — live within easy walking distance of a park.

Central to that effort is a partnership between Tacoma Public Schools and the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national organization dedicated to building parks and protecting public lands. The two groups are working with other partners to transform the play yards at five Tacoma schools into public parks through TPL’s Community Schoolyards program.

A 10-minute walk for most by 2030

“The program will work to ensure everyone in Tacoma lives within a 10-minute walk of a quality park by 2030,” according to a TPL release. “Currently, 31% of Tacoma residents cannot access parks or open spaces within a 10-minute walk of their homes.” 

Tacoma’s first two community schoolyards (transformations at Helen B. Stafford Elementary and Jennie Reed Elementary) are expected to be completed within one to three years. Playgrounds at Mann, Whitman and Larchmont elementaries will also be turned into green park spaces.

Finding the need

TPL, school district officials, Metro Parks Tacoma and community stakeholders began the process of identifying which school playgrounds to upgrade in 2020. 

“We look at data, both in terms of which neighborhoods are not currently served by nearby parks and the data on community mental health,” TPL Program Director Sarneshea Evans says of the Community Schoolyards program site selection process. “We then speak with the community to secure their backing of the project.” 

A park created for and by community

Once a community stands behind a project, says Evans, designers reach out to the constituents, young and older, who will use a park for design input.

“Part of the process is engaging with the students at the schools we will be improving,” Evans says. “The students are part of the initial design process. Feedback from the community leads to alterations and the final design.”

A boost to mental health

Advocates hope projects like Tacoma’s Community Schoolyards will help more cities reduce the increasing  levels of stress, anxiety, and depression that many people have experienced in recent years, especially young people. According to TPL, more than 65,000 Tacoma residents live too far away from a park. That means Tacoma has the largest park-access gap of any of Washington’s major cities, along with one of the state’s lowest life expectancies. 

Sharing schoolyards with neighborhoods outside school hours is the first step toward connecting more than 40,000 residents to new local green spaces, Trust officials say. 

Return for the dollar

As the Trust’s Community Schoolyards website explains: “Remaining open after hours will help entire communities thrive. A well-designed schoolyard offers new exercise opportunities to both kids and adults. It also increases interactions and connections between the school and local residents.”

And, Evans wrote in The Seattle Times in August, “Turning schoolyards into community spaces has another benefit: It’s cost-effective. 

“As the price of land rises in Washington, transforming existing schoolyards into community parks is an innovative way to add needed public space without buying new land,” Evans wrote. “This can be particularly meaningful for lower income communities that don’t have the funds for a community center or a brand-new park.” 

Need a Community Schoolyard in your neighborhood?

Evans encourages any community seeking to increase access to greens paces or improve existing play areas to reach out to Trust for Public Land and contact their local parks department to learn more local park-improvement processes. 

 To see where your city or community stands in terms of easy walking access to parks, check out the ParkScore rating system.

Writer Nils Dahlgren contributed to this report.

More at Seattle’s Child:

“10 of the best Seattle-area parks for kids”

Writer Nils Dahlgren contributed to this report

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