The extreme heat deprives children of playgrounds.
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Earlier this week, a trip down an overly hot waterslide at school sent my sophomore to the nurse who needed an ice pack. The molded plastic slide, on a 90-degree day, effectively became a hot plate for her little legs. Unlike 20% of schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, its playground actually has trees to offer some relief — but not enough. During recess and lunch, the shadows they cast don’t reach the play equipment, leaving it roasting in direct sunlight. “It would be nice if the whole playground had shade,” she told me. I asked what happened on days when it was even hotter. The answer was simple: they don’t come out.
It’s not just the schoolyard that’s burning. Temperatures will hover above 100 degrees for much of Los Angeles this week and next in one of “hottest and longest“The heat waves that Southern California has experienced in recent years. There will be little respite to be found outside: Los Angeles ranks 78th out of 100 US cities for park access and equity, according to the Trust for Public Land’s Parkserve 2022 ratings, with one in three residents unable to reach a park within ten minutes on foot. To get to a “local” playground, my family and I have to walk a mile or more – a 20 minute hike for me, but can sometimes take twice as long with two young children. The journey takes us over congested highways and through treeless streets. It’s miserable.
The essential nature of parks goes beyond mere playtime: a well-landscaped park – with mature shade trees, native vegetation and permeable materials that allow surfaces to absorb rainwater – can refresh the surrounding neighborhood up to six degrees. But these types of parks are often rare. Instead, many places where children play are seas of asphalt.
When V. Kelly Turner, professor of urban planning and geography at the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, began conducting research on heat detection in Los Angeles, she continued to encounter bright red anomalies on the landscape. . School playgrounds were not only hot, they were often hotter than anywhere else. “Elementary schools tend to be some of the hottest areas in the whole neighborhood,” she says. “The thermal conditions are basically the same as a parking lot or a highway.” Turner studies what is called “thermal comfort”: what urban conditions cause you to sweat and stress. I first asked her about the efforts to Cool off in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley in 2019 after spending a few weeks aiming a heat gun at surfaces myself. Turner, who is now an LAUSD mom, had recorded a 122-degree slide on a 93-degree day. On a sunny day, the standard plastic blade found on LAUSD campuses would actually be hot enough to cause a first-degree or even second-degree burn, she said. (The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued burn warnings along the same lines.) Other materials favored by playground designers—rubber safety mats and artificial grass—can get just as hot.
If these conditions lead to staying inside during recess, as my daughter’s class sometimes does, it may mean losing the only opportunity a child has to be outside that day. “We’re talking about vulnerable communities where kids may not have outdoor space for recreation, or a neighborhood where the park is as hot as the schoolyard,” Turner says. Schools are places to meet the needs of society; in the same way that LAUSD now provides universal free meals to every student, she says, it should provide universal outdoor access.
Specifically, a version of the outdoors that is well shaded and climate resistant. You don’t get this by simply affixing blinds to existing structures. To truly reduce heat globally, we need to think differently about how we build playgrounds. “When we talk about green schoolyards, that means extensive de-paving, planting trees, managing stormwater, native habitats and outdoor classrooms,” says Aleigh Lewis, founder of Angelenos for Green Schools, member of the Livable Schoolyards Coalition of Los Angeles and mom of LAUSD. . “We need to make shade structures easier and cheaper for schools to install, but this is a short-term solution. Trees not only provide shade, but help mitigate the long-term effects of extreme heat.
Thermal conditions in LA elementary schools are closer to a parking lot than a park.
Credit: Everly Presley/Alamy Stock Photo
There are already examples of how this could work: in New York, the From schoolyards to playgrounds program has renovated nearly 300 school sites in partnership with TPL: ripping up asphalt, setting up ditches, reforestation and shading of play areas. Using spatial analysis, TPL planners prioritized schools in locations that are warmer due to lack of existing green infrastructure; neighborhoods with household incomes around $59,000 are typically five degrees warmer than city averages, and the city’s cooler neighborhoods have household incomes around $91,000. These projects also bring other benefits to historically underserved communities. In Little Neck, Queens, the stretch of asphalt at PS 221 is now a colorful mosaic of playgrounds and sports fields dotted with trees and benches with a square of bright green grass surrounded by permeable paving stones that can quickly absorb water, mitigating flooding in nearby streets. It becomes a neighborhood park after school leaves, providing both a place to play and recover from the heat for approximately 7,000 residents who previously had no truly local public space.
After years of false startsLAUSD is finally set up financing and one plank movement undertakes to green its schoolyards. The plan would establish a district-wide minimum of 30% green space on every campus, analyze which schools have the most urgent need, and develop a strategy to get there within a decade. It’s a good start, says Robin Mark, program director for BPD in Los Angeles, who works closely with the Livable Schoolyards Coalition, but she’d like to strengthen the plan. “We want to add metrics that will help us hold people accountable,” she says. “We don’t want to do more analysis or strategic planning, we want to start building.” If LAUSD’s 1,000 schoolyards were both green and open to the community through joint use agreements with the city, according to a TPL report, the number of Angelenos within a ten-minute walk of a park would increase to 87.7%, giving more than one million more people neighborhood-level park access. If this happened on our LAUSD campus, it would change everything. My sophomore would have a cooler slide, her classmates would have cooler recess, the neighbors would all have cooler apartments – and our schoolyard, instead of being a place to abandon in hot weather, would suddenly become a little oasis in the heat for everyone.