When Spokane Valley, Wash., incorporated six years ago, the mostly built-out community had a shortage of parks and little space to create more. “We've got to get creative, because the vacant land is just not available,” says Parks Director Mike Stone.

To expand its parks, Spokane Valley has been working with school districts to improve facilities at, and public access to, school playgrounds. The city also acquired land adjacent to a planned school so the parks department and the school district could design a combined city park and playground.

While playgrounds-to-parks programs are not widespread, a growing number of communities with a dearth of open space are overcoming hurdles like maintenance costs and diverging interests between school boards and city governments to put school facilities to public use. “There's a lot of joint-use-agreement energy going on now … many local governments are really looking to maximize the taxpayer investment,” says Richard Dolesh, chief of public policy for the Ashburn, Va.-based National Recreation and Park Association. “It makes no sense whatsoever to lock up your school grounds, go across the street and build a new playground for the same kids with the same taxpayers' dollars.”

In Houston, the SPARK School Park Program, a non-profit organization operating out of mayor's office, has converted more than 200 school playgrounds to parks since 1983 and opened them to the public. The school principals request the projects, and the surrounding neighborhoods help design their dream parks, says SPARK Executive Director Kathleen Ownby.

The conversions typically cost between $75,000 and $100,000 for elementary school playgrounds and nearly $150,000 for middle school and high school properties, Ownby says. The school district and each school commit to raising $5,000 for their projects. SPARK then coordinates funding from various sources, including city contributions and Community Development Block Grants.

Ownby says a SPARK project helps empower the neighborhood by bringing residents together to raise money and contribute to the park's design. The program also benefits public health by giving children a safe area to exercise. Most of all, the added parkland provides a comfortable, convenient place for families to play outside. “Any kind of green space, especially in a built-up area like Houston, is treasured,” Ownby says.

Peter Barnes is a Houston-based freelance writer.

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