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Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) Board of Commissioners has approved a $15.9 million plan to continue a nationally recognized program known as Space to Grow that converts playlots at Chicago Public Schools into sustainable places to play and learn. 

The plan allows the MWRD to enter into an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the Chicago Department of Water Management (CDWM), Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC) and Openlands. The partners work together to convert schoolyards into beautiful, vibrant and functional community spaces for physical activity, outdoor learning, environmental literacy and engagement with art, while addressing neighborhood flooding.

“Schoolyard transformations prioritize MWRD’s community partnerships that help improve stormwater management, while also providing outdoor play activities, learning spaces and environmental sustainability,” said MWRD President Kari K. Steele. “Each new green space incorporates landscape designs with the purpose of capturing thousands of gallons of rainwater. I am thrilled that additional schools and their students will have revitalized outdoor play spaces that capture stormwater as well as enhances their learning environment and community.”

Since 2014, partners have revitalized 34 schoolyards across the city, all in underserved communities disproportionately impacted by flooding. These schoolyards can capture 6.5 million gallons each time it rains. The design retention capacity is equivalent to approx. 10 Olympic-size pools or 130,731 bathtubs per rain event.

Piccolo School of Excellence playground
Students enjoy new playground equipment at Piccolo School of Excellence in West Humboldt Park thanks to new upgrades funded by the Space to Grow partnership that also works to capture stormwater.

The next phase of Space to Grow will build upon the program’s success by creating natural play areas, gardens, and bioswales at additional CPS schools. Schools will be selected on an annual basis with consideration given toward degree of flooding, school capacity, impervious areas, and equity, among other criteria. 

In addition to reducing flooding and basement backups, the Space to Grow schoolyards have the potential to improve area water quality by reducing the load on the combined sewer system and educate students and neighbors about green infrastructure techniques and purpose. 

“Through Space to Grow, we can support students and their neighbors with safe outdoor spaces to play, while also mitigating the effects of heavy downpours,” said MWRD Commissioner Yumeka Brown. “We thank our partners at CPS, the Chicago Department of Water Management, Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands for continuing this program that promotes resilience and invests in our future leaders.”

The MWRD, CPS and CDWM are the program’s capital partners and pay for design and installation of Space to Grow schoolyards. HSC and Openlands are facilitating partners and fundraise to cover the project’s non-construction costs, including training and support for schools, community workshops, evaluation and project management.

The partnership has been so popular and effective that the MWRD is simultaneously pursuing federal funding opportunities to launch a pilot program at schoolyards in suburban communities that have been identified in Cicero, Burnham, Franklin Park and Summit.

Coles Elementary School playground before construction
Coles Elementary School playground after construction
Whistler Elementary School playground before construction
Whistler Elementary School playground after construction

Before and after images of Coles Language Academy and Whistler Elementary School (below) show the dramatic transformation following Space to Grow upgrades.

Press Release

Established in 1889, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) is an award-winning, special purpose government agency responsible for wastewater treatment and stormwater management in Cook County, Illinois.


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