By Jess Scanlon
Under the children’s sneaker-clad feet, swirls of blue, green, tan and gray brighten the new schoolyard at J.H.S. 218 in East New York, Brooklyn. Overhead an overcast sky looms, but the playground has another use if it starts to rain.
On sunny days, this colorful playground is for play and gym class. But on rainy days it’s a giant sponge to absorb the rain before it can flood the neighborhood or enter the Jamaica Bay, one of three absorbent playgrounds the city opened in Brooklyn this past fall.
These playgrounds are the first of their kind in the city and much of the country. The Bloomberg Administration has made playground-building a priority, working with The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit organization. City Council members Charles Barron, Stephen Levin and Christine Quinn also added discretionary funds for the new playgrounds. The community playgrounds fill in the need for new play areas at city public schools and keep stormwater out of an old sewage system that cannot handle the extra rainwater.
In its earliest stages the playgrounds also offered a learning opportunity for students, who helped design the playgrounds with assistance from the playgrounds nonprofit. Students helped pick out the plants, features they wanted and the decorative design on the asphalt. Maddalena Polletta, Coordinator of the NYC Children’s Gardening Program said students at JHS-218 picked practical plants that required “no maintenance.”
“They can handle a lot of water and periods of drought,” she said.
The city Department of Education, Department of Environmental Protection and The Trust for Public Land are picking more schools for up to seven more playgrounds this school year and up to 40 to be built in the coming years. As of press time, no new playgrounds have been announced.
The Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek, federal Superfund sites near two of the new school playgrounds, show the importance of these playgrounds to the city’s sewage system. New York City rainwater often combines with the city’s sewage water, causing an overflow that leads to the water escaping into local water before it’s been treated, according to Allan Frei, Director of the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities and Chair of the Geography Department at Hunter College.
“Any time you can take impervious area, such as concrete or asphalt or whatever and make it an area that can absorb the some of the rain, even if it’s only temporarily that would reduce the peak flow and help minimize the impact,” said Frei.
The city’s sewer system is very old. Inside the system rain mixes with untreated sewage for treatment. When too much of this combined water enters the system, such as after a severe thunderstorm, some of the water may bypass the system and enter local waterways untreated. This pollution contains human waste from the sewage and nitrogen, carbon and other chemicals from the streets. When too much water enters the waterways, flooding also becomes a concern. The playgrounds work to prevent this pollution and possible flooding by absorbing the water into the ground using plants, soil and gravel that draw in the water, instead of repelling it. The inch of water absorbed by the playgrounds translates to hundreds of thousands of gallons per year that don’t enter the sewage system.
The playgrounds aren’t just important to the city’s local ecosystems; they also look great to students and teachers alike. Students at PS-261 in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood designed a very unusual rain garden with benches and a gazebo flanked by wooden rain barrels. Green roofs top a gazebo and storage shed while gray stones alike in color, but with a different texture line the paths. Tiny gravel stones line the spaces in between the larger stones. Science teacher Scott Howard volunteered to take charge of upkeep of the garden, one he uses for his lessons now. Parents at PS-261 have also formed a garden committee to help supply the garden and take care of upkeep on weekends and school breaks.
For the students, the playground part is all about play and free time, despite its environmental benefits. The kids at PS-261 are particularly fond of the turf because it’s one of the softer spots at the playground. That turf covers a layer of gravel. When it rains, the water passes through the turf layer and the gravel to join the groundwater under the soil. The playground is designed to absorb up to an inch of rainwater during storms.
Although this solution is well received by faculty and students alike, there’s a catch. Building green playgrounds takes coordinated funding and planning by three city agencies, City Council members and charitable contributors.
But The Trust for Public Land plans to expand its green playgrounds to other schools in New York City as well as in other cities. The goal is to have the playgrounds capture as much rain as possible, preferably after recess.