Skip to main content

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

Providing kids with a place to play and an outlet for stormwater

Since 2014, the MWRD has partnered with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Chicago Department of Water Management (CDWM), Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC) and Openlands to transform CPS schoolyards into dynamic places to learn and play, while also educating them on the importance of green infrastructure to manage stormwater. This program known as Space to Grow has transformed over 34 schoolyards over that time with more schoolyard upgrades to come. 

One schoolyard with multiple benefits

Space to Grow Playground

Space to Grow gives students and their neighbors living in low-income communities improved outdoor spaces to play. A nationally recognized partnership and award-winning program, Space to Grow boosts physical activity and outdoor access, supports learning, reduces neighborhood flooding, improves area water quality, and engages communities with their local schools. These beautiful, vibrant and functional community spaces also help CPS meet daily recess and physi­cal education requirements and engage the students with outdoor learning and art.

Capturing more rainfall

These permeable surface areas are equipped with new playgrounds, turf fields, rain gardens and other features designed to collect more rainfall and keep it out of the sewers. 

The permeable surfaces will reduce flooding, reduce the load on the combined sewer system, and encourage the use of green infrastructure techniques that soak up more stormwater by using natural solutions. On average, the 34 schoolyards completed to date each capture more than 192,000 gallons of stormwater each time it rains. In total, they collect enough rainfall to fill nearly 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools or more than 130,000 bathtubs. 

Schools are selected with consideration given toward degree of flooding, school capacity, impervious areas, and equity, among other criteria. 

Space to Grow Map

An education on green infrastructure

Green infrastructure practices like those used for the Space to Grow program manage the water by storing it and allowing it to slowly soak into the underlying soil. This natural landscaping concept manages water and provides environmental and community benefits. Between Space to Grow and partnerships with local governmental entities, the MWRD has completed more than 100 green infrastructure projects throughout Cook County.

More schoolyards in store

The MWRD Board of Commissioners in March 2024 approved plans to enter into an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with CPS that would allow the MWRD to spend up to $15.9 million through 2026 on schoolyard transformation projects through the Space to Grow program. 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 the suburban communities of Cicero, Burnham, Franklin Park and Summit.

Before and after

Space to Grow Grissom Playground Before
Space to Grow Grissom Playground After

Grissom Elementary School, 12810 S. Escanaba Ave., Hegewisch neighborhood, storing 253,902 gallons.

Space to Grow Cook Playground Before
Space to Grow Cook Playground After

Cook Elementary School, 8150 S. Bishop St., Auburn Gresham neighborhood, storing 217,978 gallons. 

Space to Grow Davis Playground Before
Space to Grow Davis Playground After

Davis Elementary School, 3014 W. 39th Pl., Brighton Park neighborhood, storing 197,422 gallons.

Space to Grow Playground Transformation