Earlier this week, a journey down a too-hot slide at school sent my second-grader to the nurse in need of an ice pack. The molded plastic slide, on a 90-degree day, effectively became a griddle for her little legs. Unlike 20 percent of the schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, her playground actually has trees to offer some relief — just not enough. During recess and lunch, the shadows they cast don’t reach the play equipment, leaving it to broil in the direct sun. “It would be fine if the whole playground had shade,” she told me. I asked what happens on days when it’s even hotter. The answer was simple: They don’t go outside.
It’s not just the schoolyard that’s scorching. Temperatures will hover above 100 degrees for much of Los Angeles this week and next in one of the “hottest and longest” heat waves Southern California has seen in recent years. There will be little reprieve to be found outdoors: Los Angeles ranks 78th out of 100 U.S. cities for park access and equity, according to the Trust for Public Land’s 2022 Parkserve ratings, with one in three residents unable to reach a park with a ten-minute walk. To access a “local” playground, my family and I have to walk a mile or more — a 20-minute trek for me, but one that can sometimes take twice as long with two young kids. The trip takes us over clogged freeways and down treeless streets. It’s miserable.
The essential nature of parks is bigger than just playtime: A well-appointed park — with mature shade trees, native vegetation, and permeable materials that allow surfaces to absorb stormwater — can cool down the surrounding neighborhood by up to six degrees. But these kinds of parks are often a rarity. Instead, many of the places kids play are seas of blacktop.
When V. Kelly Turner, co-director of UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation, began conducting heat-sensing research in L.A., she kept encountering bright-red anomalies on the landscape. School playgrounds weren’t just hot — they were often hotter than anywhere else. “Elementary schools tend to be some of the hottest areas in all of the neighborhood,” she says. “Thermal conditions are basically the same as a parking lot or highway.” Turner studies what’s called “thermal comfort”: basically what urban conditions make you feel sweaty and stressed. I’d first interviewed her about efforts to cool down L.A.’s San Fernando Valley in 2019 after I’d spent a few weeks aiming a heat gun at surfaces myself. Turner, who is now an LAUSD mom, had clocked a slide at 122 degrees on a 93-degree afternoon. On a day like that, the standard plastic slide found on LAUSD campuses would in fact be hot enough to cause a first-degree, and potentially even a 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 turf — can get just as hot.
If those conditions lead to staying inside for recess, as my daughter’s class sometimes does, it can 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,” says Turner. Schools are places to respond to societal needs; in the same way LAUSD now provides universal free meals for every student, she says, it should provide universal access to the outdoors.
Specifically, a version of the outdoors that is well-shaded and climate resilient. You don’t get that by just affixing shades to existing structures. To actually reduce heat in a comprehensive way requires thinking differently about how we build playgrounds. “When we say green schoolyards, that means extensively de-paving, planting trees, stormwater management, native habitats, and outdoor classrooms,” says Aleigh Lewis, co-founder of Angelenos for Green Schools and an LAUSD mom. “We do need to make shade structures easier and cheaper for schools to install, but they are a short-term solution. Trees not only provide shade but help mitigate the long-term effects of extreme heat.”
There are already examples of how this might work: In New York City, the Schoolyards to Playgrounds program has renovated nearly 300 school sites in partnership with TPL: tearing out asphalt, installing bioswales, planting more trees, and shading play areas. Using spatial analysis, TPL planners prioritized schools in places that are hotter due to lack of existing green infrastructure; neighborhoods with household incomes of around $59,000 are generally five degrees hotter than citywide averages, and the coolest parts of town have household incomes of around $91,000. These projects also bring other benefits to historically underserved communities. In Little Neck, Queens, P.S. 221’s asphalt expanse is now a colorful mosaic of playgrounds and sports fields dotted with trees and benches with a bright-green square of turf ringed by permeable pavers that can quickly absorb water, mitigating flooding on nearby streets. It becomes a neighborhood park after school lets out — delivering both a place to play and recover from the heat to an estimated 7,000 residents who previously had no truly local public space.
After years of false starts, LAUSD is finally putting up funding and a board motion making commitments to green its schoolyards. The plan would establish a districtwide minimum of 30 percent green space on each campus, analyze which schools have the most urgent need, and develop a strategy to make it happen within a decade. It’s a good start, says Robin Mark, TPL’s L.A.-based program director, who has been working closely with L.A.’s Living Schoolyards Coalition, but she’d like to make the plan stronger. “We want to add metrics that will help us hold people accountable,” she says. “We don’t want to do more analysis or more strategic planning, we want to start building.” If LAUSD’s 1,000 schoolyards were both greened and opened to the community using joint-use agreements with the city, according to a TPL report, the number of Angelenos within a ten-minute walk to a park would jump to 87.7 percent, giving over a million more people neighborhood-level park access. If this happened at our LAUSD campus, it would change everything. My second-grader would get a cooler slide, her classmates and teachers would get a cooler recess, the neighbors would all get cooler apartments — and our schoolyard, instead of a place to abandon on hot days, would suddenly become a little oasis in the heat for everyone.