Between Recess and Lunch, a Lesson in Landscape Architecture

Lisa Foderaro explores a program underway in select New York City schools to guide children through the eco-friendly redesign of their own playgrounds.
May 10, 2012, 5am PDT | Ryan Lue
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New York City is taking a new approach to fighting stormwater runoff: Give it to a twelve-year-old for homework. As part of a new initiative spearheaded by the Trust for Public Land, sixth graders at five schools throughout New York – all near overburdened water treatment plants – will give their playgrounds an environmentally-conscious redesign, replacing barren fields of blacktop with storm-friendly gravel and greenery.

"In the process, the children are learning about arcane urban infrastructure and bureaucratese, like 'combined storm-sewer runoff,'" Foderaro writes. "And they are gaining appreciation for the absorbent powers of trees and grass, as well as roof gardens, rain barrels and permeable pavers - bricks that soak up water."

Maddalena Polletta, a representative of the trust, came to Stephen A. Halsey Junior High to show students exactly why the project matters. Armed with a "Sewer in a Suitcase," Polletta poured water and glitter over a miniature model of the city, complete with working storm drains. "Sometimes just a quarter-inch of rain will overflow the system," she explained. "Sewage is released into the bay about 50 times a year. Last year, we had more rain than we've ever had before."

The program fits into broader plans the city has for the future of stormwater management. Over the next 18 years, the city has promised $2.4 billion of public and private funds in "an agreement [to] pay for novel techniques to address its biggest water-quality challenge... The approach is a departure from more traditional methods to control sewage overflow, like storage tanks and tunnels."

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Published on Monday, May 7, 2012 in The New York Times
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