Op-Ed Reimagining our Underused School Playgrounds

City Council Candidate Henry L. Butler. Photo from Butler Campaign website.

As the former Chairperson of Brooklyn Community Board 3 and the board’s current District Manager, I have seen my fair share of city leaders forcing housing and green space advocates to fight against one another. This approach by city leaders is counterproductive to the larger issues we face within our community. While our housing crisis is real and people have a right to adequate affordable living, climate change is just as real and preserving our green spaces are vital, especially as it relates to our health and wellness and protecting the environment. So today, my campaign is releasing an innovative green space policy that will produce the needed open space across the 36th Council district and can serve as a blueprint for the rest of the city.

My proposal calls for us to reimagine the underused school playgrounds across the district and transform them into 21st-century open spaces. This proposal, similar to a charrette, includes bringing together the people of the 36th district, and agencies such as the NYC Department of Education (DOE), and the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation (Parks Department). During this participatory collaboration process each stakeholder will have an opportunity to suggest what they would like to see incorporated at the new site. Reimagining existing sites from my perspective should be proactive and not reactive. Oftentimes agencies suggest, recommend or propose upgrades or a new vision for neighborhood spaces forcing community stakeholders to respond negatively because they felt excluded from the process. A participatory collaboration process would eliminate such concerns and in reality, is an example of the NYC Charter 197a community-based planning model, but on a smaller or targeted scale where the goal is planning for the benefit of all.  

Each stakeholder will play a crucial role in developing and managing the space. During the active school calendar, the DOE will manage the site. Through a participatory design phase, the school community will be able to advise what they envision for the site. I imagine cultivating the next generation of horticulturalists because we listened to them when they indicated their desire to grow plants and flowers. Maybe our students would rather sit on real grass or turf during lunchtime rather than concrete. Whatever they choose to envision, I will look to developing it into a reality.

Outside of school instruction, my proposal calls for a partnership between the community and the Parks Department. This collaboration already exists with countless green spaces and/or community gardens across the district and the city.  The Parks Department will manage, clean, and budget for the site similar to their duties for any other NYC park or green space. Community partners will have access based on an agreement with all governing partners. To ensure all stakeholders are heard, I will ask community members and green space advocates to participate in the design phase which will be in conjunction with the school’s community process.

For too long, we have overlooked the decades-old school playgrounds in our community.  Many are underutilized and have been the victims of budget cuts and crime, which have prevented necessary upgrades – stifling the growth, development and creative genius in our children.   I seek to change that!  What we need is a leader who knows the advocates and knows we all strive for a more equitable and beautiful community. On this Earth Day, I commit to produce more green space by reimagining the concrete playground jungles across the 36th district.

Henry L. Butler is a Candidate for Brooklyn’s 36th City Council District seat. The district covers Bedford-Stuyvesant and Northern Crown Heights

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