No sooner had the last class bell rung on the 2021-22 school year at Jackson Elementary School in Altadena than the heavy equipment rolled up to campus. Their mission, remove most of the blacktop behind the school.
By Wesley Reutimann
In short order the operators of a large excavator and wheel loader broke up hundreds of square feet of heat-absorbing asphalt. A day later all that remained were a few piles of asphalt.
Like most public school campuses across California the impermeable asphalt hardscape surrounding the classrooms at Jackson Elementary School had been the status quo for decades, an institutional norm that few had ever questioned. Until recently. Led by Amigos de los Rios the project is the result of years of careful planning and funding expertise. In April 2021 the California Natural Resources Agency awarded the “Jackson Watershed Discovery Project” $764,852 from its Urban Greening Grant Program, one element of the broader California Climate Investments program that redirects “Cap-and-Trade” revenue – the fees big polluters in California pay to pollute – to the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF). In addition to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the state program is aimed at providing multiple benefits to underserved communities such as adding affordable housing near job centers, improving access to zero emission vehicles, and expanding access to green spaces. When fully realized the project at Jackson will replace hundreds of square feet of asphalt with native plants and trees, permeable pavers, and nature-based outdoor play areas, sequestering carbon and mitigating extreme heat.
The STEM and Spanish Dual Language PUSD campus has long been home to a vibrant gardening program. Produce grown by students is used to help teach healthy nutrition and cooking, as well as support the school’s life science programming. Over the past five years the campus had also witnessed an incremental transition from water-intensive, non-native landscaping to more drought-tolerant, biodiversity-friendly species better suited to southern California’s hot and arid climate. Yet this latest phase of campus greening is orders of magnitude larger and more complex than anything completed to date.
The benefits of such “green schoolyard” projects are many. According to the Trust for Public Land, a non-profit organization that has transformed almost 300 school campuses around the country and recently released a study on ‘Greener Schoolyards for Los Angeles’, replacing blacktop with trees, gardens, and natural play spaces results in more positive mental, physical, and academic outcomes for students. Recent studies have found that school greening projects reduce stress, alleviate anxiety, improve focus, and even lower rates of obesity and blood pressure. Regular access to green space is particularly needed in lower-income neighborhoods which average less park acreage than more affluent neighborhoods, an issue the County of Los Angeles studied as part of a countywide parks needs assessment.
Greener, more natural schoolyards also offer climate and environmental benefits. More porous surfaces and “rain gardens” capture stormwater, help prevent flooding, and recharge local aquifers. Trees cool down play spaces. Native landscaping provides habitat to endangered pollinators like Monarch butterflies, as well as insects and the birds that feed upon them. Natural surfaces don’t absorb heat all day and release it during the night, warming campuses and adjoining neighborhoods, a phenomenon also known as the “urban heat island” effect. And cooler campuses require less air conditioning, saving energy and money for schools.
Amigos de los Rios is working on similar campus greening projects at several other PUSD sites, including Willard Elementary, Washington Elementary/Middle, and John Muir High Schools. The Altadena-headquartered non-profit organization has a history of transforming public school campuses across east Los Angeles County into greener, cooler, more vibrant spaces. Other, more established examples include the Jeff Seymour Family Center and Madrid Middle School in El Monte, Bassett High School in unincorporated Basset, and Plymouth Elementary School in Monrovia. Several of these sites have also implemented “joint use agreements” that allow the general public to enjoy the green improvements, essentially serving as community parks outside of school hours.
Over the coming year there will be multiple opportunities for the public to support the greening work at Jackson and other PUSD campuses. Planting of the uncovered asphalt spaces at Jackson is expected to take place in the late Fall, when cooler temperatures and wetter weather will provide more favorable conditions for planting. For details about upcoming volunteer opportunities, please visit Amigos de los Rios’ events page.
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