Vulnerable Communities
The John W. Cook Academy Space to Grow Schoolyard
Chicago, Illinois | site design group, ltd (site)

An asphalt schoolyard at the John W. Cook Academy, an elementary school in a low-income neighborhood on the far south side of Chicago, used to flood so much that it was called “Lake Cook.” Through the Space to Grow program, the schoolyard was redesigned by landscape architects at site design group, ltd (site) to become a green learning and play space that captures stormwater. The new school yard, filled with recreational and play options for all ages, was designed to be accessible to students and the broader community day and night.


The John W. Cook Academy is a pre-kindergarten through 8th grade public elementary school located in Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, a community of approximately 45,000 people. In 2017, the Healthy Schools Campaign, a social services organization, and Openlands, a conservation organization, selected Cook Academy to be transformed through their Space to Grow program, which is financed by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Chicago Department of Water Management, and Chicago Public Schools.

Space to Grow partners with schools in low-income communities to transform underused schoolyards that experience significant flooding into green and healthy play and learning spaces. According to site, “the goal of the program is to create vital outdoor places for the whole neighborhood to get together and reconnect with nature. Green schoolyards provide an opportunity for students to learn and grow outdoors and for schools to support student health and physical activity through recreation, exploration, and play.” As of summer 2020, 25 schoolyards have been redesigned through the program.

Before the transformation, the expansive asphalt lot at John W. Cook Academy was “flooded throughout most of the year and created a hot and unpleasant environment that left little room for creative play,” explained site. Working with Chicago Public Schools and Space to Grow, site led the redesign and program development of the schoolyard. The firm solicited input from students, parents, and school and community leadership.

The new schoolyard provides a healthy space for students to be physically active before, during, and after school. There is a multi-purpose artificial turf field surrounded by a running track and two half-court basketball courts. A custom playground provides children ages 2-12 with a range of challenging and exploratory play features, including climbing structures and a multi-user swing. A winding sloped walkway guides children up a 5-foot incline to an embankment slide. Along adjacent berms, children can climb, roll, and race objects. And Chicago’s longest hopscotch court – nearly 100 feet long – guides students and visitors from the playground to the sports field.

The schoolyard also includes game tables that attract students and community members alike for study sessions, dominos, and games of chess – a highly sought after amenity for the school chess team.

Amid all these new amenities is a sustainable stormwater management system that addresses neighborhood-scale flooding through permeable surfaces and native plants. A dry riverbed, named “Lake Cook” after the pool of water that previously flooded the asphalt yard through much of the year, now serves as dry stone stormwater storage and infiltration system. Next to the school building, there is a native plant garden that captures stormwater and supports butterflies and bees. An orchard of Apple Serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’) and Wild Plum (Prunus Americana) trees also help manage stormwater while offering edible fruit.

As part of the construction process, students, faculty, and community members were invited to participate in planting the new landscape. Space to Grow staff members and site taught children how to plant shrubs, perennials, and grasses, and weed, water, and help them grow.

Demonstrates these solutions:
  • Provide dedicated funding for green stormwater infrastructure
  • Prioritize retention and expansion of green space; address inequities in access to open space and recreation
  • Focus on environmental justice and equitable access to transportation, housing, jobs, and recreation and open space
Children swing on a multi-person swing set at the John W. Cook Academy schoolyard, while adults sit in the background.

The John W. Cook Academy Space to Grow Schoolyard / site design group, ltd. (site)