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Open Use Policy Provides 210 Acres of Playground and Green Space in Chattanooga/Hamilton County

By Fay Gibson on April 20th, 2014

What happens when a community partnership embraces its power? Can community-driven change really lead to broad scale policy change? When I think about the recent success of the HKHC East Chattanooga Leadership Council’s efforts to increase places for children in their neighborhood to be physically active, I am reminded of the phrase “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In other words, faith can lead to action, and action can lead to change.

When East Chattanooga residents looked around their community, safe places for children to play were not seen because they didn’t exist! Residents simply wanted for their community what they knew existed in other communities–school playgrounds open to the public after school hours. They knew it was possible and set out to make this a reality for residents within walking distance to the playground at the Orchard Knob Elementary School. Strategically and methodically, they garnered and leveraged the support of residents, school board officials and community organizations to amend an existing policy not just for Orchard Knob, but for all elementary schools in Hamilton County, TN. Bravo to them! Here’s their story.

A simple conversation with one elementary school principal resulted in a partnership among residents, community organizations and the local school board that dramatically changed the playscape for tens of thousands of children. Even though increasing access for physical activity was a primary objective of the East Chattanooga Leadership Advisory Council (ELAC) when it formed in 2009, members never imagined that their grassroots advocacy efforts would open all Hamilton County elementary school playgrounds for afterschool use by residents.

This diverse partnership began with a Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC)* grant aimed at reducing health disparities and preventing childhood obesity in Chattanooga. Lack of park space is an issue in the city, particularly in East Chattanooga. So John Bilderback, HKHC Project Director, Falice Haire, HKHC Project Coordinator, and Tina Vance, HKHC Project Coordinator, worked with East Chattanooga residents and LaFrederick Thirkill, Principal of the Orchard Knob Elementary School, to discuss opening Orchard Knob’s playground to residents after school hours.

Principal Thirkill’s support was critical. In May 2012, he wrote a letter to a school board official and said, “I have looked at other schools in the Hamilton County School System that currently have open playgrounds for their communities and I like what I have seen. As of this spring I plan to change the playground signs to be similar to those currently hanging at Normal Park Elementary School.”

After receiving a positive response, the group quickly saw an opportunity for greater impact. Bilderback noted, “The impact of an open use policy for the 24 elementary schools in the city alone would provide 130 acres of playground and green space for families and children to be physically active, reaching over 45,000 who reside within a half-mile radius of an elementary school. In total, 210 acres will now be accessible for an estimated 66,500 residents living within a half-mile of our elementary schools in Hamilton County.”

Rather than create a new policy, they advocated for an amendment to an existing “use of school facilities by groups” policy to include use of outdoor facilities at elementary schools. Limiting the amendment to elementary schools also reduced concern about maintenance costs for high school athletic fields.

Support was gathered during meetings with school board officials, the assistant superintendent for facilities, several principals in the HKHC focus areas and other community partners. Technical assistance regarding the policy language was provided by ChangeLab Solutions, an HKHC partner organization. Finally, the Community Use of School Facilities policy was amended and adopted by the Hamilton County Board of Education in February 2014.

Afterward, the Benwood Foundation provided a $30,000 grant to develop a playground enhancement program. Funding will be used to engage schools, students and surrounding communities to assess, plan and measure changes to the playgrounds to ensure that all ages have access to suitable amenities for physical activity.

“The footing to make all this work was the assurance that an open use policy was in place,” Bilderback reflected, “so that any individual principal, however well intentioned, could not arbitrarily deny access to the public outside of school hours.”

The planning grant funds are on deposit at the Medical Foundation of Chattanooga in the partnership’s Healthy Living Fund, established at the beginning of the HKHC project to provide match support to local initiatives, sustain momentum and further support leadership capacity at the grassroots level. In addition, this community change has encouraged other positive action. For example, the Chattanooga City Council recently approved the drafting a complete streets policy. In the future, Chattanooga children may not only have more opportunities for play, but also for more walking and bicycling.

*HKHC was an initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation from 2008-2013 that helped 49 community partnerships across the country reshape their policies and environments to support healthy eating, active living and childhood obesity prevention.

Fay Gibson

Active Living By Design Alumna

Former Senior Project Officer at Active Living By Design, old-school community organizer and advocate for social justice and equity for all.