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Space to Grow
John W. Cook Academy

by Jenna Jones, site design group, ltd.

Space to Grow

As part of a consultant team, site design group, ltd was selected as the project lead for the landscape architecture aspects in the transformation of the John W. Cook Academy: a pre-kindergarten through 8th grade public elementary school located in Chicago's Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. The collaborative effort, which began in 2017, also included the Chicago Public Schools, the Healthy Schools Campaign and a local environmental advocacy organization known as Openlands. Cook Academy was selected as the 12th schoolyard in Chicago to benefit from the the innovative "Space to Grow" program. Together with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), Chicago Department of Water Management, and the Chicago Public Schools, Space to Grow identifies schools and communities with significant flooding concerns; working with many of the city's low-income communities to transform underutilized schoolyards into inspired play and learning spaces for students, and outdoor places for the whole neighborhood to get together and reconnect with nature.


The John W. Cook Academy, a Chicago public elementary school, was sorely in need of improvement of their grounds, which was for the most part an expansive asphalt lot that flooded throughout most of the year and created a hot and unpleasant environment at other times - all this leaving little room for creative play for students.

Enter the Healthy Schools Campaign, and their partner Openlands, whose mission includes the protection of "the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region to ensure cleaner air and water, (and) protect natural habitats and wildlife." The two organizations saw that Cook Academy could greatly benefit from an innovative program called "Space to Grow." As a collaboration with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), Chicago Department of Water Management, and the Chicago Public Schools, Space to Grow works to enrich the environs of schools and communities with significant flooding concerns.

One of the program's initiatives is turning underutilized schoolyards into inspired play and learning spaces for students, and as such, the schoolyards also serve as an extension of the classroom, with opportunities for learning and exploration, such as outdoor classrooms, native plants, and kitchen gardens to teach children about cultivation and improved nutrition, and of course encourage physical activity.



Space to Grow

Space to Grow

Once an expansive asphalt lot (Inset), the new schoolyard now includes a landscape with native plants, walkways, and seating areas, recreation opportunities, and play spaces for children of all ages.


Besides enriching the lives of the schoolchildren through the Space to Grow program, vital outdoor places are planned for the whole neighborhood to get together and reconnect with nature. A shared space where people can sit, relax, play, exercise or gather with friends and family has immense benefits to the community. It fosters social interaction, provides a sense of connection, and helps boost health and well-being.

In addition, Space to Grow emphasizes the importance of sustainable stormwater management. The city has acknowledged that the large expanses of asphalt in existing schoolyards present a prime opportunity to reduce the amount of impervious surface thereby reducing flooding in high-risk neighborhoods.



Space to Grow

The new and planned schoolyards in Chicago are designed to provide an opportunity for students to learn outdoors, and for schools to support student health and physical activity through recreation, exploration, and play. And with more than 760 acres of impermeable surface in a highly urbanized area, the public school system's properties present a significant opportunity for changing the way stormwater is managed in Chicago.


Space to Grow

The schoolyard at Cook Academy features a wide range of recreation opportunities for students of all ages, including a multi-purpose artificial turf field surrounded by a running track, as well as two half-court basketball courts.


Space to Grow

A custom playground aimed at children ages 2-12 was developed with challenging and exploratory play features, including climbing structures and a multi-user swing.


All Space to Grow schoolyards include special materials, surfaces, and techniques such as permeable surfaces and dry stone stormwater storage and infiltration that capture significant amounts of rain onsite, which is especially helpful during heavy storms. Prioritizing stormwater management also underscores the importance of sustainability for students and staff. Space to Grow projects require that 150,000 gallons of stormwater is retained on site, far exceeding the typical city of Chicago requirements for a site of this scale.

Cook Academy was the 12th schoolyard in the city to undergo transformation through this program. To help make the dream a reality, a consultant team was formed consisting of site design group, ltd. as Project Lead, Landscape Architecture, S.M.P Group Design Associates, LLC for the civil engineering, Applied GeoScience, Inc. for the geotechnical aspects, Tecma Associates, Inc. for the survey work and Reliable & Associates Construction Co., as the general contractor.



Space to Grow

Nearby, game tables attract students and community members for study sessions and board games. A series of colored concrete seating blocks can be used as a gathering area or outdoor classroom, serving as an extension of the classroom for lessons.


Space to Grow

The site's green infrastructure and sustainable stormwater management address neighborhood-scale flooding issues through permeable surfaces and native plantings. "Lake Cook" an asphalt yard that was previously flooded by a pool of water through much of the year, now serves as dry stone stormwater storage and infiltration between the playground, basketball court, and multi-purpose field. Next to the school building, a native species garden serves as another educational opportunity through signage and programming.


Working closely with Chicago Public Schools and Space to Grow team, site design group, ltd. led the design and programming of the schoolyard, including soliciting input from school leadership, parents, and community leaders, as well as leading a community planting day.

The resulting schoolyard at Cook Academy features a wide range of recreation opportunities for students of all ages. Nested into hills and mounds, a custom playground supports children ages 2-12 through a range of challenging and exploratory play features. A winding, sloped walkway guides children of all abilities up a five-foot incline to an embankment slide. Along the adjacent berms, children can often be found climbing, rolling, and racing objects down them. Chicago's longest hopscotch court - nearly 100 feet long - guides visitors from the playground to the field. Nearby, game tables attract students and community members alike for study sessions, dominoes, and games of chess - a highly sought-after amenity for the school's chess team.



Space to Grow

Below ground, a perforated pipe connects "Lake Cook" to the playground and multi-purpose field, providing additional stormwater collection and infiltration.


At Cook Academy, green infrastructure and sustainable stormwater management address neighborhood-scale flooding issues through permeable surfaces and native plantings. A dry riverbed, affectionately named "Lake Cook" after the pool of water that previously flooded the hardscaped area continually, now serves as dry stone stormwater storage and infiltration - a dry riverbed. An underground pipe leading from this area to the playground and multi-purpose field, is another tool for stormwater management.

Next to the school building, a native species garden provides year-round interest through color and texture. Between Lake Cook and the multi-purpose field, an orchard of Apple Serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance') and Wild Plum (Prunus Americana) trees provide pops of color and edible fruit. Late in the construction process, faculty, students, and community members were invited to help install the schoolyard plants, where Space to Grow staff members and the design team taught children how to install, weed, water, and care for plants. The Space to Grow program caught the attention of the Smithsonian Institute, who attended the community planting day and interviewed participants. They are currently conducting research into the social, ecological, and economic impacts the schoolyards have on the surrounding community.



Space to Grow

Faculty, students, and community members were invited to help the schoolyard greenery, where Space to Grow staff members and the design team taught children how to plant shrubs, perennials, and grasses, and discussed how to weed, water, and help them grow. The program became known to the Smithsonian Institute, which decided to research its social, ecological, and economic impacts.


Space to Grow

Since garnering attention across the nation, Space to Grow plans to bring its benefits to other cities.


Since its opening in the fall of 2018, the John W. Cook Academy schoolyard has become the highlight of the school day for students and has helped engage and educate the nearby community. Once an expansive asphalt lot, the new schoolyard includes a lush landscape with native plants such as Kentucky coffeetree, red oak, bald cypress, wild plum, staghorn sumac, arrowwood viburnum, butterfly milkweed, lanceleaf coreopsis, wild geranium, prairie dropseed and New England aster, as well as walkways, seating areas, recreation opportunities and play spaces for children of all ages. Space to Grow is bringing wide-ranging benefits to Chicago neighborhoods through a unique partnership and community-focused process that has garnered attention across the nation. With this project being their 12th completed, the goal is to complete 34 schoolyards by 2019, and to extend beyond Chicago in the coming years.

Consultant Team List
site design group, ltd. (Project Lead, Landscape Architecture)
S.M.P Group Design Associates, LLC (Civil Engineering)
Applied GeoScience, Inc. (Geotechnical)
Tecma Associates, Inc. (Survey)
Reliable & Associates Construction Co. (Construction)



As seen in LASN magazine, June 2019.



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July 21, 2019, 8:48 am PDT

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