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New playground at South Side school aims to reduce flooding in surrounding homes

The playground was built atop a system that catches and stores stormwater before slowly releasing it into sewers to prevent them from becoming overwhelmed.

Kevin Edouard swings on Arnold Mireles Academy’s new “Space to Grow” schoolyard in the South Chicago neighborhood.
Kevin Edouard swings on Arnold Mireles Academy’s new “Space to Grow” schoolyard in the South Chicago neighborhood.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Less flooding, less bullying and ... weee!

Each were key ingredients of a new park at Arnold Mireles Elementary Academy in South Chicago that was built using semiporous materials, allowing more than 200,000 gallons of rainwater to collect underneath the park’s surface — water that otherwise might have ended up in the basements of nearby homes.

Students on Thursday after a ribbon-cutting ceremony seemed more interested in a design feature: the park’s zip line — the only one at a CPS playground.

The playground and neighboring turf field and garden were made possible by the Space to Grow program, a partnership between Chicago Public Schools, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and the city’s Water Management Department.

The three agencies split the cost of the $1.5 million project.

The space was previously an asphalt lot that kids played on.

The asphalt play area that was turned into a play ground, garden and turf field at Arnold Mireles Elementary Academy in South Chicago.
The asphalt play area that was turned into a play ground, garden and turf field at Arnold Mireles Elementary Academy in South Chicago.
Provided by Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

“Just having that space, compared to what it was before, completely changes how it feels at this school,” CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said Thursday while addressing students before at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

It’s the 28th such space that’s been installed through the Space to Grow program since 2014 — all in underserved communities prone to flooding.

The water under the play areas is captured during storms and released slowly back into sewers to prevent them from becoming overwhelmed.

A study by Loyola University Chicago and the University of California found that the new playgrounds also help reduce bullying.

“They found that there’s less bullying that happens on the school grounds, probably just for the simple fact that there’s a lot more stuff to do compared to an asphalt play lot,” said Claire Marcy, senior vice president of Healthy Schools Campaign, one of two nonprofit organizations tapped to manage the projects.

Caregivers, teachers, and community members also felt the schoolyards were safer and reduced gang activity, the study noted.

One thing students did not want to change was the presence of a large leafy tree next to the new playground. They told project organizers it should be left untouched — and it was.

“They said ‘Not the tree. Don’t take away the tree,’” said Mireles Principal Evelyn Robbins, who was happy with the way the project turned out. “This is a safe place for them to be, and so we’re glad to have it.”