Trees, not asphalt: The $1 billion effort to build 'cooler' California school playgrounds

Molly Gibbs, Bay Area News Group on

Published in Lifestyles

SAN JOSE, Calif. — As summer approaches and temperatures soar, one of the most dangerous places for Bay Area students might actually be the playground.

On a hot, sunny day, the asphalt on school playgrounds can reach 149 F, while a rubber mat can reach 165 F, according to UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation. That’s hot enough to cause a third-degree burn. But a little shade can go a long way to help kids cool off.

In an effort to provide more green on Bay Area schoolyards — many of which are expanses of barren asphalt without grass, shade or trees — and lower the impact on students’ health, the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit that works to create parks and protect public land, is campaigning for $1 billion from the state legislature to transform those playgrounds.

“If you look at our elementary schools in many cases, you don’t see nature. It’s all about blacktop, asphalt,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, the Trust for Public Land’s California director. “(At) some of the schools that we’ve targeted for green schoolyards, playgrounds have turned into parking lots for teachers and staff because the kids weren’t using it.”

Rodriguez said the core feature of a green schoolyard is the replacement of asphalt with natural materials, but can also include planting more trees and incorporating nature into the space.

“The policies of how we build public schools are still so antiquated,” Rodriguez said. “(It’s) very much focused on four walls and a roof and not the campus. We’re really trying to change the way that schools are built, designed and redeveloped.”


The Trust for Public Land partnered with Oakland Unified School District in 2018 to begin transforming the district’s playgrounds into green spaces. Through the Oakland Green Schoolyards program, the nonprofit has revamped four campus schoolyards — including the Cesar E. Chavez Education Center — to be safer and more eco-friendly.

The district has 14 additional schools with planning projects in the works, including Horace Mann and Fruitvale elementary schools, West Oakland Middle School and Coliseum College Prep Academy.

“Hundreds of students at Oakland schools have already gotten to play, learn and be closer to nature on Trust for Public Land playgrounds and we’re excited for all students whose schools will receive these same kinds of upgrades,” said district Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell.

In his budget revision unveiled last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom eliminated the remaining $375 million for the School Facilities Aid Program, which provides funding to school districts for facility-related repairs and construction.


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