Tell me if this is familiar: you load your kids on bikes or into the stroller with plans to go to a nearby school playground, and when you show up (on a Saturday/holiday/after-school hours) it’s padlocked closed, with various signs about not trespassing, and extra chains and security cameras to make the point. We’ve been dealing with these high-security playgrounds in Hillsboro for the last year and it’s a significant issue for families seeking locally accessible free play spaces.
A key part of family biking is finding a variety of fun, kid-friendly, and free destinations to visit and enjoy. That means looking for parks, nature areas, public libraries, and – I thought – public school playgrounds. School playgrounds provide additional bikeable destinations for us to explore, and expand access to other free things like basketball courts and track and field facilities. In our circumstances, one nearby school playground is both a desired destination and an important “cut-through” for a visit to see our friends, who live along a road we’d rather avoid. The school with the nearest basketball court is only a few blocks away (and the only basketball court nearby) making it a great destination for my oldest kid to visit with his neighborhood buddies.
The problem? The playgrounds are almost always locked.
Unfortunately, this is a common problem in cities around the country, and in some places, community, equity, outdoor, and climate advocates have taken notice. As the Trust for Public Land points out, over 28 million kids don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk from their home. Opening schoolyards for public access would be a game-changer, putting a free outdoor space within reach for millions of folks who currently don’t have such access. This is especially important for low-income and communities of color, who tend to have fewer parks, smaller parks, and less pedestrian access to parks near their homes. Access to these places without a car is key for children, especially those who might otherwise be left to spend weekends and summers indoors, with nowhere else to play.
As for me, I keep calling my local school district. Over the last year, I’ve argued with school principals and become a semi-frequent caller to the facilities supervisors (who have been very helpful). I’ve been told all of the nefarious things that will happen if they unlock the gates, like graffiti and vandalism. Yet, as I repeatedly point out, the low/medium height chain-link fences around the schoolyards are easy for any able-bodied kid to climb over. (Case in point: when the school playground was still locked, even after multiple phone calls, my nine-year-old son sized it up pretty quick, “Mom, I can climb that for you.” And in about five seconds, he did.) So who are the schools keeping out with their fences? Families with toddlers, folks in wheelchairs, elderly, and those with limited climbing abilities.
At one school, I found a staff member and asked him to unlock the gate for me. He said he’d love to, and that people ask him all the time, but that he has orders from his boss (the principal) to keep it locked up. He even pointed to the brand-new higher fencing and said, “they used the new bond money to build that.” I looked at him incredulously. “They used the new bond money to build fences to keep people from using the playground?” (“Security” he said, and “they built other stuff too.”) Then, to appease me, I was told they usually leave the farthest back gate unlocked, which was confusing, because a facilities supervisor also mentioned this to me, regarding schools with single unlocked gates for those in-the-know (how secure is that?). I’m left wondering if there is some kind of plan to leave a least-noticeable gate unlocked, as if to fulfill some minimum requirement to provide public access to the playground, while hoping no one will actually use it.
Opening only one gate limits access (especially if it’s not ADA accessible) and it can be a deterrent for children and families who live on the other side of a large school ground (parents may allow their kid to go to the playground if the closest gate is open, making it a short trip). But those same parents may draw a line if their kid has to go solo all the way around to the furthest corner to find an open gate or traverse a more dangerous route to get there.
As biking and walking advocates look for ways to improve our cities with less reliance on cars, I hope that local schoolyards won’t be overlooked. They can be a vital community resource, providing free and accessible outdoor greenspace. Various nonprofits and grant programs exist (Kaboom , Green Schoolyards America, and even a possible federal Senate Bill: The Living Schoolyards Act of 2022) to help advocates greenify boring, asphalt-covered schoolyards while improving playgrounds. Adding trees to schoolyards can help lower summer temperatures, by providing shade and cooler climate for these spaces, which could then benefit the whole community, providing playspace, outdoor gathering space, exercise opportunities, and the mental health improvements that come from time spent outdoors. There are so many benefits waiting at the local schoolyard! But the first step is getting them unlocked.
Have you experienced this problem? Have you been able to get the schoolyard unlocked for public use?
Read more of Shannon’s columns here.
Thank you for your coverage of this topic. Here are a few observations from my neighborhood (Montavilla):
A local PPS schoolyard is the sole green space within walking/cycling distance of my home – because of large arterials bisecting my neighborhood and other topographical barriers, it’s the only one I can easily access with my child. I routinely cycle to this schoolyard with my child on evenings and weekends: it’s a community gathering space for families in the neighborhood, whether or not their children attend a school. However, recently, two reinforced gates have been added; while this makes it a bit harder to cycle in (we now have to dismount unless it’s propped open ), we can still get in. I would be heartsick if we couldn’t access the schoolyard at all.
I’m frustrated by reckless drivers who even intrude on what should be a safe space. One evening last summer, a woman drove from the school parking lot at a high rate of speed clear across the blacktop- and right past a bunch of 6-7 year olds playing – all so that she could pick up her middle-school child who could have walked the 300 feet to meet her. When a couple of us parents confronted her about her dangerous behavior, pointed out it was a schoolyard, and asked her not to drive through a schoolyard (common sense, you’d think), she loudly cursed us out, practically frothing at the mouth with rage. Thinking now about how she accessed the school yard, I realize that I’ll have to go back to see whether there have been any changes to access from the parking lot — as THAT’s where the real threat comes from– or was the “investment” focused on restricting the movement of those accessing the site on foot and bike?
As others have pointed out, I’m frustrated by ongoing vandalism. It’s disheartening and diverts resources from dire needs.
I’m frustrated by irresponsible dog owners, which are part of the problem. I’ve encountered dog owners who let their off-leash dogs do their business feet from toddler play areas and refuse to clean it up because “it’s diarrhea” and they “can’t.” (Then your sick dog certainly should not be where little kids play!)
When Portland Parks limited cleaning bathroom stalls during the height of the pandemic (closing bathrooms or cleaning only one stall, as was done at Mt. Tabor), this had a disproportionate effect on those of us caring for young children. To be honest – it was mostly mothers taking their kids to the park who already had a tough job (taking care of kids in a pandemic while we also held down employment) which was made even harder by this failure to sufficiently invest in public spaces.
I wish I had answers, but frankly, I’m so worn out by the general lack of civility I’ve encountered in shared spaces, and the fact that these third spaces (and the most vulnerable users of them) are under constant threat.
people’s failure to clean up after their dogs is a major issue at my local elementary school. It’s infuriating. It’s become commonplace for kids to need extra shoes in their locker because there is so much dog poop on the playground that it can’t be avoided. Most evenings the field is totally unusable because it is functionally an off-leash dog park, often with dogs that do not play well with children.
I hear you about the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on those caring for young children. There was hardly anywhere to take your kids, and no one who would spend time with your kids but you. Closing schools and other indoor venues was one thing, but closing playgrounds, bathrooms, and water fountains was just inhumane.
And now, I still feel like we’re going the wrong direction with “safety”… Putting up fences and cameras and locks everywhere has to have an effect on the antisocial and even violent behaviors that are making society less safe now and will escalate in the years to come. Where are kids supposed to go when they’re not welcome anywhere? Safety is not hunkering down in a bunker but belonging and being known and feeling welcome. Instead of interacting with people in their community, kids have been interacting with screens for years now. Kids need everyone supporting them, and our society has completely failed at that.
In Portland (or in my part of town, anyway), schoolyards are typically open at all times. I haven’t seen any schools entirely locked up.
Numerous cities have set up time-share arrangements to use schoolyards as public parks whenever school isn’t in session. San Diego has been running joint-use school/parks facilities for decades. New York City has run schoolyards-to-playgrounds projects since 2007. Philadelphia has a similar program in place. I’m sure there are others.
Metro really should set up a region-wide program to help get school districts and municipal governments to work together to turn schoolyards into parks in late afternoons and weekends, as well as all summer long. Especially in neighborhoods where there aren’t any parks.
I’d wager good money the reason they keep the gates closed is that there are way too many irresponsible dog owners not picking up their dog’s waste and letting the run free and chase other people around. It sucks for everyone else, but I really don’t blame the schools on this one and I would probably do the same thing if I were in the administrators’ shoes.
I am a dog who occasionally visits our local elementary school field with my dog. Almost all of the do owners are responsible- picking up after there dog and respecting other people using the space. About half of the dog owners are there with kids and are member s of the school community. There are some terrible dog owners who do pick up poop or let their dogs dig holes! I think this issue is dwarfed by the people setting up tents and drinking/doing hard drugs. Having someone passed out on the playground or on the side of the school is a real headache for principals and staff and needles/broken glass pose a serious health risk to kids. I don’t know if this is City-wide, but that is what I see at my neighborhood school
I suspect you are on to something. Schoolgrounds are the one public space that does NOT seem to be a popular homeless camping spot. All others…medians, highway right of way, parks, BLM land, etc. are infested with tents. I don’t know if it is enforcement, fences, or guilty conscience, but the homeless do seem to stay away from schools. Even a 6′ fence is a pretty good deterrent to someone lugging their cart, bike and piles of stuff, from moving in. Once they set up camp anywhere, good luck moving them on. Schools cannot tolerate even one camper on their grounds, due to safety concerns.
The reason they don’t set up on a school playground is that nobody wants to set up a tent in a place where they will immediately be kicked out early in the morning. It’s not like homeless people like being pushed around, they try to set up in places where they can be at least for a few days. Nobody is going to just leave a camping spot on the school playground.
Just curious; what do you base this statement on? Why is school property the one place that the homeless can expect immediate eviction? Many of the places that they set up on are also illegal to camp on.
I appreciate getting a diversity of voices in this comment section, but I take issue with a dog owning a dog. Something seems wrong about that.
It’s dogs all the way down.
Me too, doggone it ! I really have a bone to pick with that!
dogs are people too!
Responsible or not it’s against the law to take your pet to a school without permission from the school. But dog owners take their dogs where they want to, not where they’re allowed to. Kind of like car drivers.
Kids are clumsy and fall face first into the grass. The school would like to keep the risks of infection down. Even if you pick up the poop there’s enough residue leftover to cause issues.
I am skeptical that residue can cause issues. I searched for a few minutes but could not find anything to back that up. Are you being hyperbolic or is there some truth to that claim? I realize that there is the 1 in a million of a fresh trace amount amount that accidentally goes directly into someone’smouth, but that is not the kind of scenario to build policy on.
If schools wanted to reduce infection kids would be wearing masks.
Also, the posted rule at my school is no dogs during school hours.
European schools never masked the kids. There are negative impacts of masking that need to be considered as well.
Yes they did:
They were also required in schools in Spain, Greece, Belgium, and Germany.
That happens how many times a year? 1?
That would be something that I have never head articulated by the city and seems a bit of a reach honestly
It’s been documented as the reason for locked gates at at least one school by the news, so I do not see it as a reach at all that it is likely the cause at other schools as well.
Unfortunately Sophie Peel (or her editors) severely buried the lede:
Reads to me like the primary cause of these closures is Our Houseless Neighbors getting too near our children.
Apparently it’s more morally acceptable to place school children in a cage then it is to arrest and incarcerate publicly intoxicated vagrants.
Speaking as a person who lives next to a middle school park, I’ve yet to see anyone not pick up after their dog and every dog I’ve seen off leash just wants to chase a ball.
We’re -far- too content, eager even, to screw over 90% of people just to spite the other 10% (or fewer!!).
Or, put another way, 10% screw things up for the other 90%.
Welcome to the platted, unbuilt public right-of-way on SW Vermont Street alongside the public Montclair Elementary School school in Beaverton. It could become the way to connect southwest Portland and downtown Beaverton.
See my comment below about the new fence. Are there actual plans to build a connector there? Then we wouldn’t have to worry about the fenced school yard.
IIRC, Beaverton refused to acknowledge the proposal around 2018 for the bike / walk public hearing for city-wide projects. There is no plan to make the trail. It will need public pressure. I mention the idea to many people using that trail, but most people ignore the idea as if I’m speaking a language from another planet. Please contact city council and Jabra Khasho and the neighborhood association.
Shannon, a pretty sad report.
Its likely that the school district/ PTA fears that parents with all those heavily loaded ‘e-bakfiets’ / ‘e-long tail’ bikes with torquey engines will do ‘playground sideshows’ / ‘playground takeovers’…you know them when you seen them all over the district…with those circular black peel outs made by Schwalbe Big Apple tires on top of the Four Square courts. ;-(
I run into this with Sacajawea Head Start, there is no access to Sacajawea Park from the west without head start keeping their gates unlocked. Very frustrating!
When were the gates first locked?
The City of Portland is served by no less than 9 public school districts, none of which are entirely within the city boundaries – even PPS is partly in Beaverton. PPS, David Douglas, Centennial, Parkrose, and Reynolds school districts all have open yards and sports grounds as far as I can remember, though some are better maintained than others.
Here in NC, each public school district is county-wide and run by the county government, in all 100 counties. Here in Guilford County (Greensboro & High Point plus a bunch of small towns) all the school campuses are open to some extent. The real problem is all the private schools – some even have curtina razor wire in their chain-link fences, to keep poor people out. And while the city has 300 public parks, most are just grass and a few trees – no playgrounds or else poorly-maintained facilities. One is even a superfund site with signs discouraging people from using it.
I’m not sure about the Hillsboro or Beaverton SDs, but in Parkrose, DD, Centennial, and Reynolds, we always got better results complaining to their school boards and district superintendents about such issues. PPS was always a bureaucratic nightmare, worse than the city, but they only cover Lents in EP.
Thanks for letting us know what it’s like in your area. I’m sorry to hear about the razor wire, yikes!
I definitely get discouraged by dull parks. The Trust for Public Land and other nonprofits could be a great resource for making quality improvements to the parks and playgrounds in your area. I love how some groups are adding more trees and plantings to schoolyards (which is good for climate and mental health, and can also be good for local pollinators and wildlife).
My kids will play for hours if they have mud, sticks, and the freedom to pick some plants and leaves for their mud-cooking. Imagine fruit trees and berry hedges, cut and come again flowers, even a wildflower meadow, rather than empty dead grass in the summer. I think we can do a lot better making kid-friendly gardens, nature areas, and playgrounds. A “please touch” sort of garden on the edges of a play space could be really transformative.
Why should private schools be required to open their private property to the public? Should homeowners with large yards be required to allow “poor people” (as you state) to recreate in their yards?
Yes. Given that many churches do in fact allow the public to use their facilities, plus the fact that private schools are accessing public right-of-way to get the kids to school plus staff and faculty, should in itself be reason to allow public access to their parks and greenspace facilities. On top of that, many “private schools” also receive state subsidies, at least here in NC, particularly at charter schools.
Wait so by your logic since I use a public right of way (a public street) to get to my house I should have to open up the swingset in my backyard to the public? Your argument make zero sense to me.
PS I live in Portland so bringing up the fact that NC subsidzes public school is not germane to the situation here.
It’s not far-fetched in some circumstances to require private schools to open their private property to the public. Legal requirements that private property be open to the public are common.
I’m not talking about going in retroactively and seizing that right. But since schools are often conditional uses (not automatically allowed in many land use zones, but allowed after reviews that evaluate their impacts on their surroundings) requiring a school to open its grounds to the public can be a logical condition the City could require in order to approve a private school, or an expansion or change to one.
Downtown buildings can be required to keep private plazas open to the public, riverfront buildings required to allow public access on riverfront paths, etc. Public use of private property (such as school grounds) is often something the property owner agrees to–or even suggests–in trade for having their project, expansion, etc. approved.
I believe schools and their associated playgrounds, athletic facilities, etc. are typically conditional uses, so may have likely undergone a land use review to be granted permission to exist. It’s possible the land use reviews may have conditions that the grounds be available for non-school users (or that they don’t allow that). It could be worth checking, although it’s not always easy info to get. It could be a way to get leverage to get a school to take a request seriously to keep the grounds open.
My main feeling is locking playgrounds up is sad, and it really makes no sense to have Parks trying (and asking for money) to keep parks open or add others when there are locked playgrounds in the same areas.
Montclair Elementary School in SW Portland recently fenced their entire greenspace, which is a problem for any walker or cyclist wanting to get from OES to SW Vermont – a vital community connector.
Fortunately the gate was open when I wanted to pass through on a recent Saturday, but it will take just one anxious administrator to end this important connection for everyone.
I blame lawyers for this development. I’m sure they are advising school administrators to “limit their potential liability” or some such garbage.
PPS has had to deal with much more vandalism at schools recently—costly repairs… .Brand new Grant HS was hit with a big graffiti attack. Thousands of dollars went to cleanup instead of educating our kids. This isn’t a why you will see MORE restrictions at schools not less UNLESS we can control the general lawlessness that is now so common in PDX.
I’ve never seen graffiti at Montclair elementary school. The actual problem has been of OES cutting down trees which results in the lack of the picnic vibe in the summer evenings and the increased urban heat island effect. Another problem has been of an adjacent property owner in the adjacent HOA which likely asked the Beaverton School District to cut down a healthy tree just for the view of the Fanno Creek wetlands. Less trash has been on the Vermont trail since most of the Himalayan blackberry was removed around 2015.
Beaverton School District once locked that gate during Easter Sunday of around 2017. The main problem on that school playground and field property is of dog poop and the foolish choice to put tarps on so much of the field that is adjacent to a federally-recognized wetlands and federally-recognized floodplain. Contact Beaverton city council.
I found it heartwarming when I moved to Portland that school playgrounds were open to the public after hours. My kid’s school garden was severely vandalized. Members of the PTA opposed a security camera because they thought it might lead to “shaming” of future vandals.
Portland voters like these parents have elected people who have opted to embrace lawlessness under the guise of compassion and “restorative justice”. In my opinion the pendulum swung way too far, we need to get back to PRAGMATIC progressivism. We’ve lost our way in Portland—kids don’t matter, the environment doesn’t matter. Very sad. Time to elect more centrist leaders.
What about allowing people to ride a bicycle in a place that preserves life? Many schools have paths that allow people to avoid deadly, car-centric streets.
Regardless of the rationale behind it, I hate when the public pays for something they’re not allowed to benefit from.
We all benefit from well educated kids (resisting the urge to insert a comment about our collapsing educational standards or achievements). Just because you don’t get to use school buildings or grounds for your personal enjoyment doesn’t mean you derive no benefit from them.
People have mentioned concerns like vandalism and others. Whatever the worries, aren’t those mostly things that happen at night (emphasis on mostly, I’m sure that’s not the only time)? Couldn’t they just lock the gates at night instead? Surely that must be within the realm of possibility to do, if they’re so concerned. Although I’d rather they just get rid of the gates, they don’t do much good and they’re locked by a very bolt-cutter-able lock anyway.
For what it’s worth, the schools I’ve noticed in Portland seem to stay unlocked. I didn’t actually realize the public was allowed on the school grounds after hours so I haven’t looked closely but I did notice people playing on the playground at Chief Joseph when I took my kid to the playground next door. I’ll keep school playgrounds in mind as an option. The best way to keep stuff like that open (in my opinion) is to have people making use of it!
It’s going to vary from school to school. In my neighborhood, it’s usually irresponsible dog owners that cause the gates to be locked. The schoolyard is the unofficial off-leash dog park since it is fully fenced-in.
It will start with the outer gates being locked and if the problem persists the gates by the play equipment will too. Fortunately, there are a few parks within a 10 – 20 minute walk.
Why is it ok to let people’s dogs poop in public parks? Why stop at schools, why not fence in and lock all the public parks if there is such a dog poop scourge? To the article’s point, for a lot of people the school playground really is the most accessible place and arbitrarily locking people out of using it so the same kids that go to school there can instead go play in the dog poop at the further away park (or not at all because it’s too far) just seems dumb and arbitrary. This sounds like bad administrators making their own unilateral decisions about something and wasting education money putting up fences. Most likely there is some legal maneuver that can be done to force them to unlock the gates, if anyone had the time or energy to do it. They use the fact that it’s hard for the general public to force them to get away with stuff they shouldn’t.