School teaches us everything we need to know about surviving in an office environment. We learn to take instructions from authority figures, sitting down for hours on end becomes second nature to us and fetid lavatory facilities prepare us for the coffee induced halitosis of our future colleagues.

With these invaluable skills instilled, we are able to look forward to long and happy careers in any office based profession. But what about life outside of those four walls? Where do we learn the skills required to live harmoniously in the natural environment?

For these lessons, we normally have to go a little further afield. However, a revolutionary new project in Chicago is cultivating a change in the traditional collegiate curriculum, while simultaneously providing much needed flood relief in the city.

 Virgin Unite, sustainability, sustainia, space to grow

Launched in 2013, the Space to Grow project has revitalised traditional school playgrounds in Chicago, creating flourishing inner city gardens from now erstwhile asphalt expanses. The urban green spaces incorporate outdoor classrooms and vegetable allotments, as well as sports facilities like tracks, fields and courts.

After school hours, the blossoming botanical play areas remain open, providing access for families and communities to meet. At a stroke, the project is promoting environmental education, physical activity and social cohesion.

Since the inception of Space to Grow in 2013, six such school lots have been created in Chicago, each one targetted at low income areas. The focus on poorer neighbourhoods is a key factor in helping to address another primary objective of the project – to provide protection against flooding.

Owing to climate change, Chicago has become subject to abnormally abundant storms. Rainfall levels normally predicted just once in every decade have been exceeded by storms in the city on four separate occasions in just eight years.

With fewer financial resources to pay for mitigation measures, low income areas are most at risk from floods, as well as from other effects of climate change. Major hazards include loss of human life and widespread damage to private and public property.

 Virgin Unite, sustainability, sustainia, space to grow

Sagging under the weight of the high rainfall patterns, Chicago’s infrastructure has received some much needed support from the Space to Grow project. Each school garden is designed to cope with a 24-hour, 100-year-storm, capacity that exceeds the requirements of Chicago’s Storm-water Management Ordinance.

Cumulatively, currently completed plots in Chicago have the potential to absorb up to 6.8 million litres of stormwater in just 24 hours. And while the deluge of rain is drained away, money is flooding in - due to the implementation of the project, property values of surrounding areas are expected to increase.

There are plans to transform 28 more traditional school playgrounds in Chicago into Space to Grow gardens over the next two years, a strong indication of the success of the project so far. By 2019, this will bring the total number of plots in the city up to 34.

Replicable and effective, Space to Grow has the potential to provide a widespread flood prevention solution to many other storm prone parts of the world. The project could also help to pioneer a new school of thought where academia and the great outdoors are combined in the classroom – let’s hope it’s a growing trend.


Cities100 is a mission shared by Sustainia, C40 and Realdania to find the 100 leading city solutions to climate change. Read the publication here, and follow the conversation online using #Cities100

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