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Rotterdam’s Green Blue Schoolyards programme addresses child-friendliness and climate adaptation agendas with a common solution: more nature in schoolyards.
The programme supports schools to transform their outdoor spaces into natural play areas for outdoor educational projects and community use.
- Government Agencies Engaged:
- Public Works, City Development, Spatial Planning, Education, Health
- Implementing Agency:
- City of Rotterdam, schools, Speeldernis Nature Playground
- Funding Source:
- Rotterdam municipality’s budget to improve (public) green spaces, and the city’s climate adaptation budget. The amount is 400,000 EUR per year in the period 2019–2022, with a maximum of 80,000 EUR spent per school.
- The programme focuses on five or six schools in areas with fewer public green spaces and higher socioeconomic vulnerabilities, selected to cover different areas of the city. Further scale will be assessed after this phase of the programme is completed.
- Rotterdam, the Netherlands
- Five or six schools in the city of Rotterdam
Summary of Intervention/Programme
Green Blue Schoolyards is a subsidy and technical support programme by the city of Rotterdam for 2019–2022. It sits at the intersection of several strategies: child-friendliness, urban greening and climate adaptation. It aims to increase the number of green spaces (such as parks) and blue spaces (such as lakes, canals or waterfronts) to address the problems of families living in neighbourhoods with few attractive natural play opportunities, and the risks associated with climate change. It takes on an equity lens when selecting areas for funding.
“Our green-blue schoolyards are an example of how spaces can be more beautiful, healthier and safer. The green reduces heat stress and the blue makes us smart with water, and children from the school and neighbourhood have a nice place to sport and play.” — Bert Wijbenga, Counsellor and Deputy Mayor, Municipality of Rotterdam
Green and blue spaces are known to provide compound benefits to residents and city authorities: active and healthier lifestyles, lower stress levels and better mental health; and better stormwater management, reduced heat island effects, and increased real estate values.
The implementation process is led by the schools. They must be in neighbourhoods with fewer natural spaces and can receive funding to engage in a significant natural makeover of their outdoor spaces. The design process is participatory (children, parents, neighbours) and must lead to the schoolyard being accessible to all residents outside school hours.
What worked well
A strong vision with the child at the centre
A vision that places children’s well-being and development at the centre is sometimes hard to maintain when budgetary constraints arise, or deeply risk-averse habits prevail. The Green Blue Schoolyards programme insists on a strong shared vision, which has helped schools manage resistance in their neighbourhoods. This also helps to build resilience and sustainability, and to change the mindset of education staff, management, construction companies and parents. This shared vision needs to be constantly maintained and refreshed among stakeholders to stay relevant and effective.
Smart spending – securing financing by identifying co-benefits
By addressing several topics important to Rotterdam’s leadership through a single intervention, the Green Blue Schoolyards programme allows funding streams to be combined, thereby unlocking larger amounts of budget. In this case, it enables child-friendly initiatives to be added onto existing investments from the extensive climate adaptation efforts that are underway and have already received political approval. It’s a win–win!
A balanced and data-driven selection process
Each applicant school goes through a selection process that uses criteria relating to characteristics of the neighbourhood (50%) and the motivation of the school, written in a project plan (50%). Data for the first half of the assessment is quantitative and comes from the city of Rotterdam, such as the area’s proportion of green surfaces, spaces for play, vulnerability to flood or urban heat, and socioeconomic indicators. The other half is qualitative and involves meeting with the school’s leadership, understanding their motivation, assessing their vision, engagement and capacity for maintenance, programming and training. The selection team, which also manages the programme, includes staff members of various city agencies such as education, health, spatial planning. It can also draw on other expertise when needed.
Schools leading implementation
The leading stakeholder is the school. This allows the project to be anchored in the neighbourhood, closer to residents. The schools oversee maintenance and activity programming and retain ownership of the new green and blue spaces. They can adapt each project to their own identity – especially in the programming of activities. Changes within the school’s organisational culture are driven by their own vision, rather than by top-down direction from city hall. This approach further enhances local ownership and the long-term sustainability of the project.
Technical support from Speeldernis
The nature playground model has been thoroughly tested in Speeldernis, a popular city-wide natural playground that engages in nature-centred play as a way to solve social issues prevalent in the city. Speeldernis has extensive expertise in the design and management of nature playgrounds and in the cultural and educational programming and community-building processes needed to turn these spaces into social hubs. Speeldernis is supporting schools to tailor their projects and make the most of the subsidy, for the benefit of all neighbourhood residents. It also acts as a hub for peer learning, and organises workshops for school managements to meet, inspire and support each other, and share their experience.
What didn't work well
Complex systems are hard to change
Green Blue Schoolyards requires the cooperation of many stakeholders, from city agencies to schools, to parents, children, and neighbourhood organisations, each with their own visions and objectives for the project. It is sometimes challenging to keep everyone aligned around the well-being and development of children. Each schoolyard renovation project needs to deal with various levels of risk-aversion and other constraints such as budget limits or construction protocols. It also faces different opinions within the community related to outdoor education, neighbourhood activities, maintenance standards, or tolerance of noise generated by children. To mitigate these difficulties in implementation, the programme manager tries to devote a significant amount of time to vision building, strengthening and alignment among stakeholders before diving into implementation. This has proved even more important as the programme is looking at not only changing environments but also changing mindsets.
Fragmented implementation requires more coordination
Choosing to have schools take the lead in implementing the programme is beneficial for tailoring projects to their neighbourhoods, but means that overall coordination is more fragmented. This can prove challenging for quality assurance across the board, and ensuring that projects are following protocols and conditions for implementation. Other cities such as Amsterdam or Paris have similar programmes for greening schoolyards, but have made the decision to manage them centrally from within the city government to avoid this issue. In Rotterdam, the challenge is addressed by having Speeldernis, the expert nature playground organisation, act as a technical support and reviewer, and as a hub for schools to meet and learn from each other, and get the training they need to carry out quality implementation.
Managing inconsistencies from city- to national-level policies
When implementing Green Blue Schoolyards projects, schools are confronted by a series of protocols, regulations and entrenched practices related to risk, liability, construction guidelines, sanitation and education that sometimes come into conflict with the objectives of the project. This stems from national-level regulations and laws that have not yet evolved to reflect the new mindset on play and risk that Rotterdam is adopting with this programme. For example, the national policy for schoolyards does not grant much financial freedom for schools to take the lead in organising their own education programming and environments for children, a situation that makes it difficult for schools in Rotterdam to adapt their budget to their child-centred vision. This discrepancy requires work to be done at the national level to align thinking, frameworks and regulations.