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Climate change is making schoolyard play dangerously hot. California has a solution


More than a third of Americans are under heat advisories this week. Among the most at risk for heat illnesses are children, many of whom are back at school on campuses covered with hot blacktop. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Laura Klivans has more on initiatives to try and cool down schools by pulling up that asphalt.

LAURA KLIVANS: Last fall, Myra Gudiño walked across what looked like an enormous parking lot between blue one-story buildings in East Oakland. This was the playground at Bridges Academy at Melrose, her children's public elementary school.

MYRA GUDIÑO: (Speaking Spanish).

KLIVANS: It's like a second home for the family, but it looked sad, Gudiño said. No green areas or shade - everything was cement, and kids frequently got hurt.

GUDIÑO: (Speaking Spanish).

KLIVANS: Flat playgrounds with fence-to-fence asphalt are common here. The average California schoolyard has just 9% of tree cover. On a 90 degree day, one advocacy group measured asphalt at 140 degrees and safety tiles - that squishy rubber surface - at 165. That kind of heat can burn you or dangerously stress your vital organs. Now, California is spending an unprecedented amount of money to help green about 180 schoolyards statewide, calling it a down payment. The idea is to make them look more like another campus in East Oakland, Cesar Chavez.

KIRA MARITANO: We're seeing some Southern oaks, red maple, and these tree boxes are all Chinese evergreen elms.

KLIVANS: Kira Maritano points out a few of the 64 new trees planted here, chosen in part because they can take heat, and they suck up a lot of carbon. Maritano works for the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit helping Oakland's school district pilot a handful of green schoolyards.

MARITANO: This schoolyard is now built to get cooler and cooler every year as we see the effects of climate change increase.

KLIVANS: And when it rains, water doesn't bounce off blacktop and flood drains. It disappears into the ground beneath the real grass sports field or woodchip-covered play area.

MARITANO: This is basically a stormwater sink.

KLIVANS: Alberto Carvalho is superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

ALBERTO CARVALHO: It's a policy of decades that has asphalted over the natural environment because these were surfaces that were easier to maintain.

KLIVANS: LA and the state are putting more than $100 million into greening the city's schools. And they're starting in neighborhoods with the greatest health disparities. But Carvalho says that comes with challenges - skyrocketing construction costs or dealing with contaminants that may be in the ground after removing blacktop. After the upfront cost, though, Carvalho, plus a study by the Trust for Public Land, say green schoolyards are cheaper to maintain.

CARVALHO: It is the right investment, not just from a health and environmental equity perspective, but also in terms of long-term economic benefits.

KLIVANS: Last fall, parent Myra Gudiño dreamed of trees, green spaces and landscapes for her kids in East Oakland.

GUDIÑO: (Speaking Spanish).

KLIVANS: And it turns out they'll get that. This campus has hummed with construction vehicles all summer long, and in a few months it will open to the excited shrieks of kids able to play comfortably outside.

For NPR News, I'm Laura Klivans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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