Building a house on sand can be a disaster. Building a playground on it can be beneficial to Baltimore’s kids and to Baltimore’s urban environment. The premise is simple and ancient: the ground wants to be a sponge that absorbs water and feeds plant life. Humans, their buildings, and their machinery pack down that sponge to the point that it has no spaces to absorb water. The ground grows harder and dryer, which increases the packing effect. From ancient Mesopotamia to the contemporary Midwest the obvious solution has been to plow the soil to break up the packed in slabs and allow air and water back down into the ‘subsoil.’ As in The Baltimore Sun at the beginning of this school year, some local school playgrounds are getting the same treatment in an effort to stem runoff and to enrich children’s playing experience.
This past August and September, long before the recent winter winds froze the topsoil (itself beneficial to revitalizing soil), Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Schwartz reported that one inch of water took an hour and a half to be absorbed by the soil(!). And that’s not the worst he’s seen in the Baltimore region.had about a half-acre of its playground plowed in an effort to aerate the soil and encourage absorption of water. Wheeler spoke with the leader of the program, Stuart S. Schwartz, a senior scientist with the
Baltimore’s schools have a great deal of asphalt about them, much of it in recreational space and prime candidates for being ripped out and repurposed. The asphalt was likely seen as an inexpensive way to level out a safe play space for kids to play their kickball, but in recent decades the environmental costs of these slabs and the changed perceptions that kids need greenery for their education and health have inspired projects to replace them.
Which is not to say all always goes according to plan: “Once the blacktop was removed, contractors found that the soil was not only hard as a rock, but full of rocks, explained Kimberly Burgess, program manager with, a consultant on the project. Fearing that the sub-soil tilling equipment might be damaged, the city directed that the top foot of that rocky earth be excavated, to be replaced with loose dirt.”
But even with that setback, the project was seen by all parties as an overall success. Here is Wheeler’s quote from the school principal: “For Deborah Sharpe, the project is already yielding educational dividends. She’s eager to see what her 485 students can learn and do on the new green landscape they’ll have when the work is finished in the next week or so. ‘In addition to the blacktop being removed and the whole area being green,” Sharpe said, it will be a better place “to explore and learn and play and just be with nature. I think the students will be so much more excited, they will be engaged and looking forward to it.'”
Aerated ground also is softer on the body than hard dirt or asphalt, so not only will the urban environment be healthier, but kids might be less prone to bumps and abrasions as they rough house during recess – probably not unlike the kids in Babylonia did while their parents plowed up the soil to revitalize their farms.