The SPARK park at Horn Elementary School in southwest Houston features a covered outdoor classroom, among other amenities.
Photo courtesy of SPARK School Park Program

Since 1983, the innovative SPARK parks program has taken a multi-use, community-based approach to increasing park acreage by turning school playgrounds into community parks. The effort has helped put many Houstonians within walking distance of active green space.

In 2001, the trailblazing Eleanor Tinsley told “American Forests” magazine about her father’s solution to the shortage of public spaces such as parks and community centers: “Use the churches during the week and the schools in the evening and on weekends.”

That idea may feel strikingly progressive 20 years later, but to Tinsley’s father, W.C. Whilden, multi-purpose facilities likely just seemed obvious. His remedy inspired the SPARK School Park Program, one of the longtime Houston City Council member’s greatest legacies. Tinsley, who also served as chair of the Houston school board, founded the community-friendly, mixed-use program in 1983 to increase park acreage and help Houston close the sizable green-space gap between it and other cities.


The “Urban Edge Explains …” series explores issues and concepts that are important to urban planning and policy experts. Today, we look at the significance of the SPARK School Park Program.


Today, the vision of a “15-minute city” is among the hottest trends in urban planning, with cities from Milan and Melbourne to Portland, Montreal and Houston eyeing ways to decentralize urban areas and put residents within walking distance of their essential needs — including parks. This emphasis on hyperlocal creates communities that are more responsive to residents’ needs, and in turn, they are tighter-knit and more resilient.

In Paris, which is home to the movement’s leading living 15-minute laboratory, the mayor’s adviser Carlos Moreno has advocated for rethinking and reinventing public spaces to maximize their benefits for the most people. These “hyper-proximity” projects include transforming street parking into pedestrian plazas, green space and bike lanes. The urbanist-activist Jane Jacobs, whose work has heavily influenced Moreno, wrote: “A neighborhood is not only an association of buildings but also a network of social relationships, an environment where the feelings and the sympathy can flourish.”

Moreno is also a proponent of using school playgrounds as neighborhood parks during off-hours — making better use of the space and increasing access to the benefits of neighborhood amenities — just like the SPARK program. CityLab’s Feargus O'Sullivan and Laura Bliss wrote about the 15-minute-city efforts in Paris, which has even appointed a “Commissioner for the 15-Minute City,” whose job duties include coordinating the transformation of school grounds into green “oasis yards” that are left open after school for public use. The initiative began in 2018, and 41 yards have been completed so far.

In Houston, more than 150 public school playgrounds across 17 independent school districts in Harris, Fort Bend and Waller counties have been transformed into neighborhood parks. Since 2016, SPARK has added 25 new parks and updated another five at campuses in 12 school districts and three charter schools in the Houston area. Last March, the nonprofit announced plans for another 30 parks — 15 new and 15 renovations — by 2024. Funding for the next phase will come in part from $5 million in grants from Houston Endowment and the Kinder Foundation, which have each given $2.5 million to support the effort.

Bigger isn’t always better

When it comes to parks, Houston certainly has gone big. Two city parks — Cullen Park and Lake Houston Wilderness Park — weigh in at a combined 14,000 acres and are among the top 10 biggest city parks in America.

Large signature parks such as Hermann, Emancipation, MacGregor, Memorial, Discovery Green and Levy parks are tremendous assets with numerous amenities, but they don’t make up for the fact that many neighborhoods lack access to a local park or green spaces that are essential to a healthy and resilient life. At the end of the day, when families return home from work and school, are they more likely to load up in the car and drive to one of Houston’s mega-parks or walk down the street to the playground at the neighborhood school to enjoy a quick half-hour of fun and fresh air?

There are some 627 parks comprising roughly 43,000 acres of park land across the 671 square miles of Houston. According to the Trust for Public Land’s annual ParkScore index, 61% of Houstonians — 1.39 million — live a half-mile or less from a park. But that leaves 900,000-plus residents who aren’t a 10-minute walk from a park. The City of Houston has targeted a goal of having 75% of Houstonians within a 10-minute walk by 2040, which translates to an additional 500,000 residents.

SPARK parks are a valuable tool for filling these gaps in underserved neighborhoods and “park deserts.” By making playgrounds accessible to more families and households, they support increased activity — more of it and more often. And they provide an opportunity to sew a patchwork of small parks across the city. These local green spaces can bring together neighbors who might otherwise never meet and tighten cohesion in a community. Potentially, that patchwork will strengthen the social fabric at both the city and neighborhood levels.

Creating a SPARK

Starting the SPARK process requires a principal to send a letter requesting their school be considered as a SPARK park site.

Early each year, SPARK staff members visit all the schools that applied in the past year to discuss the request and to confirm there’s buy-in from the community — including residents, churches, businesses and civic clubs. Buy-in from the neighborhood is vital to the success of a SPARK park, and to qualify, the community must be willing to help plan and fund the park.

“SPARK requires active participation by the children, school staff and community in the design and funding of the project, which increases buy-in and a sense of ownership of the completed project,” said Guy Hagstette of the Kinder Foundation. “All schools and their school district must raise at least some money for the project, and communities can think of incredibly creative ways to secure those funds, which are often matched by local businesses and governments.”

Once a school is chosen, the goal is for parks to be completed within 12 to 18 months. Community input is also a big part of each park’s design, which is intended to reflect the needs, interests and creative efforts of the surrounding neighborhood. That input makes the park a more personalized — and useful — resource, which means it is more likely to be used more. The SPARK park planning and design process is a true community effort that involves parents, school staff members and neighborhood residents, in addition to local architects and designers.

“What people may not realize is that the school district and the local community also contribute to the creation of each park,” said Nancy Kinder, President and CEO of the Kinder Foundation. “This results in a deeper local connection.”

Mitigating ‘park deserts’ in Houston

The Trust for Public Land (TPL) assigns each of the 100 largest U.S. cities’ park systems a ParkScore rating based on acreage, investment, amenities and access. Houston’s latest rating ranks it at No. 78 in the nation. TPL also identifies the five areas of each city where new parks could make the biggest impact by putting the largest number of residents within a 10-minute walk of a park. In Houston, the five optimized locations are on the city’s southwest side, in four of its most densely populated ZIP codes:

No. 1: 77036 (Sharpstown): 10,460 residents per square mile
No. 2: 77027: 6,407 residents per square mile
No. 5: 77057 (Uptown): 9,786 residents per square mile
Nos. 3 and 4: 77063 (Briar Meadow): 8,532 residents per square mile

TPL data indicating areas of park need come into play when decisions are made on which schools are selected for SPARK park sites.

“Equity is measured by access to a nearby park, and the relative quality and maintenance level of park amenities across the city,” Hagstette said. “SPARK addresses both issues very effectively. Elementary, middle and charter schools are located in all neighborhoods, and by using demographic data and GIS, ‘park deserts’ can be identified and prioritized to be ‘SPARKed.’”

Some 3,000 people live within the 10-minute-walk radius around Horn Elementary School in southwest Houston, including more than 700 low-come households. The area was a “park desert” before the school’s recent SPARK transformation. Fundraising efforts, including a coin drive, popcorn sales, a sponsored mural project and donations from local businesses, brought in $7,500 for the project. Another $9,000 came from the Alief Independent School District, and Harris County Precinct One kicked in $10,000. SPARK gave the remaining cost of the $300,000 park that features new playground equipment, a mosaic mural, a covered outdoor classroom, a walking trail and nearby soccer fields.

Philanthropy plays a powerful role

As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have cut into the revenue available to Houston and other cities across the nation, many face certain budget crises. Typically, cities cut their parks budgets dramatically when facing a budget deficit. An analysis of data from the National Recreation and Parks Association by the Kinder Institute found that parks funding dropped by 5% nationwide during the Great Recession. Some cities, including Houston, rely on private contributions to fill the parks revenue gap.

In 2019, Houston spent $69 per resident on parks — $167.2 million in public funding. When combined with the $32.3 million in private parks funding, the average amount per resident came to $83. Private funding accounted for one-fifth of total park spending in Houston, according to TPL — the fourth-largest amount of private spending on parks in the nation behind New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

While private funding often supports parks conservancies devoted to a single park, it can also be used to back projects that are investments in park equity.

Work continues on the Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative — a 150-mile network of connected linear parks and trails along the city’s nine bayous. When it’s finished, 1.5 million Houstonians will live within 1.5 miles of a bayou greenway. The project's extensive system of trails increase access to parks while preserving green space and mitigating flood risks in areas along Greens, Halls, Hunting and Sims bayous, which are home to many low- and moderate-income families. Without private funding, the $220 million Bayou Greenways project wouldn’t have been possible.

Public-private partnerships are also the backbone of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s 50/50 Park Partners initiative — an effort to improve 50 neighborhood parks with the help of funding and volunteer services from local companies. Twelve parks have been identified for improvements so far, and half of those are in neighborhoods that are part of the Complete Communities program.

“2020 reinforced the importance of parks in healthy, vibrant communities,” Turner said in a recent statement about 50/50 Park Partners. “I am proud to see our city come together to bring long-term improvements to our beloved neighborhood parks.”

The power of incremental gains

In 2016, the Houston Chronicle’s Lise Olsen wrote about Tinsley as part of the paper’s series on “Houston Legends”:

“Today, Tinsley’s best known as the namesake of a popular Buffalo Bayou park that offers fireworks, festivals and an unparalleled view of the Houston skyline. But friends and longtime fans remember her as a true steel magnolia who for 40 years won fights others believed unwinnable — desegregating schools, breaking the gender barrier on the Houston City Council and deftly forging alliances to pass ordinances that banned billboards, required bike helmets and fluoridated water and created no-smoking zones in stadiums and bars — reforms opposed in their time by fearmongers, civil libertarians and even well-funded lobbies like Big Tobacco. ‘I’m just not afraid to tackle difficult issues, and I think my record speaks to that,’ Tinsley said in a 1987 Houston Post profile.”

Back in 1983, few would have said that putting Houston’s parks system on par with the likes of New York or Chicago was a winnable endeavor. But thanks to Eleanor Tinsley and the innovative SPARK parks program, the city is gaining ground one school at a time.


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