With little land available for new parks in established neighborhoods, Houston created a program in 1983 to open schoolyards to the public after the students go home. Since then, 200 Houston school playgrounds in eight school districts have been upgraded and opened to the public, and the idea has spread to Baton Rouge, La.

Houston's non-profit Spark School Park program uses funding from the private sector, city and county appropriations, and Community Development Block Grants to replace old playground equipment with newer, safer models and add amenities that all ages can enjoy. Non-profit Baton Rouge (La.) Green was so taken with the concept it developed an identical program to turn three unused acres at a Baton Rouge grade school into a public park in 2002. "It was not a hard sell," says Peggy Davis Coates who led the Baton Rouge program during its first project and is now the executive director of the Louisiana State University Hilltop Arboretum. "Every school in our parish needs new playground equipment."

The play area, along with other improvements such as walking paths and public art, came about through a mix of school, city and private contributions. Using a Community Development Block Grant, Baton Rouge put more than $100,000 toward the project, and the school and the school district committed to raise $5,000 each. Unlike most parks' development, the project was organized by the non-profit instead of the city. "Non-profits have a way of being able to identify a community need and rally a lot of support and funding around that from the larger community," Davis-Coates says.

Baton Rouge Green also helped facilitate agreements between the city and the school district. Fences, gates and signs were installed to restrict access during school hours, and the school agreed to maintain the playground once it was built. The result is a public space that adds pedestrian connections in the neighborhood and gives families a comfortable place to play. "It's such a good use of those dollars to put them into schools and to turn them into neighborhood parks," Davis-Coates says.

The Recreation and Park Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge (BREC), the autonomous government agency that administers parks in Baton Rouge, also has worked with schools in the area to expand public use of school gyms and green space. The agency built a walking path and a pavilion on an underused portion of the grounds at a school in a neighborhood with limited park access. In another project, BREC swapped land with the school district for a middle school across the street from a public park.

Working with schools gives parks departments a way to use rare open space that might otherwise be sitting vacant after school hours. "The big advantage is just being able to utilize the public's facilities better," says BREC Director of Planning and Engineering Ted Jack. "It just makes a more efficient use of the public funds."