Houston Endowment is deeply committed to park equity. We believe everyone in greater Houston should have access to high-quality parks and greenspaces. Every neighborhood should have a place that fosters connections among residents— a place that promotes recreation and contributes to neighborhood character and pride.

SPARK – an organization that works with schools and communities to transform school playgrounds into neighborhood parks – recently broke ground on several parks under a new “Park Desert” initiative borne in partnership with Houston Endowment and the Kinder Foundation and funded with a combined $5 million from the foundations. The initiative includes an additional $450,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds from the City of Houston and support from other local funders, including the Powell Foundation. Plans include the construction of 25 new SPARK parks on school campuses across greater Houston and renovation of another five existing parks.

Each SPARK park is designed to reflect the character of the school and surrounding neighborhood. A typical park might consist of modular playground equipment, a walking trail, benches, picnic tables and an outdoor classroom; each park design also incorporates feedback from the community and includes a unique public art component. School and community involvement is a vital component of the SPARK model, with each school contributing at least $5,000 toward their park.

Houston Endowment has supported SPARK’s innovative, inclusive and cost-effective approach for over 20 years. In 2014, Houston Endowment commissioned the Trust for Public Land (TPL) to formally evaluate SPARK’s impact. The findings were positive, confirming that SPARK parks are heavily used, highly valued and well-maintained.

The study also identified schools in “park deserts” — communities that don’t currently have a public park or greenspace within a 10-minute walk. Driven by its commitment to park equity, Houston Endowment convened a number of parties to explore how the TPL data might inform future SPARK work in the region. That exploration resulted in the Park Desert initiative. SPARK has identified the first nine school playgrounds to be transformed; those parks alone will provide over 20,000 residents with new access to beautiful, functional parks within their neighborhoods.