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Olmsted Scholar Feature: Schoolyard Reform as Urban Greening

by Kate Tooke, 2011 National Olmsted Scholar

Nationwide approximately one-third of all school-age children attend urban public schools. For the most part the campuses of these schools mirror their surrounding city environments: high density neighborhoods mean that schools serving large student bodies have been built on small lots where outdoor space is tight and pavement is plentiful. In an era where education reform, public health and environmental issues are all frequent topics of public debate, these small urban schoolyards have come into focus as places of great potential. They are natural community centers where we can not only encourage active recreation, but also create diverse educational landscapes that foster future environmental stewards and contribute to the ecological health of the surrounding city. Across the country and worldwide grassroots groups are slowly transforming urban schoolyards into playgrounds, parks, edible landscapes and outdoor classrooms with widely variant benefits for children, communities and the environment.

01-ktookeschoolyards01My masters thesis research sought to understand the ways in which schoolyard reform movements contribute to urban greening efforts as well as how renovated schoolyards engage urban youth with urban ecology. As a former Boston public school teacher I chose to focus my study on the Boston Schoolyards Initiative (BSI), which has renovated 78 public schoolyards in the city since 1995. I examined 12 elementary schoolyards in depth, comparing pervious surfaces and canopy covers before and after renovations as well as diagramming and quantifying how vegetated spaces overlap with areas for play and learning in the new schoolyards.

01-ktookeschoolyards02The results indicated some valuable increase in canopy cover (after 30 years of projected growth) as a result of BSI renovations, but little to no impact on the amount of pervious surfacing on school sites. In other words, most renovations in the sample group included some tree plantings, but paved areas generally remained paved. In addition, I found that although play and learning space accounts for over 50% (average) of renovated schoolyards, less than 8% of this play and learning space generally overlaps with ecologically-rich vegetated areas (usually a well-designed but fenced outdoor classroom). I divided the schoolyards into 5 typologies based on their quantities and configurations of play versus vegetated space, and my thesis ultimately recommended one schoolyard typology upon which to model future renovations (see figures).

01-ktookeschoolyards03

Informal interviews with BSI staff, schoolyard designers and school personnel revealed concerns about maintenance, vandalism and safety as the primary reasons that more vegetated and sustainable features were not included in most renovations. My thesis identified a pressing need for a culture of small, safe-to-fail experiments as a way to begin addressing these commonly-faced challenges.

As the 2011 National Olmsted Scholar I plan to develop a design toolkit focused on making ecosystem services transparent, educational and sustainable features of urban schoolyards. I will travel to research successful features at targeted schools around the nation as well as engage school communities and schoolyard designers in dialogue about what systems could work. The research will form the basis for practical, replicable plans of small experiments which can be implemented during renovations and monitored by students as part of an integrated academic curriculum. Please stay tuned to this blog series for updates on my research and the developing toolkit.

Kate graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in May with a Masters in Landscape Architecture. She works at Dodson Associates in Ashfield, MA and is currently engaged in designing an outdoor classroom and natural playscape for a new public elementary school in the city of Westfield, MA.

Case Study Investigation (CSI) Underway

LAF’s new Case Study Investigation (CSI) initiative kicked off this week with orientation webinars for participants. This unique program, which runs from June 1 to August 15, matches LAF-funded faculty and student research teams with design firms to document the benefits of exemplary high-performing landscape projects.

A stand-out cast of Research Fellows will lead the ten teams, using their expertise to guide the production of Landscape Performance Series Case Study Briefs and develop methods to quantify environmental, economic and social benefits. LAF-funded student research assistants work with the faculty and firms to gather data, information, and images to produce the case studies.

csi-v2158x129Participating design firms include AECOM, Andropogon, Conservation Design Forum, Design Workshop, Hoerr Schaudt, HOK, JJR, Mia Lehrer + Associates, Millennium Park, Inc., SWA, and WRT. These firms provide the case study narrative for their projects and identify known or likely performance benefits. They also give the research teams access to key project personnel, clients, stakeholders, and information.

Projects to be documented include Chicago’s Millennium Park, the Kresge Foundation Headquarters, South Park Streetscape in Los Angeles, Philadelphia’s Thomas Jefferson University, and the Seattle Children’s PlayGarden.

The CSI program is highly collaborative with the goal of better integrating the innovative work being done by academia and practice to advance our knowledge of landscape performance. By investing in this research, LAF hopes that CSI can be a key impetus in moving the landscape architecture profession toward routinely collecting performance data, designing every project with specific performance objectives, and integrating landscape performance in design education.

Ten Research Fellows to Lead LAF Case Study Investigation (CSI) Initiative

Participants have been selected for LAF’s new Case Study Investigation (CSI) initiative. This unique research collaboration matches LAF-funded faculty and student research teams with design firms to document the benefits of exemplary high-performing landscape projects. Teams will develop methods to quantify environmental, economic and social benefits and produce Landscape Performance Series Case Study Briefs.

LAF Research Fellows lead the case study preparation, develop methods for data collection, and receive funding to support a student research assistant. These select faculty members provide expertise in quantifying landscape benefits, and the academic rigor that is needed to support designers, policy-makers, and advocates who are making the case for sustainable landscape solutions.

The following ten LAF Research Fellows will lead the Summer 2011 Case Study Investigation program:

  • csi-graphic-v2Jessica Canfield, Kansas State University
  • Dennis Jerke, Texas A&M University
  • Mary Myers, PhD, Temple University
  • Bo Yang, PhD, Utah State University
  • Chris Ellis, PhD, University of Michigan
  • Byoung-Suk Kweon, PhD, University of Michigan
  • Kristina Hill, PhD, University of Virginia
  • Nancy Rottle, University of Washington
  • Ken Yocom, PhD, University of Washington
  • Alexander Robinson, University of Southern California

The number of proposals and highly-competitive selection process shows the strong level of support and enthusiasm for the CSI program. Depending on the results of the summer pilot program and available funding, we hope to offer another round of CSI in the fall to engage and support faculty, students and firms in landscape performance research.

Researching the Benefits of Open Spaces Sacred Places

Over the past 15 years, the TKF Foundation has provided grants to support the design and construction of over 130 public greenspaces that foster peace and encourage reflection. The users and creators of these “sacred places” have noted significant positive responses when people spend time at these sites — some even describe transformational experiences. To verify such anecdotes and provide a better understanding of how these spaces contribute to human health and well-being, TKF’s latest award program includes a research component. 

tkf-umdIn 2012, the TKF Foundation will begin the Open Spaces Sacred Places National Awards Initiative. This new program will fund the creation of sacred spaces designed with the intent to study and communicate the impact this type of urban public greenspace has on users.

“While we know intuitively and anecdotally that nature heals, unifies and uplifts the human spirit, TKF believes there is a growing need to complement these insights with empirical evidence in order to gain wider acceptance, advance understanding, influence policy, and effect systems change.”

The research aspect of the grant program will engage a community of social scientists to apply high quality, rigorous research approaches to generate more complete knowledge about the benefits and impacts that result from user experiences. The findings, including economic valuations of benefits, can become the basis of messages about why it is important to invest in greenspace close to where people live, work, and learn.

From a total funding pool of $5 million, grants will be awarded  to cross-disciplinary teams that conceptualize, plan, design and implement a physical space, conduct associated research study(s) and disseminate findings. More details can be found at www.opensacred.org.

With this unique research initiative, TKF demonstrates thought leadership and will directly contribute to our collective body of knowlege on landscape performance.

LPS Wins Potomac/Maryland ASLA Honor Award

The Potomac and Maryland Chapters of the American Society of Landscape Architects presented LAF with a 2011 Honor Award for Communications for the Landscape Performance Series. Winners were recognized at the 18th Annual Awards Event and Reception held on April 15 in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

The awards were juried by the Alabama ASLA Chaper. Jurors offered the following comments on the LPS:

potomac-md-asla-honor-award-500w        “A wonderful creative, collaborative resource to begin to understand the implications and potential successes, well designed places and landscape can have.”

        “The LPS is a great tool for clients and prospective owners — as well as landscape architects — to use in making decisions about sustainable site development practices, using easily understood, tangible figures to support the claims of LEED and SITES. It’s earned a bookmark in my browser!”

Other award winner include: Michael Vergusen Landscape Architects, Ayers Saint Gross, Maryland National Captial Park and Planning, Mahan Rykiel Associates, Florence Everts Associates, Landscape Architecture Bureau, Graham Landscape Architecture, and Plusen Designs Landscape Architecture.

Congrats to all, and many thanks to the Executive, Banquet, and Awards Committees of the Potomac and Maryland Chapters for organizing a great event!