Education is continually evolving both technologically and academically as are the expected teaching techniques and learning outcomes. However, the physical environment in which this educational development is taking place is stagnating and conforming to a set formula of designing the landscape as mere paved spaces with some planted areas between the buildings. One could argue that the lack of new and exciting landscapes within a school environment is due to funding and availability of space as land is becoming a premium, especially for large scale land use. This should not be seen as an excuse for basic landscapes but rather an opportunity for innovative design.
Change your perspective
I would argue that using funding and space as an excuse underplays the benefit of external spaces within schools and educational environments. Numerous studies have proven that the mere visual connection with nature improves your wellbeing and coming into contact with it is significantly beneficial to your mental and physical health. So, the question is ‘why is this not taken into account in schools when the purpose of an educational facility is to develop learners & students mentally?’ This need for green should not result in a tree within a sea of paving, but looking at the sensory and environmental benefits of a variety of planting such as organic scents and colour and their ability to cool the spaces and ‘builds’ around them. As landscape architects we should take those opportunities further and look at creating a space out of the planting and not just beds within a walkway.
Work closely with the designers
A solution could be to work closely with the architects in integrating the landscape with the building. Making it an extension of the building and not a separate entity. A shift in perspective is needed. They should be seen as multipurpose spaces, ones that are green, social and event spaces. Used before, during and after school for breaks or physical education and outdoor classrooms.
A tarred pedestrian corridor with no soft landscaping or shading transformed through applying these principals. It has become not only a corridor but a destination, a gathering space for students in which they get shade and come into direct contact with nature. It becomes an extension of the classroom which can be used as an outdoor learning space with its terraced and shaded seating areas.
A landscape that has been designed as an outdoor learning space, with informal seating directing the learners towards the teacher has the ability to be used as a plaza during sports events where spectators and sponsors can establish marquees for the day. With a third use of the space being a general play area during breaks and after school, where learners can sit under the trees, encounter planting and use the landscape informally.
Rethink established expectations
Probably the largest area of single use within a school is the parking lot. Even though schools & educational facilities are places where pedestrians are the primary user, these areas which are within the precinct are still designed to give the vehicle priority. Parking lots should give pedestrians priority, forcing the vehicle to make way for the pedestrian, not make the pedestrian have to wait and navigate traffic to get to their destination and mode of transport. Rethinking the priority of the vehicle does not allow the pedestrian to have free reign of the space but they should be given priority. Leading to the question, Why is this vast area not given a secondary use for the other 70% of the day when learners & students aren’t being dropped off or collected? Once again there is no fixed answer and there shouldn’t be, just as there isn’t and shouldn’t be one design solution. Each facility needs to be looked at independently and a solution formulated from their opportunities & constraints.
Above is an illustration of the transformation of a dead end within a basement parking area into a contemporary playground. Using all the surface planes to its benefits, either by suspending ropes and play equipment from the roof, to cladding the walls with sensory elements such as artificial turf. Opening up and extending into the adjacent courtyard.
The opportunities become almost limitless with just a slight shift in perspective. By changing one’s mind set as to what a landscape and open space can be within an educational environment, and not just seen as a paved area with a tree. If we look at playgrounds as a multipurpose spaces which are continually utilised adding value to the learners by enhancing their wellbeing and in doing so their ability to be conducive to learning, we have an opportunity to bring innovative designs back into schools in an exciting way. We can further challenge the established norms in exciting ways, which ultimately benefits all stakeholders involved and (almost most importantly) our learners.