A Need for Green Schoolyards

One of The Kitchen Community's Learning Gardens image: The Kitchen Community
One of The Kitchen Community’s Learning Gardens
image: The Kitchen Community

Scalability as Driver of Schoolyard Greening Initiatives

Childhood obesity and the widely acknowledged and worrisome trend of urban food deserts are major health concerns facing Los Angeles and other communities today. According to the Mayo Clinic, unhealthy lifestyles marked by poor food choices and inactivity are the leading cause of obesity in children. Latino youths suffer disproportionately from obesity, and Los Angeles contains 4.9 million Hispanics (9% of the nation’s Hispanic population). At the same time, there is a groundswell of professional interest and research in the topics of Children’s Outdoor Environments and provisions for opportunities for organic, spontaneous, natural play. Add to this equation the vast, underused asphalt expanses of typical urban schoolyards, and the problem-solver in each of us begins to see a window of opportunity.

The Kitchen Community (TKC) was founded in 2011 with the goal of connecting children to nutritious food by building Learning Gardens at schools and community centers across the country. TKC was established as the philanthropic arm of The Kitchen restaurants in Boulder, Colorado, and rapidly expanded to Chicago, Los Angeles, and Memphis. TKC has built over 200 Learning Gardens across the country to date.

TKC’s early goals for expansion include build-out to 100 Learning Gardens in each city. This scale will establish a presence that will enable TKC to enter into larger conversations with school district decision-makers and funders about fundamental shifts in policy that will change the way schools influence the physical and emotional health of our youth. Chicago was the first city to reach this goal, reaching scale in just one year within Chicago Public Schools. As the third-largest school district in the nation, this was an incredible milestone that exemplifies the possibilities of reaching scale in other cities. Los Angeles is now nearly midway to reaching scale, with most of those 100 Learning Gardens anticipated to be built on Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schoolyards. LAUSD, the second-largest school district in the country, is demonstrating its support for schoolyard garden projects with a publicly-funded bond that will provide the infrastructure for outdoor learning environments at over 160 schools within the District.

Scalability, Feasibility, and User-Friendliness

Since its inception, TKC founders focused on the scalability, feasibility, and user-friendliness features of the Learning Garden products and programming. Boulder-based artist and product designer Jen Lewin created the concept for The Kitchen Community’s signature raised beds. Careful attention to these key pieces of the garden was not simply a branding decision, but also a key supporting factor behind TKC’s rapid expansion. Each of the three sizes of beds represent a section of the classic golden triangle mathematical proportion and are molded from food-safe rotational molded plastic. The material selection is meant to withstand the stresses of both active and passive play from Learning Garden users with minimum breakdown over the life of the product. Minimal joints and moving pieces is also beneficial for minimizing ongoing maintenance.

TKC’s modular raised beds image: The Kitchen Community
TKC’s modular raised beds
image: The Kitchen Community

Due to the merits of the independent environment that enclosed planters provide, TKC’s modular raised beds are of particular benefit for implementation in schoolyards in Los Angeles and across the country. An alternative method predicated on demolishing existing schoolyard hardscape and exposing the underlying dirt often triggers school district requirements for soil testing and other associated approvals. Furthermore, it is important to note that urban schoolyards are often built over brownfield soil conditions. Though the preference would be to remove the acres of asphalt on typical Los Angeles schoolyards, the dirt underneath may contain heavy metals, industrial chemicals, or (most often) arsenic, historically used in the asphalt installation process. Many teachers and school administrators believe a garden should be installed within dirt- or grass-covered areas. They quickly understand the raised bed on hardscape concept however, when the challenges and expenses of working with those surfaces or breaking existing hardscape are explained. Education is an integral part of TKC’s work, and it naturally begins with the administrators, teachers, and facilities personnel at each Learning Garden project site.

image: The Kitchen Community
image: The Kitchen Community

While the shape and scale of raised beds are consistent across all Learning Gardens, surrounding conditions and physical context of the sites vary widely. This is not high design; it is thoughtful design.  Schoolyard outdoor learning environments must meet strict ADA standards and the designer must pay careful attention to school entrance proximity, utilities, and emergency access. As an outdoor classroom, the Learning Garden must provide comfortable learning environments adjacent to shade and seating. Preliminary studies have shown varying levels of student engagement pending the presence of fences or other perceived barriers, resulting in attempts by TKC’s Project Management team to work with school teams to locate the Learning Garden as centrally as possible within the schoolyard.

Once a design is completed and all approvals secured for new Learning Gardens, the construction occurs very quickly. TKC engages students, teachers, and parents as community volunteers to participate in filling beds with soil, laying drip irrigation lines, and planting seeds and seedlings. TKC’s Garden Education team remains in contact with schools for the life of a Learning Garden as a resource for garden maintenance questions and curriculum suggestions. The Garden Education team also supports teacher trainings focused on garden activities, many of which may be counted toward professional development hours for the teachers.

image: The Kitchen Community
image: The Kitchen Community

Quantifying Success and Future Goals

In 2012, TKC partnered with the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado Denver to design a pilot study of several early Learning Gardens in Chicago. The results of this project were limited to projects built in the spring of 2012 (the study followed the first harvest in the fall of 2012), but this preliminary look already showed positive trends for improvement in perception and understanding of healthy foods and gardening. TKC hopes to engage in a similar pilot project for Learning Gardens in Los Angeles to establish a baseline for future studies. Los Angeles’s Learning Gardens differ fundamentally from Chicago projects due to climate, levels of grassroots support, and potential partnerships. As TKC continues to expand, each new city will undoubtedly encounter its own unique sets of constraints and possibilities, and there is much knowledge to be gained from a quantifiable study of each region both at baseline and scale levels.

Gathering measurable successes will help TKC to not only improve its own methods but also support its efforts toward affecting policy change within school districts that will support outdoor learning environments. Metrics and scale of projects will continue to draw the attention of municipal and school district decision-makers, which will strengthen the movement toward outdoor learning environments and alternative play options in schoolyards. At the same time, grassroots community organizations working with education, healthy eating, and other youth programming are seeing the potential for overlap with Learning Gardens and fruitful partnerships continue to evolve. One of TKC’s long-term goals is ongoing expansion into new cities. Enthusiasm from both bureaucrats and local bedrock populations will support this goal and outdoor classroom environments in new and locally meaningful ways.


Chicago Learning Garden Pilot Project: Evaluation and Recommendation Study

Mayo Clinic: Obesity

by Alison Kelly, ASLA | Los Angeles Regional Project Manager, The Kitchen Community

4 thoughts on “A Need for Green Schoolyards

  1. Mark Wilson, ASLA April 16, 2015 / 1:38 pm

    I’m sorry, but you lost me with the first picture because I don’t understand how a concrete courtyard surrounded by reflective glass windows can be considered “green”. The amount of water it would take to maintain the vegetables in raised beds in such an environment, in Los Angeles, is astronomical. The environment must be hot and dry as the only people I see are cowering away from the heat within the shadow of the building.

    Landscape architects have been “green since 1899”. It’s my belief that architects created LEED to re-brand themselves as green, because they weren’t. The emergence of LEED has led to companies branding themselves as environmentally sensitive. I’ve always considered unscrupulous green-washing a function of auto makers and oil producers who have an incentive for branding themselves in a more environmentally sensitive light. But I’m afraid a concrete courtyard with raised vegetable beds in a desert environment does not seem very green. Can we as a profession let our actions, and designs, speak for how “green” we really are, rather than resorting to “green-washing”.

  2. Alison Kelly April 16, 2015 / 11:01 pm

    Hi Mark, thanks for your feedback! I apologize if my article here reads as any attempt to greenwash. If you would give me the honor of continuing to read a bit more of the piece, The Kitchen Community’s overall goal is to enter “food desert” urban areas and introduce children to the physicality of growing food. Our non-profit focuses on the idea of this knowledge as power, and it is indeed powerful to watch children who have never before had this opportunity as they begin to play in the soil and connect with what food really is.

    I am also extraordinarily wary of the idea of “greening” and want to be sure to clarify that my article here is not advocating any idea of “greening.” Landscape architecture is a powerful profession and I am continually inspired by my colleagues’ areas of expertise, whether it be drawing, digital modeling, community outreach, urban design, stormwater management, or any other. At our heart, we are an innovative, iterative profession with myriad niches. My greatest respect is for my colleagues, and I again humbly ask you to give my piece a chance.

  3. Peter Prakke April 20, 2015 / 5:00 pm

    Thank you Mark and Allison for your very informative comments. I’d like to add the greening of the allergy friendly schoolyards which I initiated. http://www.healthyschoolyards.org . Read the book “The Allergy-Fighting Garden” from Thomas Ogren to understand about OPALS(tm),
    Ogren Plant Allergy Scale. Furthermore, I suggest to promote the A & C vegetable garden in the schoolyards. Why? The vitamins A & C are cancer preventers. Very young, the children should know about the health factors of vegetables.

  4. Daniel Miller April 21, 2015 / 10:27 pm

    I think a large part of ‘green’ school yards, is the educational aspect that will potentially stick with kids for the rest of their lives. Most children (or people) never know or think about where their food comes from and what it takes to produce. It’s a lot of work — and yes — a lot of water to produce the food you consume at home without a thought. Teach kids to understand these concepts and it piques their interest and understanding of botany, bio-sciences, design, etc. The water required is a price to pay (especially these days!) but the potential for a good return on investment is there. You reap what you sow…

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