A Call for Landscape Architects to Assist Schools in Creating Outdoor Classrooms

by Jennifer Nitzky, PLA, ASLA, ISA

Nueva School
ASLA 2010 Professional Honor Award in General Design. Nueva School. Hillsborough, CA. Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture. / image: Marion Brenner

Green Schoolyards America (GSA) and their partners are organizing a national COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative around the idea of using outdoor school space, parks, and other outdoor areas as assets as schools make plans to re-open in the fall.

The initiative, led by Sharon Danks, MLA-MCP, CEO of Green Schoolyards America, has created several working groups to develop strategies, ideas, and frameworks to assist schools across the country. This initiative was launched with an online public forum titled “Outdoor Spaces as Essential Assets for School Districts’ COVID-19 Response,” held on June 4, 2020, and co-hosted by Green Schoolyards America, The Lawrence Hall of Science, San Mateo County Office of Education, and Ten Strands.

Among the working groups developed through this initiative, a new pro bono landscape design assistance program called COVID-19 Emergency Schoolyard Design Volunteers is matching schools with landscape architects and design students.

Golestan Education in El Cerrito, California, re-opened on June 22. They plan to re-open for their fall semester in September, if their county health department allows schools to resume on-site learning. / image: Golestan Education

The Design Volunteers working group is led by Claire Latané, ASLA, LEED AP, SITES AP, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona. So far over 130 landscape architects and designers from twenty states and four countries have signed on to assist. Seventy schools have requested design assistance so far, and that is with no real advertisement. The first school/design partnerships are testing the Outdoor Learning Initiative toolkits and process to refine and launch this month. Other design volunteers are working on plant lists for providing shade, defining and adding to experiential learning areas, and screening.

As the interdisciplinary effort to reopen schools using outdoor space moves forward, schools across the country will need help designing and diagramming outdoor learning areas. While schools ultimately may want living landscapes full of shade trees, the immediate focus is on emergency outdoor classrooms—anywhere on their school grounds or in local parks where classes can safely take place. GSA is looking for landscape architecture students, faculty, and professional volunteers to help interested schools across the nation make site plans for the fall.

To learn more about the COVID-19 Learning Initiative, read the background materials and watch the one-hour webinar here.

There are two ways you, as landscape architecture students, faculty, and professionals, can help:

  1. Contact your local pre-K–12 schools and districts in high-need neighborhoods and let them know about this initiative. A working group of Early Adopter schools meets once a week on Tuesdays at 2:00 pm EST to learn about the Initiative and support each other’s efforts to teach outdoors. Schools can register for that working group and sign up for design assistance online.
  2. Help schools design and diagram outdoor classroom plans to help them reopen. Please volunteer your design skills by signing up here.

Design volunteers will be grouped, pairing emerging professionals with more experienced landscape architects as a form of mentorship and to grow professional networks both locally and nationwide. These groups will collaborate to develop strategies, design guidance, cost estimates, case studies, and other resources that schools and districts across the country can use to help them plan for outdoor classroom infrastructure needs.

Outdoor Infrastructure Planning Case Study: Elementary School in the Los Angeles Area, California / image: Sharon Danks, Green Schoolyards America

For further information on the outdoor classroom movement, please see:

A California Collective Makes the Case for Outdoor Schooling
PBS News Hour

ICYMI: A Virtual Forum on the Future of Parks and Play
The Field

Why Can’t We Have Class Outside? It might be the answer to America’s school-reopening problem.
The Atlantic

Inside the Quest to Reopen Schools—by Moving Classes Outside
Fast Company

Schools Beat Earlier Plagues with Outdoor Classes. We Should, Too.
The New York Times

Teachers’ plea for outdoor learning
NY Daily News

Green Schoolyards America COVID-19 Media Library
An extensive list of media coverage and resources on a variety of topics related to schools

Jennifer Nitzky, PLA, ASLA, ISA, is a landscape architect and certified arborist with over 20 years of experience in urban planning and design, parks and recreational design, playgrounds, green roofs, and campus design, working in both small landscape architecture firms and large multidisciplinary offices. Jennifer is an active member of the American Society of Landscape Architects and serves on both the Fine Arts Federation of New York and Manhattan Community Board 7.

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