by Arnaldo D. Cardona, ASLA
In this COVID era, new challenges require new solutions. There are many questions that cannot be answered yet but new design issues will arise on how human activities and gatherings will be affected because of the pandemic. In schools, we used to think that the ideal spaces for instruction were the classrooms, where sometimes there is no cross-ventilation and the air quality can jeopardize the health and safety of the users. However, in the same way restaurants that used to have only dine-ins are now offering drive-thrus, schools might be forced to use their outdoor spaces as outdoor classrooms. This will present a real design issue for architects and landscape architects and will bring us an opportunity for the community to see and appreciate the work we do.
So, if the future trend will be to use outdoor spaces as a classroom, let me share an example of an outdoor classroom designed and done by students.
While working with a non-profit organization that used architecture and the built environment to implement K-12 learning experiences, I had the opportunity to serve as an Architect-Educator in an elementary school in Staten Island, New York. As a former New York City art teacher, I immediately connected with the art teacher of the school. While working together and sharing that I also had a degree in landscape architecture, she asked me if I was able to help her restore the schoolyard that really had not been cared for. After I finished working with the groups to which I had been assigned, I volunteered my time to help her restore the school garden.
Although my program’s director shared that she did not want the center to be known for doing gardens, she later found out how the collaboration of creating an outdoor classroom impacted the school so much. It made me realize that there should be more organizations focused on creating meaningful learning experiences using landscape architecture. The result of my experience in community service volunteering with schools made me believe that the best way to promote career discovery is through hands-on engagement. Students expressed to relatives and friends what landscape architects do and that they wanted to become one.
Some classes were trained in landscape architecture concepts and would later engage in a competition for which we picked three winners. Then I used the concepts of each of the winners to develop a final planting plan. They had so much enthusiasm that they approached their nearby nurseries to donate the plants and other materials used in this garden.
I demonstrated to each class how to do a planting plan. I was just the drafter and facilitator—all the ideas came from students.
This garden had bird feeders, a compost center, a pond, and seasonal planters so science challenges could be done using the garden. Also, some classes used the garden during reading and writing time. Students designing the garden gained math skills when measuring the garden to develop a site plan. Students planted the trees, shrubs, and ground covers, following a planting plan. Students were involved in the design and execution of each part of the garden and there was a lesson before every activity. Many shared that “going green was so much fun.”
By volunteering my time with a schoolteacher to help her restore a garden in her school, I was able to enjoy the response of many students who shared that they wanted to become landscape architects when they grew up.
Arnaldo D. Cardona, ASLA, has been a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects since 2005. He is currently a member of the ASLA’s Committee on Education and chair of the subcommittee on K-12 education. Through this article he hopes to motivate other ASLA members to become advocates for the issues of career discovery, K-12 education, and community service. He believes that if ASLA members become more proactive and collaborate closely with ASLA’s Career Discovery initiatives, they will be creating the clients of the future and will guarantee colleges and universities the sustainability of their academic offerings.