PPN Interview: Ilisa Goldman, ASLA

Child Development Associates, Hilltop Child Development Center Habitat gARTen: On November 15 and 16, 2014, approximately 150 volunteers worked together to build the Habitat gARTen, combining art and nature into a dynamic laboratory for hands on, project based learning. / image: Alex Calegari

Recently, the ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN)’s Online Learning Coordinator, Principal Ilisa Goldman, PLA, MLA, ASLA, Founder of Rooted in Place, recorded a podcast: I Made It in San Diego: A Place Maker Builds a Business. It is well worth listening to! For now, we invite you to read an interview with Ilisa, whose work with children and those who are marginalized in the San Diego community is truly making a difference.

How has your passion influenced your practice?

I have held the core values of stewardship, social equity, and environmentalism since my teen years. If you had asked me twenty years ago what I would be doing now, I think my answer would have been very similar to the work I do today: fostering community and connecting people to the natural world.

I was introduced to landscape architecture during my senior year at Rollins College. Majoring in environmental studies, I learned environmental issues from cultural, economic, and science based perspectives. During graduate school at North Carolina State University, I sought out classes, mentors, and projects that allowed me to focus my passions. From studying permaculture to the design of children’s environments, I saw the importance of taking an integrated approach to design. Beginning practice in 2002, I looked for meaningful and interesting work. I am grateful to have worked for Spurlock Landscape Architects (formerly Spurlock Poirier Landscape Architects). During this time, I was encouraged to bring my knowledge to the table, explore my ideas, and grow as designer, all while learning the realities of landscape architecture and running a practice.

Between 2009 and 2012, while raising my two young daughters, I began volunteering at San Diego Children and Nature, teaching at the NewSchool of Architecture & Design, and training in the Pomegranate Method for Creative Collaboration. These experiences showed me how small scale, community-oriented projects were critical in improving the quality of educational and community spaces.

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Small Site, Big Impact

Barrio Logan Child Development Center image: Alex Calegari
Barrio Logan Child Development Center
image: Alex Calegari

The Barrio Logan Child Development Center

When my client, Child Development Associates, first approached me about designing an Outdoor Learning Environment (OLE) for the Barrio Logan Child Development Center, he warned me it would be one of my most challenging projects. I saw these challenges as opportunities! Together we had an opportunity to maximize space, to transform lives, and to make a statement that all children could have access to a quality OLE.

The Barrio Logan Child Development Center (CDC) is located in the urban neighborhood of Barrio Logan just south of downtown San Diego. This publicly funded program serves approximately 85 children (3-5 years of age), with the majority from low-income families in the community. The small 1,513 sf play yard (17’ wide x 89’ long), with little shade and no vegetation, sits directly adjacent to the I-5 Freeway, the heavy traffic generating a constant background noise for the students and staff at the Center. Most of the children spend 40-50 hours a week at the Center with little access to nature and open space in their community.

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Schoolyard Habitat Workshops

gARTen Hilltop, 2014 image: Alex Calegari
gARTen Hilltop, 2014
image: Alex Calegari

San Diego Children and Nature Schoolyard Habitat Workshops

There are many facets to the Children and Nature Movement, from natural playgrounds to family nature clubs, each having the goal of connecting children to the natural world. As many landscape architects have recognized, design is a key component to bringing nature into the everyday lives of children. What better place to do this than in the place our children spend most of their waking hours…the schoolyard!

Since its inception in 2009, San Diego Children and Nature (SDCaN) has offered professional learning opportunities to teachers, parents, administrators, and designers on the why’s and how-to’s for integrating nature into schoolyards. Thanks to a grant from San Diego Gas & Electric (SDGE), SDCaN, San Diego Master Gardeners, and Rooted In Place Landscape Architecture and Consulting partnered to host four training workshops in 2015 on Creating Schoolyard Habitats for Play and Learning. The 100+ attendees learned how to design and utilize schoolyard wildlife habitats.

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Pop Up Nature Play in San Diego

image: Rooted in Place
image: Rooted in Place

This past April the San Diego Children and Nature Collaborative (SDCaN) hosted its fourth annual Pop Up Nature Play event at the San Diego Earth Fair in Balboa Park. Over one hundred children and their families from across San Diego spent the afternoon creating what can only be described as a mini village of magical structures with nature’s loose parts.

During this one-day event, children of all ages are invited to engage in unstructured outdoor play with the collection of natural materials including bamboo poles, sticks, tree cookies, pine cones, shells, and palm fronds. From teepees to fairy houses, children work together to bring their ideas to life.

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Community Gathering Spaces

Insert Caption image: Ilisa Goldman
The Manzanita Gathering Place in City Heights, San Diego
image: Dennis Wood

Looking Beyond the Playground to Transform the Quality of Childhood in Neighborhoods

As a Landscape Architect specializing in creating healthy outdoor play and learning environments, much of my work is focused on parks, playgrounds, and schools. This past year, as a fellow of the San Diego Gathering Space Program, I was introduced to the importance of and potential in creating community gathering spaces to increase the quality of life for both children and families, and neighborhoods as a whole. Neither parks nor playgrounds, these spaces typically involve transforming an undesirable piece of land into a place designed and built by the community itself.

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Nature Play and Learning Areas Guidelines

Teardrop Parkimage: Natural Learning Initiative website
Teardrop Park
image: Natural Learning Initiative website

Nature Play and Learning Areas Guidelines is a joint project conducted by the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Learning Initiative, and North Carolina State University, with the support of national partners. The aim is to develop national design and management guidelines for nature areas in children’s outdoor play and learning environments.

The Guidelines Project has issued a Call for Participants in a registry of Nature Play and Learning Areas to support and potentially illustrate the best practice criteria specified in the Guidelines.

For more information and the links to register, visit the Nature Play and Learning Areas Guidelines website.

by Ilisa Goldman, officer of the Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN


Nature Bullies

Father and son explore their local natural spaceimage: http://www.childrenandnature.org
Father and son explore their local natural space
image: http://www.childrenandnature.org

The following commentary, whether you agree with it or not, brings up a great challenge for Landscape Architects. How can we design spaces that promote interaction with the natural world without harming it? We know how to design trails, signage, rest areas, but how do we design to allow for the creative, open ended exploration by children in nature.  We need to find the balance between conservation and discovery.  The Children and Nature Movement is much more than teaching children how to identity birds and trees, it is about creating a profound connection to the natural world.

NATURE BULLIES: A conservation biologist’s perspective on children in nature


Ron Swaisgood, author of the aforementioned commentary, is a conservation biologist and ecologist. He and his wife Janice Swaisgood (along with their two boys) co-founded the Family Adventures in Nature (FAN) Club in San Diego and it has since spread internationally.  For more information visit their website.