In the spring of 2000, I received funding from the Hampton Foundation, the University of British Columbia’s James Taylor Chair, and the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia to study how the schoolyard could serve as a community resource. This research resulted in orchestrating the 13-acres international design competition. This competition involved the design of schoolyards as ‘green knowledge’ sites for children, teachers, and the surrounding community. One of the primary goals of the competition was to inspire people who design children’s environments to explore the schoolyard as an untapped site for ecological rejuvenation and environmental education. This competition asked designers to step outside conventional thinking and combine two paradigm shifts emerging in the development of landscapes in North America. The first shift is from the design and use of schoolyards for primarily organized sports and play equipment to more naturalized schoolyards that incorporate both play and learning as a community resource.9 The second shift is from the design and planning of communities that are detrimental to the ecological environment, to communities that are planned to employ green infrastructure and sustainable design techniques.10
In the past decade there has been a rising concern among parents, educators, and designers to reinterpret the schoolyard to address community needs. Currently, schoolyards are typified by expanses of pavement, prefabricated play structures, and chain link fence. Schoolyards of the twentieth century rarely exhibit any sensitivity to the site’s ecological conditions, the school’s cultural setting, or the children and neighbours who use it on a daily basis. A key dimension of the competition was to grapple with this very notion of the schoolyard as a site for cultural communication. While a competition may not be a familiar tool to all people, it is a well-known method for opening up new possibilities in physical design.11 The design competition is a proven way to inspire changes in practice and perception, both by professional designers, and by the general public. For example, the design for the Vietnam War Veteran’s memorial often comes to mind when the word ‘competition’ is used. This project reinvented the way memorials were designed and treated in North America.
The competition sites were two proposed schoolyard and park sites (each approximately 13 acres) planned for the District of East Clayton in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. Surrey is British Columbia’s second largest and fastest growing school district. The East Clayton sites were selected because the plans for this new district have been nationally recognized as a demonstration site for sustainable practices.12 Since the early 1990s, the city of Surrey, and the University of British Columbia’s James Taylor Chair of Livable Communities have collaborated to envision a sustainability plan for the development in East Clayton, Surrey. In 1998, the Headwaters Project was conceived as a partnership that would demonstrate sustainable urban development in lower mainland communities in British Columbia. The Headwaters Partnership is an advisory committee supported by the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia, Environment Canada, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, Affordability and Choice Today (ACT), Greater Vancouver Regional District, and the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Together, the key players involved in the Headwaters Project coordinated the efforts of Surrey planners, engineers, developers, environmental consultants, and a community advisory committee to formulate a Neighbourhood Concept Plan for the East Clayton community of Surrey. The Neighbourhood Concept Plan was based on seven principles of sustainability:
1 Increase density and conserve energy by designing compact walkable neighbourhoods. This will encourage pedestrian activities where basic services (e. g., schools, parks, transit, shop, etc.) are within a five – to six-minute walk of their homes.
2 Provide different dwelling types (a mix of housing types, including a broad range of densities from single-family homes to apartment buildings) in the same neighborhood and even on the same street.
3 Communities are designed for people; therefore, all dwellings should present a friendly face to the street in order to promote social interaction.
4 Ensure that car storage and services are handled at the rear of dwellings.
5 Provide an interconnected street network in a grid or modified grid pattern, to ensure a variety of itineraries and to disperse traffic congestion and provide public transit to connect East Clayton with the surrounding region.
6 Provide narrow streets shaded by rows of trees in order to save costs and to provide a greener, friendlier environment.
7 Preserve the natural environment and promote natural drainage systems (in which storm water is held on the surface and permitted to seep naturally into the ground).
(East Clayton NCP, 1999.)
The Neighborhood Concept Plan also identified the two schoolyard park sites as locations for storm water filtration, habitat preservation, and community communication in East Clayton. Members of the Headwaters Project were keenly aware of the important roles that these two sites played in reflecting the sustainability principles of the concept plan. The idea of a competition emerged as a way of extending and strengthening the plan’s mission by providing an array of design solutions that envision the schoolyards. Representatives from the Headwaters Project, the city of Surrey Engineering Department, School Facility, and Parks and Recreation Department, the University of British Columbia, and the Evergreen Foundation played an integral role in the creation of the competition’s design programme. Surrey representatives insured that the nature of the competition was applicable to the city’s regulatory policies as well as its visions for sustainable, yet economically viable development. Headwater representatives ensured conformance to the principles set out in the Neighborhood Concept Plan as a demonstration site for sustainability in the lower mainland of British Columbia. Landscape architecture and education students from the University of British Columbia, and Dr Rita Irwin with UBC Curriculum Studies, also participated in the development of the competition design programme.
After two half-day workshops and many electronic communications, we determined the design programme in August 2000. The 13-acres design programme described the competition criteria and specified that competitors should explore and envision designs that use ecological systems as educational and community resources. Design entries were requested that employed multiple uses of the schoolyard, and layered natural systems, play spaces, and community outreach programmes in one dynamic site. It was not an intention of the design programme team that the winning scheme should be the exact solution for
the site. Rather, the built solution would evolve as the East Clayton Community developed and moved into the neighbourhood. The competition was a means of getting people to think early on in the building process about what the schoolyard parks sites could be, other than the standard yards witnessed in most communities in North America.
The two combined park and school parcels were called ‘dry site’ and ‘wet site’. School and community gardens were the dominant site programmes for the dry site, and water retention was the primary programme for the wet site. The school architecture was based on a modular system designed by Erno Goldfinger in England during the 1930s, and was given to all registrants for
modification. In the design programme, entrants were encouraged to treat the material of landscape, earth, water, walks, wind, etc. as sources for play and learning. Four frameworks were defined as criteria for submission:
1 The cultural endeavour – how can we produce schoolyard/parks that dislodge conventional thinking about these spaces?
2 The public programme – how can we organize on one site the multiple uses that are required of schoolyard/parks today?
3 The landscape of childhood – how can we design schoolyards as landscapes, landscapes that support learning and imaginative play?
4 The ecological plan – how can we design natural systems as a tool for learning in the schoolyard/park?13
In May 2001 we received 258 entries from 32 countries ranging from Europe, North America,
the Middle East, Asia, New Zealand, and Australia. A jury of six internationally-recognized professionals and three Surrey Representatives evaluated these entries. The jury included Irene Cinq-Mars (Montreal), Gina Crandell (Boston), Mark Dudek (London), Mark Francis (Norway),
Lorna Fraser (Surrey Parent Organization), Peter Latz (Munich), Francisco Molina (Surrey Senior Planner and Urban Designer), Cornelia Hahn Oberlander (Vancouver) and Umer Olcay (Surrey School Board Facilities Manager).
The jury deliberated for three days. First prize was awarded to Nicholas Gilsoul of Brussels, Belgium; second prize was awarded to Claudia Illanes Barrera with Andrew Harris Diez and Loles Herrero Canela of Barcelona, Spain; and third prize was awarded to Kamni Gill of Massachusetts, United States. The jury also gave nine honourable mentions. First honourable mention was awarded to Peter O’Shea with Sara Wilson of Charlottesville, Virginia, United States; second was awarded to Joel Agacki and Michael Striegel of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States; and third honourable mention went to Barbara Le Strat of Versailles, France. Honorable mentions were also given to Franck Jarosz of Strasbourg, France; Dave Hutch and Jean Kindratsky of Vancouver, Canada; Robert Dorgan of Las Vegas, Nevada, United States; Philippe Luc Barman and Gabriela Barman at Nonlinear Architecture in New York City, United States; Robert Kastelic and Carina Rose at Ultrapolis of Toronto, Canada; and Herve Meyer and Angela Morague of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. As noted by the judges, the
competition generated many provocative ideas from a broad spectrum of geographies. An important theme that emerged from the review of the proposed design solutions was the significance of linking community and educational programmes with natural processes occurring on the schoolyard site.
The ability to feel empathy towards other living
creatures is one of the most fundamental steps
towards attaining sustainable landscapes. If the daily
life of the schoolyard is filled with natural objects
(plants, animals, water, etc.) it is anticipated that an
enriched awareness will be developed in children
towards these living elements and the empathy they
engender. Dynamic natural environments and the
types of experiential learning opportunities that
they furnish, such as fostering an understanding of
life cycles, may also encourage an appreciation
toward these changing environments.14 Many
positive experiences are to be gained by
incorporating natural processes into the outdoor
school environment.15 These include life-long skills
such as a greater empathy towards living things, and
more immediate and tangible benefits such as
improved academic performance in some subject 16
Studies that compare exposure to natural settings in the educational environment and
improved academic performance are rare in the research of children’s environments. However, a study by Hoody and Lieberman in the United States compared the academic performance of children attending schools that used their schoolyard primarily for physical fitness with children in schools that used their external environments as places for ‘general and disciplinary knowledge, thinking and problem-solving skills; and basic life skills, such as cooperation and interpersonal communications’.17 The researchers observed and interviewed children attending 40 different schools and found that 92 per cent of the children who attended schools that considered the schoolyard an integrated context for learning performed better in the areas of reading, writing, math, science and social studies than the children enrolled in conventional schools.
The following identifies competition entries that linked community and educational programmes with natural processes occurring on the schoolyard site. While they all addressed the four frameworks identified by the design programme, each had particular strengths. Hence, the design proposals are placed in three categories: water conveyance and nature study, forest and agricultural management; and design as play.