The sustainable landscape

Susan Herrington

Editor’s introduction

In the spring of 2000, Susan Herrington received funding to study how the schoolyard could serve as a community resource. As part of her work as a landscape designer and as an academic deeply involved in developing theories of children’s environmental awareness, she decided to run an international competition to encourage new ideas about the design of schoolyards as ‘green knowledge’ sites for children, teachers and the surrounding community.‘13-acres’ asked designers to step outside conventional thinking and design to more naturalized schoolyards that incorporate both play and learning. In addition she asked that designers employ green infrastructure and sustainable design techniques for the competition site in a new community, East Clayton, British Columbia.

Susan invited me to become one of the judges for the final entries the following year, and during a sometimes stormy period of adjudicating upon some 250 entries, I began to realize how important this all was. In our discussions, many new and exciting concepts were unfolding to me, particularly in relation to education and the sustainability agenda. Susan’s concept of a landscape for learning provoked the publication you are now reading.

Here she expands on many of the important themes which have emerged in her understanding, partly through the competition, but also through the design of numerous children’s parks and school play spaces in which she has personally been involved. Professor Herrington shows how a garden can be shaped to enhance the empathy children have with their natural surroundings. Natural processes within the creation of organic landscapes, such as hydrological cycles of water, the growth of plants, and the erosion and deposition of soil, can be brought into play in many imaginative ways, through the radical design of the garden. Equally, this understanding can be encouraged in simpler ways such as a wild corner, which transforms simply if left unmown, or stepping stones across a flower bed – small interventions (or lack of intervention), which encourage thoughts and attitudes which are sustainable. Simply digging up a wild protected corner of a schoolyard and planting a mini herb garden can be a marvellous antidote to urban squalor which often seems to be engulfing us, simply because adults have no education in sustainability.


Scientific evidence of pollution and subsequent ecological degradation throughout the world has spurred a number of global initiatives that have sought to define the term ‘sustainability’, a concept that is key to addressing these problems. The Rio

Declaration on Environment and Development established a set of twenty-seven principles on sustainable development. Many of these principles concern the health of natural systems in landscapes or the economic productivity of landscapes. Likewise, landscapes play a key role in geographer Anne Buttimer’s insights into creating a sustainable livelihood in Europe. She notes that landscapes of transformation are important avenues to reflect and study sustainability.1 The creation of landscapes, the outdoor physical environment of a culture, is an important dimension of the sustainability issue. Landscape design typically involves natural processes, such as the hydrological cycles of water, the growth of plants, and the erosion and deposition of soil. Thus, the creation of landscapes that work with these processes in a way that does not damage or degrade them is key to sustainability. Landscape architect Robert Thayer uses the following definition to describe sustainable landscapes when he states that they are ‘those landscapes which tend toward ideal conditions by conserving resources (i. e. soil, energy, water, air quality, wildlife diversity, etc.) as well as those which actually achieve a long-term regenerative capacity.’2 But what do these global negotiations and definitions concerning sustainability have to do with a landscape that surrounds a school or childcare centre? Education theorist, C. A. Bowers notes that ‘it is at the level of public school education that the most basic schemata of the culture are systematically presented and reinforced.’3 The landscapes we create for children in their learning environments are powerful testaments to how we as a culture treat the natural world. If we asphalt the entire play yard, surround it with a chain link fence, and fill it with plastic toys and organized sports, where winning is everything and only the strongest and fastest do so, what does that tell children? Conversely, if the schoolyard is designed to treat living organisms with sensitivity and provides opportunities for a diversity of aptitudes, doesn’t this send a better message to children who inhabit it on a daily basis? The idea of designing children’s outdoor spaces as places where ecological processes are made integral to the learning and developmental process is not new. It can be found in one of the oldest educational systems, the kindergarten.

German educator Friedrich Frobel understood the importance of the external environment to education when he developed the first kindergartens in the early nineteenth century. Frobel was one of the first educators to value play and he promoted self-initiated activities, spontaneous exploration, and experimentation with the outdoor physical environment. Gardens and excursions outdoors played a central role in his kindergarten pedagogy.4 Another important aspect of his work was that he encouraged children to ‘read’ and interpret their physical environment. Hence students would follow streams to their sources and reason where the water came from, or they would discover a pattern in time when a certain bird appeared in spring. While children living in contemporary western societies increasingly spend less time outdoors, this same use of the external environment is available to us today. This understanding is echoed in con­temporary times. Bill Lucas of Learning through Landscapes notes that, ‘children read school grounds as they read any external environment. They see a set of symbols from which they deduce what it is they are supposed to be doing and feeling.’5 If we know that the schoolyard does reveal our cultural attitudes to children, then why not create schoolyard landscapes that are sustainable?

Yet, sustainability in the schoolyard cannot be a one-way form of communication. Children and their actions are also part of the dialogue, and the larger sustainability equation. This was illuminated to me a few years ago while I was working with a kindergarten play yard in the United States. The project involved making subtle changes to the play yard itself and observing how these changes influenced the location and ways that the children interacted with the yard. Not mowing a corner of the yard was one of these changes. The children’s realization of the unmown corner was gradual, and they began to notice that the yard was not a static space but a changing place. They often talked about how high the grass might grow. How high might it be when they grew up? They also became aware of maintenance people who had previously been
invisible actors in the yard. Why did they mow the remaining yard? After two months the grass was up to their shoulders and there were numerous bugs that regularly ventured into this untamed part of the yard. The children made patterns by flattening down the grass, played hide – and-seek, or simply looked for things within its wild tresses. When May arrived, the project at the kindergarten was over, and the maintenance people were scheduled to start mowing the entire yard again. We had not anticipated the human blockade that the children created when the mowers headed for the unmown grass. After all, this was their part of the yard. The incident was brought to the director’s attention and the grass was ‘let go’ until the conclusion of the school year. This experience was revelatory in showing me that children live in the immediacy of their surroundings, and that relationships forged with these external environments are key to understanding sustainable landscapes for children.

Updated: October 12, 2015 — 4:31 pm