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How Virtual Engagement Led to an Innovative School Ground Design

COVID-19 created quite a few hurdles for Evergreen’s Climate-Ready Schools team, as they tried to plan an innovative green school ground. Here’s how they overcame them 

A school ground designed to be resilient to climate change

Published on July 12, 2021

How can we design our school grounds to be greener places for children to learn and play, while making them resilient to the effects of climate change?

These are the questions we’re asking in our Climate-Ready Schools project, the next chapter in Evergreen’s 30 years of greening Canadian school grounds. 

Earlier this year, we shared with you the story of our first Climate-Ready Schools pilot project, happening at Irma Coulson Public School in Milton, Ontario. The proposed plan for the school grounds includes accessible community green space, healthy environments for learning and play, and design features that will mitigate the effects of climate change, like hotter temperatures and flooding.

It’s an innovative proposal, and we were excited to share it with you — but one thing we didn’t share was some of the challenges we faced putting it together. From a months-long lockdown, to having to embrace new virtual tools, and coordinating with our lead landscape architect all the way from Berlin, there were more than a few hurdles in bringing our vision to life.  

Here are some of the lessons we learned along the way.

The Challenge: Changing Perceptions

How can school grounds mitigate the effects of climate change, enhance learning, and be welcoming to the community?

The Lesson: Engaging With Children Matters

Children’s perceptions and priorities are different than adults and this is important to consider when designing school grounds. 

The conditions of this wind-swept school ground included compacted soils, seasonal flooding, persistent muddy conditions, dying trees, and dusty hot conditions in summer. This was a space that offered minimal play and learning opportunities to the students and staff, and limited enjoyment for the community at large. The main goal of the project is to change the perception of how to design school grounds — to make visible their power and potential. 

The first step to achieving our goal was to engage the school board and school community in Evergreen’s participatory design process to actively engage students, teachers, parents and other key stakeholders in the development of a coherent vision for the site. 

This approach was central to building trusted relationships among stakeholders, and instilling confidence in a new collective vision for the school grounds. Working with Birgit Teichmann, the project’s lead landscape architect from Berlin, Germany, two key design drivers were established early in the process: 

  • Environment: We focused on applying a greening approach referred to as “The Sponge School Ground Strategy,” which included more green spaces and vegetation, protection from urban heat and increased infiltration of storm water. 
  • Education: We focused on offering a wide diversity of elements to stimulate children’s developmental needs, including spaces for activity and movement, opportunities for recreation and relaxation, spaces for different needs and interests, and opportunities for outdoor learning. 

The Challenge: Engaging in a Virtual World

How do we engage the school community — teachers, students, and parents — in a meaningful way considering COVID restrictions and limitations on in-person gatherings?

The Lesson: Virtual Tools Work 

With one of the project’s core values being placing children’s voices at the centre of the engagement process, we needed a communications and engagement strategy that used virutal tools to connect with the school community. These essential tools for success included: 

  • The Irma Coulson Public School website and dedicated project website 
  • Coulson Connects, the school’s radio show on VoiceEd radio, a local broadcasting platform featured a podcast series on the project  
  • Google Meet, the Board approved platform for hosting virtual public meetings 

A dedicated Climate-Ready Schools website was established to host all the digital project information, a graphic timeline, and communications, including surveys for the community, introductory videos, podcasts, and voice-over presentations featuring the concept design. 

In addition to this one-stop-shop for the latest on the project, a series of eight interactive virtual conversations were scheduled to listen and gather input from the school community. Leveraging these existing communication tools allowed the Evergreen team to implement the communications and engagement strategy that is integral to the project, while effectively connecting with the Irma Coulson school community in a familiar and meaningful way.

The Challenge: Adapting Professional Practice

How do we work with our lead landscape architect, Birgit Teichmann, located in Berlin Germany when she couldn’t fly to Canada and visit the site?

The Lesson:  Working With On-the-Ground Specialists

We engaged Environmental Sustainability Specialist, Suzanne Burwell, from the Halton District School Board team, to work with our Canadian landscape architect Gina Brouwer, to become Birgit’s eyes on the ground. 

Using digital maps and surveys, cellular video, voice-over presentations, and virtual meetings with subject matter experts (teachers, administrators, maintenance staff, facilities staff), we were able to bring the characteristics and unique conditions of the site to Berlin.

Learn More Today

As we begin the detailed design and costing process, we are excited to bring the ideas of the Irma Coulson community to life.  Construction is scheduled for later in 2021. 

Climate-Ready Schools is led by Evergreen and generously funded by the Balsam Foundation, Intact Financial Corporation and other key supporters. 

Want to know more? Visit our project page today.