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Introducing Canada’s First Climate Ready School

A partnership between Evergreen and the Halton District School Board is transforming a Milton, Ontario school ground to help adapt to a changing climate. 

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Published on September 13, 2022

They’re hiding in plain sight, covering hundreds of thousands of acres of land across nearly every municipality in the country. 

Canada’s school grounds provide a place for learning and play for students and serve the community even outside school hours. But these vast and valuable sites, and the way they’re designed, can also play a major role in how a community will, or will not, adapt to climate change. 

Many of these sites are covered by asphalt and concrete, contributing to the urban heat island effect and becoming hotspots for flooding during heavy rain. 

Shouldn't there be a better way? There is. At Irma Coulson Public School in Milton, Ont., a pilot project is transforming the school ground into an outdoor learning hub that adapts to the changing climate while respecting the ecological landscape.

The project — a partnership with Evergreen’s Climate Ready Schools program and the Halton District School Board (HDSB) — is ready to open to students and the community this fall. Here’s how they built Canada’s first climate-ready school. 

Slide with natural features at Irma Coulson Public School

The next phase of school ground greening

Evergreen’s Climate Ready School program builds on a 30-year legacy of transforming school grounds across the country into areas of green learning for both children and their community.

Out of the legacy of transforming more than 6,000 Canadian schools, there were many lessons learned, explains Heidi Campbell, Senior Program Manager at Evergreen.

“When you look at a school ground, you can reimagine it as a park where the whole community can flourish in this green space,” she says. “It’s essential to build resilience within our local communities to ensure that these landscapes serve a deeper ecological purpose.” 

That idea brought Evergreen to Irma Coulson Public School, a large K-8 elementary school with a student population topping 1,000 children. The site had 4.5 hectares of wide-open space that was largely barren. The wind-swept school ground included compacted soils, seasonal flooding, persistent muddy conditions, dying trees, little shade and dusty hot conditions in summer due to expansive areas of asphalt.

The HDSB, meanwhile, was ready to take action. Having already partnered with Evergreen for more than a decade on school ground greening projects, the Board was excited to look beyond just a small garden or outdoor learning space, says Suzanne Burwell, HDSB’s Environmental Sustainability Coordinator.

“The outdoor space of a school is an integral part of a school,” she says. “Just as changes to buildings to make them more efficient have been ongoing, also important is the need to change our outdoor spaces so that they function in conjunction with our changing climate.”

Shot of the school grounds of Irma Coulson Public School

Creating a climate resilient school ground

Though the pilot was initiated prior to March 2020, everything from the selection of the school site to the final construction was carried out during the pandemic. That meant parts of the engagement and design process had to be adapted to a virtual world

But to create a school ground that could truly mitigate the effects of climate change, engaging the community — especially children — would be vital. Design workshops and site visioning sessions with students helped reveal children’s perceptions and priorities, such as shade, seating and more places to climb.

Working with Birgit Teichmann, the project’s lead landscape architect from Berlin, Germany, the site applies the Sponge School Ground Strategy, which removes impermeable surfaces and replaces them with extensive vegetation, allowing the site to act as a giant sponge. This design helps ensure the school ground can absorb 100% of the rainfall, mitigating flood risks while moderating temperatures and providing shade.

“The visual appeal of the site cannot be overstated. That it is also a functional site in terms of water management is amazing,” says Burwell. “Often in wet or snowy weather, students can’t access a school field because it is too wet or muddy. The different paths and elements will enable students to access the site in all kinds of weather.”

The densely packed trees and shrubs not only create shelter and shade, but contribute to habitat restoration. 

“Even before the area was completed, it was providing new habitats for small creatures and birds,” she adds. “A family of Killdeer was building a nest in the middle of a new naturalized space; small bunnies were hopping through the gardens.” 

Arial shot of Irma Coulson Public School construction

The future of climate-adaptive school grounds

According to Burwell, while there are plenty of schools undergoing extensive greening, none were designed specifically to address the impacts of climate change — with considerations to heat, stormwater and biodiversity.

“There are schools that I am aware of across the country that have extensive gardens, or have increased their biodiversity or have strong outdoor education components, but I am not sure that they were intentionally designed to meet climate, education and child development goals all at once,” she says.

The Climate Ready Schools pilot isn’t just building climate resilience at Irma Coulson Public School, the lessons learned are even changing how the HDSB designs the school grounds of new schools being built. 

For Evergreen, they’ve now built an even bigger and better toolset and knowledge base to continue this work across the country. The Climate Ready Schools program will help nurture child development while supporting a significant increase in outdoor play and learning. Along the way, progressing the important principles of climate resilience.

“Looking at landscapes through an ecological lens is just part of Evergreen’s DNA,” Campbell says.

Learn more

Evergreen’s Climate Ready Schools project builds on a 30-year legacy of transforming school grounds across the country into areas of green learning for both children and their community. 

The Climate Ready Schools program has been generously funded by the Balsam Foundation, Intact Financial, the LCBO’s Spirit of Sustainability campaign and other key funders, with in-kind support from Arup.