When I lived in Bossier City, Louisiana, I attended a few schools surrounded by cotton fields that were sprayed bi-weekly by crop dusters. Because our schools lacked air conditioning, chemicals would mingle with the warm, humid winds, and drift quietly into the classroom through open air windows of the mid-century structures or up into the stairway through crumbling Civil War buildings. The familiar and distinct scent of the insecticide alerted us of its danger. Tornadoes were ever present, so windows were limited at best, and the landscape around the school was kept to a minimum, with many a playground being simply an asphalt pad with a tetherball pole and a grassy clover dusted lawn.
Today there are over 50 million students who attend 94,000 public schools within the United States. On-going maintenance has been critically underfunded according to a study addressing the inadequate investment in school facility maintenance by Mustapha A. Bello, PhD candidate and Vivian Loftness, FAIA. Ideally the American educational system could address the woes of today’s landscape maintenance – reduced hours for staff and the lack of proper horticultural skills to get the job done right – and provide the necessary effort to train staff to create beneficial living classrooms I like to refer to as “the great outdoors”.
Many new schools are being built in Southern California, with older schools undergoing extensive remodeling. Still, for many schools districts there are too few hours and even fewer staff dedicated towards the maintenance of the landscape after the installation period. Landscape maintenance tends to become just another superficial chore rather than something integrally beneficial. Time and money once allotted for school grounds gradually shift toward more immediate and pressing issues, such as security or latest technologies. Design professionals see school landscape as life-changing environmental opportunities for learning and capable of fostering future career opportunities for hungry young minds for years after their initial creation. But, enthusiasm often slowly fades after the 90 day landscape maintenance period contract is over, and landscapes begin to take a new life of their own until the next redesign or redevelopment.
For the past 6 months, Calvin Abe, FASLA and I have represented AHBE Landscape Architects, observing on-going landscape maintenance and listening to public perception about the healing gardens located on top of a roof at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. It has been a rewarding experience for me to hear from healthcare providers and patients, as well as those who genuinely care for the garden spaces every day. Hospitals are on the forefront in recognizing how design truly affects one’s health. The facility’s landscape must always look healthy, tidy, and befitting of the original design intent, an ongoing reflection of the quality of the medical center’s services.
How can a facility manager at a nonprofit school think just like a nonprofit hospital? When a parent drops off a student at a school and notices a disheveled entryway landscape year after year, questions whether the school has enough resources to teach and protect their child may arise. The health of a school landscape should be considered a reflection of the school’s performance. I would be curious whether students’ performances improve after a landscape has been enhanced.
Simple efforts like adding mulch for a few hundred dollars or even a few plants between the holes can really make a big difference while awaiting commitment of greater financial resources to a redesign, more thorough landscape maintenance, or other naturally enriching enhancements. As in all things educational, small efforts have a cumulative effect, and can eventually result in huge differences in creating great first impressions within young, developing minds.
My educated guess would be public, private, magnet and charter schools with strong landscape maintenance initiatives would reflect a higher student and teacher performance, alongside attendance rankings. Maybe these findings would encourage school administration to invest more money into their best educational asset ever: “the great outdoors”.