Landscapes And Education

Recently, we’ve been involved in a number of school landscape projects which has sparked some great debate in the office. What is it that makes a great school or university landscape? Is any old landscape that fits the budget going to suffice? Maybe for some, but the vast majority are looking for more from their campus. One of our recent school landscape projects in the UK held a meeting to discuss what parents, teacher and most importantly, pupils wanted from their campus landscape. This formed a perfect brief for chief landscape architect, Aubrey Hoadley, to work from. Requests ranged from wanting to remedy cracks in the football field to creating ponds, decks and bog gardens to study wildlife through the lifecycle. Being a parent myself, I find it absolutely inspirational when I meet teachers who are prepared to venture out with the kids, whatever the weather, to offer a relief from the monotony of the classroom. Children are energised by different surroundings, learning potential is increased and the kids come home with stories to tell.
Instinctively, we know that landscape can stimulate our senses and create a better working environment but just how far does this effect go? Let’s look at the evidence.

Studies are carried out from a government level on this subject from all over the world. The results are pretty conclusive wherever our schools and universities are. One study by Salina Mohamed Alia, Katiman Rostam and Hair Awang in Malaysia concluded “As a whole, there exists the significant relationship between the function of the landscape in assisting the learning process and the academic achievement at schools”. The study makes for some interesting reading with points which could apply the world over as well as some microclimatic points specific to hot countries. Interestingly, the microclimatic cooling effects of softscape and water bodies have a significant effect on mental well being of the students who would otherwise be exhausted because of the heat. I have often heard people talk about this cooling effect but it wasn’t until it was proven to me on a dusty site in India that I truly believed the scale of the effect. A small grass nursery had been set up prior to landscape works. The difference in the perception of environmental heat was staggering.

One position piece entitled Recognizing Campus Landscapes as Learning Spaces
by Kathleen G Scholl & Gowri Betrabet Gulwadi concludes that “Recognizing college campus landscapes as vital learning spaces will harness the holistic potential of college campuses as attentional resources. We suggest that successful meshing of the two notions can occur by adopting a whole-systems approach to campus design – one that requires communication and collaboration among academic, administrative and facilities planning stakeholders. Such an approach also goes beyond advertising the aesthetic value of the campus open spaces for student recruitment purposes to recognizing the entire campus landscape as a learning space and advertising its educational value – that is emphasizes something deeper than what meets the eye.” As a multidisciplinary design firm, this is absolutely in line with our expectations and it’s great to read a paper which concurs with our design philosophy. So many projects we see look stunning but fail at an operational level. Dealing with every aspect of a project from its aesthetic, operational and maintenance perspective is absolutely key to a successful landscape.

One report by the charity Learning through Landscapes in 2003 clearly concluded that better school grounds create better behaved children, reducing bullying and vandalism. The report showed that improved surroundings can also enhance students self-esteem and also impact positively on academic performance as well as their attitudes towards learning.
Since all the research appears to strongly concur on the importance of landscape in a learning environment, why do we still have schools and universities with uninspiring, cheap and nasty campus landscapes? Sadly, as with everything in life, it’s about the money. A spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers said “Sadly, for schools this year, far too many are having to make teachers redundant and reduce staffing levels because of funding shortages,” she said. “School grounds not only offer areas for play and sports, they also provide opportunities for children to learn about insects, birds, plants and much more, which can stimulate further study in these areas. Too few of our schools have adequate facilities or time, because of the demands of the national curriculum, to promote these activities.”

That’s where we come in. We know all too well that funding is short for these critical areas. However, by being creative, bending the rules sometimes and working with the students themselves, we can create inspiring landscape which not only create a beautiful place for students to learn, but increase the physical and psychological health of the users. International landscape architecture is never boring, but creating inspirational spaces for tomorrows generations is particularly rewarding.