Designing the Drought-Resistant Schoolyard

New water-conservation regulations are an opportunity for schools to create environments that save water, cut operation costs and enhance the student experience.

By Andrew Wickham
Project Designer

Around the country, school districts are facing new initiatives to conserve water as drought conditions persist in many regions. Landscape often can account for 40 to 60% of a campus’s water use, making it an easy target for conservation efforts. Unfortunately, the response is too often to simply turn off the tap and pave over lawn areas — strategies that can have adverse effects on students, educators and budgets.

As pressure mounts to save water, schools have an opportunity to think differently about the outdoors and convert high-water landscapes such as lawn areas to drought-resilient landscapes that enhance student well-being and the learning experience. These types of interventions are often simple and straightforward and can have a huge effect on a campus.

Studies show that “green” schoolyards provide a multitude of benefits to student and teacher life, including lower stress levels, increased attendance and improved focus and cognitive abilities. Outdoor environments can also play an important role in improving teacher retention rates and student behavioral issues.

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The Sunkist Elementary School landscape design provides shade and a connection to nature.

The goal of greening schools is in concert with the drought-resistant schoolyard. Drought resistant doesn’t mean a desert landscape with succulents and cactus and a decomposed-granite ground plane; indeed, the landscape can be lush and green. It’s about choosing the appropriate plants for the locality and being very disciplined as a landscape architect to select what is right for the site.

While you want to plant something that has a limited watering requirement, there are many other issues to consider, especially in a school environment. Students can be really tough on plants, especially in the establishment period, and maintenance staff are often spread way too thin. Plants need to be resilient and capable of surviving various campus conditions, as well as low-water circumstances.

Developing a drought-resistant schoolyard requires looking beyond just a plant’s water use and appearance. It’s about creating opportunities for pollinator pathways and biodiverse habitats that serve the greater environmental needs while conserving water and supporting larger campus goals. As we develop the plant palette for a school, we always consider: What are the other benefits of this plant? Does it support the ecosystem? Trees provide essential shade, but does one shade tree species sequester more carbon than another? Does it support different habitats? We always want to take it to the next step and explore the opportunity to use the drought-resistant landscape to support the student experience and enhance learning outcomes. When we’re selecting plants, we want the landscape to provide as many ecosystem services as possible so that the landscape can also become a teaching tool for educators.

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At every step, it’s essential to speak with educators about how they would best utilize outdoor spaces. On some campuses, all they need is a seating area for students to gather and collaborate. Sometimes they need areas able to support a vertical writing surface, a wash-down space for dirty lab experiments, or worktables with power and Wi-Fi.

The dialogue with educators should determine the needs and drive the type of spaces to program into the landscape. Those discussions should also consider learning styles to develop outdoor spaces that support the greatest number of students. In some cases, this simply means providing a variety of spaces that allow choice for the learners.

At the same time, the drought-resistant landscape can connect students to nature in ways that hardscape and turf cannot. Students can see how flowers provide habitat and food for pollinator species like insects, birds and butterflies. They can experience the leaves changing color and the blooms on the plant material as they come into season. The wind rustling through the shrubs and grasses and sun filtering through the tree canopies in the early morning all play a role in creating a calming, nurturing environment.

One square foot of grass in Sacramento requires 38 gallons a year to maintain; one square foot of drought-tolerant planting only requires 13 gallons a year.

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Drought-resilient landscapes play an important role in the health and psychological well-being of students.

These drought-resilient landscapes play an important role in the health and psychological well-being of students. Humans have a positive psychological and physiological response to nature such as shrubs, grasses and flowers. What’s more, the schoolyard can teach the students firsthand about responsible water use and appropriate reactions to environmental conditions and increasing challenges of climate change.

Many of these moves are easy, but it takes a conscious effort in the design process to achieve results. For schools, the strategies can provide a wide variety of benefits, including a dramatic drop in operating costs. For example, one square foot of grass in Sacramento requires 38 gallons a year to maintain; one square foot of drought-tolerant planting only requires 13 gallons a year. The design also can support larger water-retention and treatment strategies when the issues are confronted in a holistic design process.

At its core, the drought-resistant landscape can support educators to develop better learners. We’ve all seen the studies pointing to the positive psychological response nature has on students. In her book Welcome to Your World, Sarah Williams Goldhagen notes, all other things being equal, the quality of school spaces accounts for as much as 25% of a student’s performance. Working collectively, we can create drought-resistant spaces that enhance the experience for students, educators and communities.

LPA landscape architect Andrew Wickham is focused on an integrated design approach to creating resilient, healthy outdoor spaces. He was recently honored with the Legacy Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Sierra Chapter for his long-term dedication and contributions to the field of landscape architecture.