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The Importance of Landscape Design in Schools

Classrooms, assembly halls and libraries are the key elements which often come to mind when considering school design.  Typically, the spaces surrounding a school mostly conjure up images of grey asphalt deserts, decrepit sports facilities, car parks, and bland, outdated play facilities. However, changes in curriculum and more enlightened teaching approaches are calling for these typecasts to be revised as high quality outdoor classrooms, and indeed the entire external environment is being seen as a potential learning areas.

John McAslan + Partners' (JMP) landscape team works closely with the practice's educational unit to ensure interior and exterior spaces of a project complement one another. This holistic approach has a significant effect on how a school is connected, maximising the learning potential of exterior spaces which are often overlooked and under-utilised.  In addition many of the schools we are involved with are located in deprived neighborhoods, with high density housing and poor access to high quality public space. Many students do not have access to gardens at home, and at JMP we are passionate about the potential for high quality landscapes at school to enrich and enhance children's lives through, sport, play, gardens, food production and social areas - all in a safe and secure environment.

The RSA Academy incorporates teaching spaces on roof terraces and in courtyards, including areas for the cultivation of plants and vegetables and a market garden that provides fresh produce for the school canteen. The Academy is a flagship project of The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and the first school to be designed around its Opening Minds curriculum.  Maximising the usability of exterior spaces was key to facilitating this unconventional curriculum, which prescribes the flexible teaching of pupils in both small and large cross-year groups.

Learning outside the classroom in the natural environment can encompass courtyards, parks, allotments and woodland areas. We've found that students respond to a change of environment, stimulated by the varying, unpredictable spaces in which their learning takes place. Vital to designing these engaging spaces is an extensive consultation process; JMP runs workshops with students and pupils on how best to create external areas that are right for that particular school.

In JMP's Darwen Vale High School scheme, the landscape redevelopment directly supports and enhances the school's new curriculum-based teaching zones, expanding interior learning spaces through tailored external areas. Outdoor experimentation can take place next to the science classrooms; likewise, students can give outdoor performances in the space resembling an amphitheatre near to the languages department.

A new education facility is almost always a significant focus of the local community, with the creation of new streetscapes and urban plazas making a significant contribution to the urban fabric and engendering a new sense of civic pride.  A particularly successful example is the landscape scheme devised by the pracitce for the University of Manchester's urban campus.  The University's Director of Estates, Diana Hampson, has described JMP's solution as "transformational", adding that the "areas of hard and soft landscape, lighting and seating and new pedestrian linkages, have met with acclaim from staff, students, visitors and other key stakeholders."

Creating a varied range of engaging spaces is fundamental to good educational design, and landscape design plays a vital role in structuring and energising campus life.

Andy Harris, Associate Director, Head of Landscape

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