Landscape Design as a Teaching Tool

Landscape Design as a Teaching Tool

At North Park School for Innovation, a recent remodel of the school’s site creates unique outdoor learning environments that promote the exploration of natural ecosystems and emphasize students’ individual impact on their environment.

When North Park passed a referendum in 2018 approving their addition and remodel budget, only a small portion was allocated for the site. With limited funds, Cuningham’s landscape design team got creative, turning the site into a teaching tool that engages students in the changing social and environmental challenges they will be asked to address throughout their lives. As a result, North Park’s outdoor spaces are now equally as important to advancing the school’s mission as any of its physical buildings.

"Watching and being with the Cuningham team was an incredible professional development opportunity for staff because Cuningham was listening and working in a collaborative approach with students."

Jeff Cacek

Principal, North Park School for Innovation

Reclaiming the Site

The school’s existing playground was a combination of striped asphalt and equipment near a constantly flooded low point on site. The design team relocated the playground to the back of the school near a hillside, allowing students to use natural features for free play.

By shifting the playground, the front entry becomes an opportunity for North Park to show their values upon arrival through the creation of an edible garden. Visitors and the school community are greeted with edible groundcover, shrubs, and trees. Not only can students grab a strawberry on the way through the door, they also have opportunities to maintain the plant material, divide and plant new crops, make scientific observations, learn about healthy food choices, harvest, and winterize these gardens.

A need to improve stormwater drainage led designers to utilize parking lot islands and 21,100 square feet of a native prairie retention basin to capture and treat runoff instead of building traditional underground stormwater vaults. Additionally, water runoff from the learning wing was redirected into stormwater basins at the new playground location. 

An Ongoing Success Story
Within the first two years of its completion, the new ecosystem around North Park flourished. With over a third of the site being reclaimed from parking and transformed to an outdoor learning environment, deer now graze the site, and a family of foxes and turkeys routinely visit and create an authentic ecosystem for learning.

Since the project’s completion, North Park School for Innovation has added to their Green Ribbon School Nomination from 2018 by being recognized as a site for "Gardens for Wildlife" from the National Wildlife Federation in 2022. Once supply disruptions for the biomass boiler pass, North Park School for Innovation will also be one of the first schools in the country to use the digestate (compost) from the biodigester to heat their building.