Project 012: Project Urban Rain Garden Project 012: Project Urban Rain Garden
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Project 012: Project Urban Rain Garden

by Daniel Hegg

September 16, 2008
For Project 012 we asked you for your ideas on improving local schools. Daniel sent us this chronicle from Victoria, British Columbia. Working on a city stormwater management project in Seattle, Daniel realized that adding natural features to a public space made it more inviting to children. That insight led to a community-wide effort to transform a barren local courtyard into a dynamic play space and classroom. Daniel gives us the play-play below.Project Urban Rain GardenTwo years ago, I was in Seattle looking at a recent stormwater management project for work purposes. The project was Seattle Street Edge Alternatives (also know as SEA streets). The objective of the SEA street project was to redesign streets to be smaller, traffic calming and incorporate more natural features such as planted bioswales to manage stormwater rather than using more traditional pipe systems. The result was a 99% improvement of stormwater retention. Unexpectedly, however, to my colleagues and myself, there was a social benefit. As my colleagues and I were standing on the corner photographing the area, an elderly resident asked us what exactly we were doing. We explained and a discussion ensued. During that conversation with the elderly resident, the gentleman was notably not interested in the expected increase in property values due to the conversion of the street, or the downstream benefits to the receiving stream, but rather he was shocked at one unexpected benefit; children began to play in the street again. What came out of this discussion sparked an idea that I would propose six months later; an idea that came to fruition and remains exceptionally successful.
Six months later, I proposed the idea to a leadership group and two years later, the project is a raging success wining an award for environmental education. The project, named Project Urban Rain Garden, was the reclamation of a 300-square-meter concrete courtyard. The courtyard was transformed into a stormwater management tool, an outdoor classroom, a children's play area, and a community-gathering place. The project was successful because the entire school (including teachers and the principal), members of the school board, members of the community, the PAC the school labor union, the civil engineer, landscape architect, members of the leadership team and the project manager all participated in the design from the get-go; it was truly an integrated team. The project was successful, because the children drove it; the children believed in it and as a result, the adults believed in it.To help the children understand the greater purpose of the rain garden, members of the team went to the school and spoke to the children about sustainability, watershed pollution and how a rain garden works. This discussion included an interactive watershed model where students had the chance to see and to recreate the cycle of pollutants (such as motor oil, pesticides and fertilizers) being picked up by storm water and running into the surrounding waterways. To integrate the students attending the school into the design process and begin the formation of ownership and pride, the grade 4/5 students then conducted a survey of the school population about what they would like to see in a rain garden. The students tabulated these results and presented them to the design team. These results informed the design. Emphasis was placed on working with grade 4 and 5 classes, to encourage them to become "stewards" of the garden, leading them to develop a sense of ownership and pride for their school and their garden. Intermediate students were engaged as "buddies" to the elementary students. As the student stewards advance through the school, they have taught the younger learners the concept and purpose of the garden, passing on the stewarding role to the next generation of students. Ownership, pride and enthusiasm in this garden are continuously sustained and nurtured, ensuring that the pride and care of the area is internal and not dependant on a single parent.
To help the school and surrounding community visualize and celebrate this project, a local artist facilitated a day where all 220 students took part in painting a 50'x50' painting of their rain garden. A month later, the students, along with guests from the community, gathered in the concrete courtyard that would become the rain garden to unveil this painting. The ceremony included rain-garden-themed student artwork, poetry and compositions, as well as a Rain Garden Unity song, written by a member of the Vic West Elementary staff and sung by all the students of the school.Construction commenced during the summer of 2007 and was completed before school began in September 2007. To further engage the students, each of the school's 220 students learned about planting and native plants. Each student was then offered the opportunity to plant one of the plants in the rain garden. Older students partnered with younger ones to help them in the process. Many parents and other members of the community also chose to volunteer and participate in this learning and planting day. To empower the children, a rain garden opening celebration day, enabling Victoria-West Elementary leadership students to provide rain garden tours, as well as participate in a recognition ceremony for the great number of sponsors and community members involved in making the project a success.
Since the opening of the garden, classes have now been taught in the courtyard to facilitate learning in various disciplines such as Math (i.e., counting plants), English (i.e., children writing poetry about the garden), Science (i.e., how plants grow, take in nutrients, hydrological cycle), Art, and Music. This project transformed dead space into a socially and ecologically functional area that continues to capture children's imaginations and has to be monitored continuously as children wish to constantly play in the area. Teachers and staff at the school had to develop a strict maintenance schedule as there are so many people wanting to ensure the upkeep of the garden. Rather than sit in their cars, parents now wait in the courtyard to meet their children. This project has also captured the imagination of another local artist who recently worked with every single child in the school on a tiling project. Children created their own tile that represented the environment (these ranged from trees to hummingbirds to the sun, etc). These tiles then formed a mosaic around the garden that can be seen today. This project was based on in-kind donations and funds donated by local businesses and were under budget even with the development of a $2,000 rain garden maintenance fund for the school.In order to share this experience and create a replicable model for other schools, a web site was developed ( outlining the project and partners associated. This being one possible solution to stormwater issues, Project Urban Rain Garden, in concert with prescribed school curriculum, now provides teachers with a medium to demonstrate and teach sustainability principles, thereby enabling students to explore issues of sustainability, eco-system degradation, and showcasing how they can make a positive contribution to environmental improvement.
As a final and concluding reflection, we (the team) focused on developing a dynamic and ever changing environment that the children wanted and designed. Playgrounds do not change (although some do as was pointed out in the most recent release of GOOD) and most tend to remain static and become featureless items on the landscape. Using the environment to develop play spaces, dead spaces can be transformed to be multi-functional areas (ecologically and socially) designed to change and create spaces for play and experimental learning. We have seen that our approach inspired, enabled and empowered all those involved with the project. I know the magazine requested a brainstorm, and we have done that, we have brought an idea to life and only wish to share it with others as the project not only affected us as a team, but changed those children singing the raingarden song, educated those children sitting in the garden, taught leadership skills to those young leaders who will decide the fate of our world, and finally changed a community.All photos from Project Ubran Rain Garden
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Project 012: Project Urban Rain Garden