Schools’ outdoor space – a meeting place for all

A school is so much more than a building and a schoolyard. A school is a learning environment, an activity venue and not least a social community. Children and young people spend many hours a day at school, so as landscape architects we have the important task of creating physical surroundings that contribute to wellbeing and quality of life. For many, outdoor time at school is the only time they spend outside during the day. Our ambition is therefore always to ensure that outdoor spaces in schools provides a good framework for social safety and physical challenges as well as the desire to explore and get a sense of achievement for all students.

Text: Bjørbekk & Lindheim co/Line Løvstad Nordbye, landscape architect and CEO

The significance of schools for the community

Whether you live in a busy city or out in the countryside, schools in Norway are highly significant as meeting places for the local community, across generations as well as different social and cultural backgrounds. We have a longstanding tradition of schools’ outdoor areas being open and accessible to all, 24/7 and year-round. That is why we look for solutions where the school and the local community work together and “borrow” areas and functions from each other. In many places, schools function as community centers with premises rented out to clubs and societies in the evenings and at weekends, providing communal dinners at pick-up times as well as library services or other cultural offerings. Outside school hours, the playing fields, gymnasium, and sports hall are often fully booked, and the outdoor space is used as a playground, social meeting place, and activity venue. We always try to allow the school to become a natural part of the footpath system in the neighborhoods, both to promote everyday green journeys and because the flow of people increases safety in the area.

The site’s potential must be realized

We would argue that there are unique qualities to any site, whether a brand-new school is being built or a school is being upgraded. Our job is to investigate these qualities and to look for all opportunities for the site’s distinctive features and identity to leave a clear mark on the overall school environment. These can be things like a good local climate, a beautiful view, existing vegetation or water features, exciting topography and geology or other attractive factors in the surroundings which add value to the site. There will also be challenges that must be solved in each project. It could be that the site is exposed to weather and wind, that is it shady, congested, noisy, too steep, or too flat. A sign of a successful project is for the architectonic elements in the building and landscape to help erase the site’s weak points, while bringing out valuable qualities in the concept and in concrete solutions.

Outdoor spaces must be planned first

A school project often starts with the school’s necessary functions being placed on site, and the programmed interior areas having to find their logical place in relation to one another. In this early phase our most important message is that the best and most valuable areas on the site must be mapped and reserved for the students’ outdoor space. It may seem so easy to remove a small forest on the site to make space for a building. But getting this forest back as a valuable playground, a unique biotope for learning, or a natural barrier against weather and wind will take dozens of years. On the other hand, when we appreciate the site’s qualities as features of the project, we ensure cost-effective, attractive, and unique outside space which the community can partake in and benefit from.

Zoning of the site

We always work closely with architects to ensure building volume and landscapes are developed in collaboration. The purpose is to create a clear division of zones with strong connections between the school’s indoor and outdoor areas. We organize the site so that there is an arrival zone where students, employees and visitors are welcomed in a car-free, attractive square which leads to the main entrance. Parking, "kiss and ride”, goods delivery, and garbage disposal take place in a space-efficient zone toward the outer boundaries of the school. This provides more space for varied zones for creative play, health-promoting activities, social interaction, and a stimulating learning environment within demarcated areas. Buffer zones which create spatial boundaries between defined areas are important for all features to function side by side. At the same time, shared use and overlapping activities are also key to increased activation and inclusion.

Variation creates a diverse community

Children and young people are different, and school should be a welcoming place for everyone. This requires an empathetic approach where we look at the needs of individuals and different groups as well as the wider community. Social sustainability in the school environment is about offering students, employees, and the local environment equal and great opportunities, where everyone can feel safety and belonging. This forms a good basis for health and quality of life. Variation is often the key to everyone being comfortable and finding their place, so that school is experienced as a diverse and inclusive community. It is an important criterion that the elements we add to a school facility are flexible and robust so that they can be used in many different ways and by different groups at all times of the day.

Furniture as a meeting place

We use furniture as an important means of supporting social relations, inviting activity, play and learning and not least facilitating inclusion and participation for all. To get this to work as we want, we have conscious strategies for where we plan meeting places and living spaces. Simply summarized, social zones work well closest to the entrances with gradually more activity and physical exercise the further away from the school building you get. Meeting places linked to the building’s functions should accommodate spaces to eat, learn and be part of a social crowd in both small and large groups. We also form social satellites in the facility; small places with informal furniture which are attractive because they are close to exciting activity zones, or more comfortable furniture where the site invites you to stay longer.

Somewhere to belong

How we place furniture elements in relation to each other is highly significant for the way the furniture zones are used. Identical benches in a row invite a completely different experience and use to varied furniture scattered about. We need the full range of furniture in schools’ outdoor spaces so that everyone can find their place. “My place” is controlled by many factors and can vary according to the weather, the view, attraction values, and not least the social mood which controls whether I want to observe or participate actively. I believe many feel this way, and this indicates that we need a large selection of furniture to cater to everyone's needs. Variation is valuable in school outdoor areas. We must accommodate the full spectrum: from tranquil benches nestled in greenery to sheltered seating areas for quality conversations and social gathering places teeming with people.