Landscape to Educate

Much time and effort is expended in developing spatial designs that support learning and various teaching methods. Successful design supports successful education. There is one“space” that often does not receive the attention it deserves — the landscape surrounding a school. As landscape architects collaborating on school design solutions, we are tasked to resolve two sets of challenges. First, are the obligations that must be resolved — facility siting, pedestrian and vehicular circulation, site ingress and egress, environmental impacts, and agency requirements, to name a few. Second, is finding the opportunities in which landscape can function as an educational tool and community resource. This second challenge is too often overlooked.


Professional landscape architects are obligated to provide a level of service that protects the user’s health, safety, and welfare, and to be stewards of the land. These, and additional obligations are the foundation of the profession. We are entrusted with the natural land and its associated resources.

For appropriate and sustainable design, there is a need to be careful and responsible in order to manage these resources integral to our design solutions. Compliance with local, state, and federal codes is inherent to the design processes. This includes, but is not limited to, storm-water treatment, sensitivity to wetland impact, barrier-free accessibility, adequate visibility relevant to pedestrian and vehicular circulation, and preservation of historical elements.

With the need to meet myriad agency design guidelines, ordinances, and codes, how do we accomplish a unique, thoughtful, and creative project? We must press on, beyond what is necessary, and achieve a level of design that exceeds minimum requirements, is cost effective, creates educational opportunities, and is a community resource.


What if we considered the lack of community resources an opportunity? What if we considered an environmentally-sensitive coastal watershed an opportunity? What if we considered an historically-significant site feature an opportunity?

Village in the Woods

Noble High School, in Maine, was designed as a“Village in the Woods.” This village is an extension of community services such as healthcare, daycare, adult education, restaurant, and community arts. The opportunity to integrate community services was not viewed as a constraint, but an opportunity. Noble High School serves three rural towns spread over a very large area and is now the primary common gathering place. A component of the design solution considered the site as “another room where students would learn and residents would gather.” Rather than resist the community’s needs (historically not part of a traditional school design), the design team recognized the opportunity, embraced the need, reached beyond what was required, and produced a cost effective, award-winning project.

Noble has 11 athletic fields for softball, football, baseball, field hockey, and track and field events. This high quantity of athletic fields and supporting parking area were segmented into a series of smaller outdoor rooms separated by tree massing and linked by walking paths to promote a more pedestrian scale and intimate spatial experience. When not needed for school activities, they are available to community groups, who can also schedule use of the school’s two gymnasiums and its fitness-training center.

Nature trails and areas for outdoor environmental studies make the most of natural features on the school’s heavily wooded 141-acre site. A site master plan also makes provisions for lighting, a stadium, and concession stands in the future, in addition to a community swimming pool, tennis courts, and outdoor basketball courts.

Noble High School has truly become the center of the communities it serves through these many landscape enhancements.

Exterior Education

Located on a 50-acre environmentally-sensitive coastal watershed, Brunswick High School had the potential to adversely impact the clam flats and commercial fishery less than a mile away. The town feared that the water runoff following storms, rich in nitrates from fertilizers, might create an algae bloom that would kill marine wildlife.

A series of designed sediment containers, man-made wetlands, and bio-retention treatment ponds containing plant materials including cattails, arrowheads, bulrushes, sweet flags, and water lilies absorb nitrates. Additionally, to minimize environmental impacts, 15 acres of the site are preserved in a natural state, a semi-permeable layer of the topsoil encourages runoff through the pond system to minimize the leaching of nutrients to the groundwater, and the turf management plan minimizes application of fertilizers and pesticides by using slow-release fertilizers and disease-resistant grasses.

We were obligated to manage and treat water runoff. The design team went “beyond the call” and created an environment that contains more than 75 species of native trees and shrubs, and a stormwater system that uses natural resources for treatment. The Town of Brunswick, the school, and the professional community are able to reference this project to raise the level of awareness for environmental sensitivity, for its use as an educational tool, and as a professional resource.

Man-made ponds and wetlands, as well as the natural brook and its wetland vegetation, provide opportunities for study and research in biology, botany, and environmental sciences, helping to develop an appreciation of the interdependence of ecosystems.

The two ponds created as part of the water treatment system are planted with a wide variety of carefully chosen wetlands plant material for pollutant attenuation and uptake — especially of nitrates — and serve as an outdoor science lab.

Interior courtyards are designed for education, as well as social interaction and activities. They bring natural light and ventilation into interior classrooms. Students in ecology clubs help maintain the plantings, which are all native to Maine.

The outdoor amphitheater is planned for school events and community use. A patterned brick and concrete pavement area links the amphitheater to the entrance of the performing arts center.

There is a lot to be learned “outside” Brunswick High School in Maine.

Historical Canal as Amenity

Westbrook Middle School, currently under design, will sit on 31 acres in a rural setting on the edge of town with an historic canal traversing the site. Program elements include the 130,000-sq.-ft. school building, baseball field, softball field, two soccer fields, and a 1,000-seat auditorium residing on approximately 25 acres of developed area. Obligations include maintaining the rural character and the grassy remnants of an historic canal that traverses the site. To maintain the rural character, a low-density development with a substantial setback from the roadway is preferred. To maintain the canal, a “hands-off” approach is contemplated.

What if the canal became a site amenity, not an obstacle? The Cumberland and Oxford Canal has a rich history. This canal system was authorized at a time of a nationwide boom in canal building that followed the War of 1812. The 50-mile-long system from Harrison, ME, at the head of Long Lake, to Portland Harbor, is comprised of 30 miles of natural waterways, 20 miles of hand-dug canal, and 28 locks. The locks and hand-dug canal compensated for the 260-ft. drop in elevation from Sebago Lake to Portland Harbor. The canal was completed in 1830, and remained in operation until 1872. Traces of the old 30-foot-wide canal can still be seen at various places.

It is the intent of the project to preserve the canal in its current state and to take advantage of its presence on the school site to inform and educate students about the canal’s history. A local resident has assembled USGS topographic maps depicting the original route of the canal. This data will be used to develop a mural located within the school to display the route and associated history. School curriculum may include research and study on the history of the canal. The canal becomes an extension of the classroom. The school site becomes an exterior classroom creating a seamless transition in function from interior to exterior.

Minimally, the City of Westbrook wishes not to disturb the canal and is developing the school facilities around it. On the surface, it appears to be only a physical constraint. Taking a closer, more creative look, it becomes an opportunity. Current state funding does not include canal enhancements, but as designers, we are able to recognize the opportunity and make provision for future development.

To produce successful landscape design solutions, our hope is to see beyond the minimum requirements and obligations. Solutions must be rooted in reality and push the limits of our imagination. We are obligated to find the opportunities in landscape design.

John P. Jacobson, RLA, ASLA, is the senior landscape architect with Harriman Associates, located in Auburn, ME. He can be reached at