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American Society of Landscape Architects


August 2008 Issue

Too Cool (Just) for School
In Denver, a university-sponsored initiative is renovating schoolyards and opening them to the community as parks.

By Daniel Jost, Associate ASLA

Too Cool (Just) for School

During the late 1990s, a majority of the public schoolyards in Denver lacked adequate play areas. Most of the schoolyards had vast stretches of asphalt and pea gravel and little shade.

“Our old playground was so bad. It was a gravel pit!” exclaims Thomas Barela, a gym teacher at Colfax Elementary. “During the hot months, with the hot gravel, it was tough. The kids didn’t want to get out there and exercise a lot.” And when the kids did play, they were often injured. “I used to have lots of injuries from the gravel,” says Barela. “Gravel in knees and cut elbows.”

There were other problems as well. Many of the playgrounds had equipment that was not age appropriate. Some were so small that they could only safely serve a few classes at a time, and few met Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.

To deal with these challenges, Denver has launched a program that is not only improving schoolyards but building a sense of community in neighborhoods throughout the city. At an average cost of $450,000 per site, the Learning Landscapes Initiative is converting once-desolate public schoolyards into mini parks that welcome the community after hours and facilitate both learning and play. Young students aren’t the only ones learning from these landscapes—landscape architecture graduate students at the University of Colorado Denver (UC Denver) and a number of professional landscape architects have also learned valuable lessons through their participation in the program.

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