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Chester Arthur Schoolyard

Landscape Performance Benefits

Environmental

  • Reduces overall average surface temperatures by 7.2° F.
  • Manages 28,000 gallons of stormwater for every 1.5 in of rainfall over a 24-hour period.
  • Increased number of individuals on site among birds, insects and mammals by approximately 266%.

Social

  • Reduces average noise levels from 87 decibels to 81.5 decibels, achieving a clearly noticeable change.
  • Increases site usage by 128% during school hours and increases community use of the site after school and on weekends by 157%.
  • Doubles physical activity levels in students for both boys and girls. Increases vigorous activity for girls by 160% and boys by 80%.

At a Glance

  • Designer

    SALT Design Studio

  • Project Type

    School/University

  • Former Land Use

    Schoolyard retrofit

  • Location

    2000 Catharine St
    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19146

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  • Climate Zone

    Humid subtropical

  • Size

    17,424 sf

  • Budget

    $996,000

  • Completion Date

    2017

Chester Arthur School is a public K-12 school in the densely populated Graduate Hospital neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Pre-construction, the schoolyard was almost entirely asphalt, offered little physical or intellectual stimulation to students, and released 99% of its stormwater runoff directly into Philadelphia’s combined sewer system. The renovation transformed a hardscaped site into a green and vibrant open space for the school and surrounding community. The new schoolyard design incorporates the school’s fledgling STEM curriculum into outdoor, interactive learning. The site combines Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) with educational elements and recreational features. Weaving together play, education, and environment, the renovated schoolyard creates a robust, energetic, and meaningful neighborhood center. Post-renovation, the schoolyard is quieter, more verdant, offers habitat for neighborhood wildlife, and encourages much higher usage and activity levels on site by students and neighborhood residents. Chester Arthur’s beloved schoolyard demonstrates that landscape architecture can be an effective agent for change in an urban school environment. 

  • The site is planted with 21 deciduous trees including black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), American basswood (Tilia Americana), and serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora); 47 shrubs including black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) and New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus); 3,040 perennials and grasses; and 275 bulbs including Allium ’Lucy Ball’ and Camassia Sacajawea. Based on square footage, planted areas increased by 1,258%. 
  • Edible plantings can be found in the garden walk area, where native understory trees carry edible berries. The diversity of woody and perennial plants foster habitat for a variety of birds, insects, and small mammals, and are used for educating students about the benefits of native plants in the urban environment. The combination of native warm- and cool-season grasses provide biomass year-round, adding an important winter plant presence in the schoolyard. The grasses are quite resilient and drought tolerant once established, even tolerating light foot traffic.
  • Cool season grasses such as Grassland Sedge (Carex divulsa) and tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’) pop up early in the spring, greening the landscape before many deciduous plants have taken off.
  • Warm season grasses, such as little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis ’Blonde Ambition’), hallmarks of the American native meadow, help to stabilize the soil throughout the primary growing season. 
  • The vegetated area of the site increased from 1.5% pre-construction to 20.7% post-construction, an increase of 4,850 sf. There is 66% more planting along the perimeter of the site, which creates a green buffer between the schoolyard and the street, dampening noise from the heavily trafficked street.
  • The 396-sf rain garden incorporates native plantings such as bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) and sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana ‘Moonglow’). 
  • Parking was consolidated and reoriented to the south side of the site, creating an additional 2,613 sf of usable play/learning/green space. This design move also allowed for a new entrance to be created; the curvilinear path connects the two ends of the schoolyard site which were previously fenced off. Approximately 1/3 of the parking lot is porous asphalt paving and a 120-ft-long x 24-ft-wide x 4-ft-deep underground storage reservoir beneath, with capacity for a 1-in storm.
  • An artificial turf berm is a unique community asset which creates a dramatic visual and functional feature in the neighborhood. The berm is 1,470 sf in area, around 85 ft long and 17 ft wide and is one of the most highly used amenities on site. It provides built-in amphitheater seating for observing basketball games, seating during recess, and staging for neighborhood events. Rolling down the berm continues to be a favorite activity, and sledding was observed in winter. 
  • The 116-sf green wall provides passive cooling through a diverse mix of perennials such as catmint (Nepeta ‘Early Bird’), Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, and Martin’s spurge (Euphorbia x martinii ‘Tiny Tim’). The bottom rows are planted with herbs such as dill, rosemary, basil, mint, and thyme for easy harvest by students and the community. The herbs on the green wall and in the adjacent planter are maintained by the community for communal harvesting. 
  • The garden walk path incorporates native plant beds and serves as the setting for an outdoor classroom. 13 locally-sourced boulders provide seating along the perimeter of the outdoor classroom and will be used to teach students about geology in the region. 
  • Planter benches provide an area for passive recreation and seating.
  • The 27-ft-wide and 9-ft-high custom climbing dome is set in footings below porous safety surface and is designed for uses beyond play. This includes using the frame for conducting physics and science projects experimenting with gravity, pendulums, and geometry. 
  • The multi-use court features 2 basketball hoops, an analemmatic sun dial and 50-m track, and an art board for outdoor art classes. The basketball hoops are heavily used during and after school hours. The analemmatic sundial and 50-meter track are used to teach students about measuring time and distance intervals using the sun. 

Challenge

The site was dominated by asphalt and a parking lot and offered very limited space for children in need of recreation. Pre-construction play was highly concentrated in one small area, with almost half of all use happening on only 9% of the schoolyard’s area. In a neighborhood with a 20.7% rate of childhood obesity, the design needed to encourage physical activity while accommodating 30 parking spaces. The team also needed to minimize site disturbance for purposes of designing and construction to accommodate the school year’s schedule. Third, the design team was asked to be innovative in partnership with a conservative, risk-averse client (The School District of Philadelphia).

Solution

First, the design team consolidated and reoriented the parking lot so that it ran along the south side of the site. This opened up the space along the north boundary of the site, allowing for an entrance, path, and planting areas, utilizing the entire length of the schoolyard for parking and program. To avoid exceeding the threshold for site disturbance resulting in an overly long permitting process, the design team milled and repaved existing asphalt areas in the multi-use court and parking lot. The design team was judicious in choosing areas for excavation and focused on maximizing site use. This allowed the project to remain under the disturbance threshold and stay on schedule. Finally, developing a trusting relationship with the community stakeholders, the school principal and teachers, and with key city agencies overseeing the project was essential to implementing the new design ideas that had been untested in previous schoolyard projects in Philadelphia. 

  • The 2-ft-high temporary fencing around the plant beds was a useful and necessary deterrent for keeping people on the paths and out of the plant beds. This allowed the majority of plants to establish themselves in the first growing year. But the metal stake and mesh fencing system was not strong enough for vigorous activity by kids, and was eventually trampled down by children playing.
  • The basketball courts are highly integrated with the site; as such, there is no barrier around the courts. This sometimes makes it difficult to play a serious game of basketball, but the porosity between spaces encourages positive active play at the site.
  • The incorporation of the green elements has anecdotally reduced fighting among the children at recess. When schoolyards are mostly asphalt, recess is a challenging time because there is little to do. With engaging elements all around, students engage with the environment more.
  • Programming the schoolyard for instruction has been a slower process than anticipated. While the schoolyard is still quite new, the school is investigating more ways to make it useful for instructional purposes, particularly with 9 new STEM teachers at the school in the first year it was implemented.

Plants: Tuckahoe Nursery
Concrete pavers: Wausau tiles
Seat lights and pathway lights: Bega Lighting
Furniture: Vector Bench by Forms & Surfaces
Play Elements: Winder Pump by Goric and Climber Dome by Kompan 
Digital Printing: Surface Graphics 
Green Wall: Shiftspace Design

Project Team

Landscape Architect: SALT Design Studio
Stormwater Engineer: University of New Hampshire Stormwater Center
Civil Engineer: Cornerstone Consulting
Education Consultant: The College of New Jersey – Stem Center
General Contractor: Brightline Construction

Role of the Landscape Architect

The landscape architect was responsible for planning,design, community facilitation, pre- and post-construction site assessment, project team oversight, and coordination with the Philadelphia Water Department, School District of Philadelphia, and the principal/leading faculty members at Chester Arthur School.

Case Study Prepared By

Firm Liaisons: Sara Pevaroff Schuh, RLA, Principal Landscape Architect, SALT;
Steve Buck, LLA, Landscape Architect, SALT
Andrew Jacobs, Landscape Designer, SALT
October 2017

Topics

Stormwater management, Populations & species richness, Temperature & urban heat island, Recreational & social value, Health & well-being, Noise mitigation, Green wall, Native Plants, Permeable paving, Play equipment, Active living, Learning landscapes, Play, Revitalization

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