A NYC School Teams Up with Columbia to Build a Rooftop Garden and Classroom

© Alex Davies

Although PS 84, a New York City elementary school on the Upper West Side, is just a few blocks from Central Park, its teachers and parents have long been frustrated by the students' lack of connection with the natural world. But over the last two years, the school has undergone something of a transformation. It now has three gardens, and is working towards its most ambitious project yet: a rooftop garden, which it is building with the help of graduate students at nearby Columbia University.

Parents, teachers and Principal Robin Sundick of PS 84 (also called the Lillian Weber School for the Arts) all wanted natural spaces where the children could really engage with the earth- dig their hands into soil, watch their own plants grow with time, and see how composting works.

© Sherri Sandfort-Semon. The larger garden being built.

Starting Steps

Around 2009, the school’s Garden Committee, made up of parents and teachers, renovated three ground level areas around the school building. The largest, called the Interactive Classroom Garden and designed pro bono by horticulturalist Paige Keck, is now an outdoor classroom and play area for the youngest students. All the plants they grow are native species, including several types of blueberries.

The two other gardens are narrow and run the along the school’s walls. They provide a space for students to plant different species and see how they grow, and make the school grounds a considerably more pleasant place to spend time.

The food the children grow in their gardens is served in the cafeteria, as authorized by a program called “Garden to School Café" that encourages schools to connect the act of eating to the process of food production. (There are various regulations, such as bans on the use of pesticides.) PS 84 even has a salad bar that Sundick called “extremely popular;” it serves homemade salad dressing made with olive oil donated by the local Whole Foods store.

On the roof, they installed some planter beds and a compost bin, but the technical aspects of developing a more involved rooftop space called for expertise they didn’t have, and which is usually quite expensive.

© Alex Davies. The completed garden.

Columbia Gets Involved

The connection with Columbia came through Marni Baker Stein, a Senior Associate Dean at the university’s School for Continuing Education and a PS 84 parent. Matching the rooftop garden project with the Columbia Landscape Design program was a natural fit. Columbia’s graduate programs focus on serving the public good and having their students work with real clients: here was a chance to solve a real problem and help a public school in the process.

A year ago, Principal Sundick says, she never imagined that the school would be well on the way to having a real rooftop space, saying they were “very luck they Columbia came to our rescue.” The landscape design students visited the rooftop terrace (it's above the second floor; the building's wings on either side have three stories) and each created a design for a garden and event space.

The designs were presented for the teachers and parents to view and judge; even the elementary school students were given the chance to voice their opinions. The best two were selected and combined, forming a final plan.

© Sherri Sandfort-Semon. The school's entrance, before and after the installation of a small garden.

The Design

The completed garden will feature a windmill, a bird dwelling, a water catchment, eight planter beds, a sizable greenhouse and shaded and performance areas. Even more than Central Park, Principal Sundick says, it will provide a connection with nature “in a way that would be very natural and organic, right in our school building.”

The next step is getting approval and funding for the project- not a simple task in a city as large and bureaucratic as New York. The school is applying mostly for private grants, which are generally less onerous and allow for more control of the funds by the applicant than public funds. They are hoping to receive a grant from the City Council next summer to carry out a feasibility study, a mandatory step for such projects.

© Columbia University School of Continuing Education

Making It Happen

But PS 84 and Columbia aren’t going their separate ways just yet. The School for Continuing Education also has construction and fundraising programs whose students need real world clients to work with. The construction students will determine how much the project will cost; the fundraising students will work to reach that goal.

Overall, PS 84 has undergone a remarkable transformation. I worked at an elementary school in a French city last year, and was always disappointed by the total lack of green space; the students spent recess playing on blacktop. But PS 84 proves that urban schools don’t have to be constrained by their surroundings. To bring nature into the classroom (and vice versa), all it takes it drive and vision- and maybe some help from a nearby university.

Tags: Education | Gardening | New York City | Urban Life

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