Sustainable school landscapes are environments that are designed to respect the local climate, provide outdoor educational opportunities, and require reduced amounts of resources, including fertilizers, pesticides and water. Sustainable landscapes begin with an appropriate design that includes functional, cost-efficient, attractive, environmentally friendly and maintainable areas.

In 2007, the U.S. Green Building Council began certifying school projects under its Leadership in Environment and Energy Design (LEED) rating system. Whether or not a project is LEED-certified, important principles and design ideas can help achieve sustainability.

Installing a sustainable school landscape sets an example for students, and serves as a teaching tool for the school and community. Considering the importance of teaching the next generation about sustainability, education facilities from preschool through college are among the best places to experience and learn about sustainable landscapes.

They may be marginally more expensive in the beginning to install, depending on the amount of technology used and the choice of plants and other materials; ultimately, though, sustainable landscapes are more likely to thrive and can provide a school with additional educational opportunities, while saving money and manpower by reducing water use and maintenance requirements.

Sustainable opportunities

Whether the landscape represents new construction or is a renovation, consider preserving natural elements such as native trees and shrubs for shade, wind reduction and habitat protection. Riparian areas such as stream banks can be used as teaching tools for science classes. These areas can bring nature into the school setting, introducing wildlife such as birds, butterflies, bees and dragonflies. School and community gardens can be used to connect students with nature, help teach them about more healthful food choices and involve the community with the school.

Preserving the site’s topsoil and adding organic matter to the soil can help the landscape to thrive. Native and adapted trees, shrubs and perennials used around the building perimeter can soften and cool the exterior of buildings.

Sustainability goals can be furthered by using local materials that do not have to be shipped great distances. Shredded wood chips from local trees can help reduce the need for watering and weeding in planting beds. Native boulders can be used for informal seating areas and provide a sense of local aesthetics. On renovated sites, existing materials such as pavers and benches can be reused in the new landscape.

Green technology

The use of green technology can further sustainability. For example, at Casey Middle School in Boulder, Colo., the green roof received LEED credit for reducing the heat-island effect. The sedum and grasses on the roof absorb rainwater and act as insulators for the building, cooling the roof by reducing solar heat in summer. The rooftop planting design, a swirling pattern that mimics the plaza below, can be viewed through large windows in an upstairs common area. The plants and planting medium are contained in a series of large trays outfitted with a drip irrigation system.

As technology improves, some schools are beginning to use light-emitting diode (LED) lights in the landscape, which require less energy than conventional lighting. Photovoltaic panels that supply solar energy for the buildings also can supply shade beneath the panels. The extensive piping required for a school’s geothermal heating system can be installed beneath a sports field.

Synthetic turf for sports fields adds to sustainability by eliminating the water requirements of natural turf. Although it is composed of petroleum-based products, synthetic turf also uses recycled materials; old tires can be used to make up the resilient crumb rubber base for the turf. Synthetic turf also ultimately can help preserve the school operations budget by reducing maintenance costs because no mowing, water, fertilizers or repeated striping is needed, and the fields can be programmed more heavily for use by the school and community.

Easily accessible bike racks and safe bike lanes leading to schools encourage the use of non-motorized transportation and lessen the need for large parking lots.