Creating a Cultural Connection

By Eve Pranis

The school's name, Grandview U'uqinak'uuh Community School, reflects the region's rich cultural heritage. Now, the "Spirit of Nature" schoolyard proudly does the same. Graduate education student Illene Pevec and landscape architecture student Tracy Penner brought together students, parents, teachers, and community members to turn an underused, muddy, 1-acre field into a multigenerational, award-winning garden that celebrates and preserves local cultural history.

Building a Community of Knowledge

In search of a graduate research project, Illene turned to Grandview U'uqinak'uuh Community School with the idea of developing a garden. After proposing the idea to administrators and conducting extensive research, she wrote a grant to the Parks Department. Illene knew she needed help. Tracy, who was finishing her degree in landscape architecture, was interested. Equipped with practical knowledge and bountiful enthusiasm, the two women crafted a plan.

First, Tracy and Illene banded together with the school principal and a lead teacher who would facilitate meetings with other Grandview teachers, staff, and students. They invited several potential advisors to participate, including landscape architects, a native plant expert, an architect, and the grounds supervisor. Next, they conducted a site inventory. This included reviewing sewer, drainage, and underground utility plans; old maps; school architecture drawings; and neighborhood aerial photographs to compile information on soil type, water availability, and weather conditions.

Recognizing the importance of including students, teachers, parents, and other community members in the design process, Tracy and Illene held several workshops. The student workshops came first. Working in groups of six, students created maps representing how they used the schoolyard and built three-dimensional models of their dream gardens using sand trays and natural objects. "Almost every student requested a stream, pond, and waterfall," recalls Tracy. At the end of the workshop, students went home with surveys for their parents to complete.

Next, the two champions held separate teacher/staff and community planning workshops. At Grandview, the sessions were part of the school meeting agenda. To advertise the community workshop, the two sent home notices with students and hung posters around the neighborhood. Each workshop began with a brainstorming session on important aspects of a schoolyard, issues to overcome, and garden design. Teams were asked to prioritize the brainstormed list. Finally, the whole group conducted a "hot-dotting" exercise to vote for their preferences. Each participant received seven dots representing $1,000 each to place next to the features on which they would prefer to spend their money. The tabulated results informed the final design. Lacking postage funds, the organizers hand-delivered surveys to neighbors to solicit additional input.

Tracy used the input to draft three plans for the schoolyard. After presenting them to the grounds supervisor, she revised and presented them to Grandview teachers and staff. Finally, she consolidated the three plans into one master plan and took it to the school board for approval.

A Design That Celebrates Culture

"Every child, staff member, and interested community member participated in envisioning and designing the school grounds," recalls Illene. The site, as a result, reflects the neighborhood population. The area, now densely populated and crowded with low-income housing, once belonged to three First Nations groups: the Musqueam, the Burrard, and the Squamish. Fifty percent of the community is of First Nations heritage, though many are disconnected from the history and culture of their ancestors. The plant life and architectural design of the Spirit of Nature schoolyard reconnect students and community members to the people who influenced the character of their surroundings.

The covered outdoor classroom, designed in the style of a traditional Musqueam longhouse, sits in the center of the schoolyard with the entrances facing north and south. This orientation was preferred because it takes full advantage of the sun yet is protected from winter winds. Fitting up to 40 people, it is "a community gathering place for outdoor learning and celebration," says Tracy. It provides a sheltered place to read, conduct classes, watch performances, and hold community celebrations. In fact, chiefs from all three First Nations attended the longhouse dedication ceremony, in which students participated in traditional cultural activities. The Coast Salish (a group that includes the Musqueam) are known for their skillful weaving. Recognizing this as a dying art form, the University of British Colombia established the Museum of Anthropology to preserve and display coastal arts and crafts. Tracy and the students spent hours at the museum, researching and gaining inspiration for the garden design. During a field trip there, sixth and seventh graders studied traditional weaving patterns. They designed their own patterns on graph paper and then used these patterns to lay bricks in the schoolyard patio.

At the other end of the garden site, a concrete wall (not pictured on map) stood in stark contrast to the lush green life springing up around it. "We knew we needed to somehow give life to that huge concrete wall, and the theme should somehow connect the school, garden, and community," explains Tracy. A local artist met with students and brainstormed ideas about what lives in and around rivers in British Colombia. He incorporated their ideas into a mural and transferred it to the wall. Students painted the "River of Life" mural, which now prominently illustrates the importance of water as a source of life.

Discovering People/Plant Connections

"Information about the traditional use of native plants by aboriginal people in this region has almost been lost," explains Illene. "The idea behind the ethno-botanical garden is to encourage elders who know about these plants to share their information with others." A group of native elders and young adults planned this garden, and teachers and students planted it. Now families can come to the schoolyard to learn the names and uses of indigenous plants from First Nations herbalists. Illene has even developed curriculum materials to help students learn about these plants, uses and folklore.

The personal impact that this project has had on students is as important as what it's taught them about their cultural heritage. "They have seen the real, physical results of planning and carrying out their plans and felt the pride that comes with such success," explains Tracy. "They have transformed their soggy, barren field into a vital neighborhood backyard."

The Spirit of Nature Schoolyard is one of the twelve school gardens featured in our just-published book Schoolyard Mosaics: Designing Gardens and Habitats. It features brilliant detailed school garden maps ? from butterfly oases to history gardens ? along with how-to advice and companion stories on how students made decisions, built community support, and achieved learning goals. You'll also find scads of useful resources ? Web sites, Listservs, books, articles, videos, and supplies. Visit to learn more or order. (Members save 10%.)

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