Germantown elementary school grounds one step closer to being ‘transformed’

A group effort to green the grounds of Germantown’s John B. Kelly Elementary School hit a major milestone last week.

As a result of Thursday’s “Transforming Urban Schoolyards” design charrette held at Center City’s Center for Architecture, the first plans for the transformation of the Kelly School grounds have appeared.

The 18-member design teams included professional landscape architects, school district representatives, teachers, parents and students of the schools involved, Philadelphia Water Department staffers and others.

The plans

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The teams, which were larger than expected due to widespread community interest, started the session in smaller teams which brainstormed concepts. Then, they came together to produce drawings and suggest project phases.

Later in the afternoon, those plans were presented to a panel of experts including Glen Abrams, manager of strategic policy and coordination for the Philadelphia Water Department; and Katherine Gajewski, director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. Kelly School Assistant Principal Sharon Ingram was also there.

The two emerging plans were remarkably similar and reflected careful attention to water management, environmental education and providing ample play space for the children.

The “Kelly I Team” proposed picnic tables by the existing basketball court, raised beds for gardening (and possibly a greenhouse), a soft-top covering to replace the current concrete play-surface and raised grassy hills to add interest and exercise to the kids’ outdoor playtime.

“Good ideas aren’t necessarily original ideas,” a presenter said when both of the Kelly teams proposed a walking trail — dubbed the “wellness walk” — to wind around the property’s perimeter with built-in features like age-appropriate exercise equipment and specially created examples of natural habitats like woodlands or wetlands.

Both teams also focused on eco-friendly ways to manage rainfall on the property around Kelly, which was dubbed “the Mother Ship” because of what it looks like in aerial images.

“We’re most interested in developing a culture of environmental stewardship,” Ingram noted.

“The best idea of the day” was provided by Kelly student Zion Key, who has noticed too much litter on school grounds. He proposed and illustrated a “trash-gobbling monster” of a trash compactor that would be fun for kids to use.

Linda Scott, a charrette team member with a daughter in the fifth grade at Kelly, noted, “As a parent and being in the Germantown community, I’m loving it.”

Reactions to the ideas

Abrams praised the plans’ integration of stormwater management and landscape details.

“Having these practices visible is especially important for a school,” he said, citing the value of education on water issues.

Others, recounting their own days on cement-paved schoolyards, lauded any effort to give kids a safe place to run.

“We need to be a partner with the community,” said Joseph, who spoke of the need for the School District to open more of its land to the community noting that using that land for gardens or walking-trails would help ensure citizens’ engagement in a safe and clean environment.

“We need to embrace the community rather than lock off from the community,” noted Leigh Anne Clark, operations manager for the School District’s Office of Capital Programs. The proposed improvements, and prospect of greater community involvement on the grounds “make it into a campus, as opposed to a schoolyard.”

Audience members asked the panel about concerns including lighting, maintenance, parking and liability.

“This is an ecosystem,” noted Dominique Lueckenhoff of the Environment Protection Agency’s Office of State and Watershed Partnerships, in closing remarks about citywide collaboration. “We’re interdependent whether we admit it or not.”

What’s next?

For the next phase of the project, the CDC will work with the Kelly Green Task Force to produce a final blueprint based on the two charrette designs. This will be used in formal proposals to secure funding for the plans’ implementation.

The Kelly Green Task Force has worked with the Hansberry Garden and Nature Center, Kelly School students, Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Community Design Collaborative, Viridian Landscape Studio and SMP Architects, among others.

That level of collaboration “makes what we’re talking about so much more viable,” said Lisa Armstrong, an event leader, architect and vice president of sustainability services for Keating Environmental Management who helped in efforts to transform the grounds of the Greenfield Home & School Association, which now serves as a model for greening projects at other city schools.

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