It is hard to know whether this work is making a difference. There is such urgency to support our students, teachers, and communities with learning environments that heal, nurture, and inspire. With over a century of industrial-style educational facilities to transform, the work can feel daunting at times. Which is why it is so encouraging that Schools That Heal is being embraced and honored in school communities and professions across the country, and beyond. Every new community member, designer, organization, and school decision-maker who reads it brings the hope of another school remaking itself to benefit health, learning, and feelings of belonging. I’m pleased to share a few noteworthy moments from the past six months, below. May we all go into the winter break feeling encouraged and optimistic that one day all of our schools will invite, support, and reflect everyone who steps foot inside them.
Backed by decades of research, Schools That Heal showcases clear and compelling ways to create schools that support students’ mental health, well-being, and feelings of safety. Now more than ever, we have the opportunity and responsibility to provide welcoming, inclusive school environments that address the traumas a majority of students experience in their lives. With invaluable advice for school administrators, public health experts, teachers, and parents, Schools That Heal is a call to action and a practical resource to envision and implement nurturing and inspiring school environments. Healthy, healing campuses will better prepare students to take care of themselves, their communities, their cities, and their planet.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Manal Aboelata Preface
Chapter 1: Nine Reasons Why We Should Design Schools with Mental Health in Mind Chapter 2: How School Environments Shape Mental, Social, and Physical Health Chapter 3: Site Design Strategies to Support Mental Health, Safety, and Well-Being Chapter 4: Leveraging Schools for Public Health, Equity, and Climate Resilience Chapter 5: How to Communicate for the Best Chance at Change Chapter 6: Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees … Or Does It? Chapter 7: Ten Schools to Inspire and Guide You Chapter 8: Conversations on Transformation by Design Chapter 9: For the Love of Students
Resources Endnotes Index
10 schools featured in Chapter 7 Eagle Rock Elementary School. Los Angeles, California Kesennuma Shiritsu Omise Primary School. Kesennuma, Miyagi. Japan Sandy Hook Elementary School. Newtown, Connecticut ASCEND School. Oakland, California Daniel Webster Middle School. Los Angeles, California B. Traven Community School. Berlin-Spandau. Germany Environmental Charter High School. Lawndale, California George C. Marshall High School. Falls Church, Virginia Bridges Academy. Studio City, California Redwood Park Academy. Coshom, Portsmouth. United Kingdom
I’ve been obsessed with the Eagle Rock High School horticulture garden for years now, for many reasons. Partly because it is a beautiful example of designing with nature. Its walkways and little walls were made with reclaimed materials. It is softly sculpted to direct rainwater from paved areas into planting, from high places to low. It has native oaks that attract butterflies and birds and cover a large part of the garden with luxurious shade. Like the mature trees dotting the wild hillsides above, its oaks and pines and flowering shrubs and vines were planted by generations of students. The garden isn’t pristine. But it is weathered and worn like something well-loved.
The first time I saw it I was a little overcome. In awe that the garden existed at all—a remnant of a time when public schools boasted wood shops and mechanics and photography labs as well as these gardens. But I was also stunned. Because I had been to the school plenty of times before and never knew it was there. This was the school my children attended on and off for years. All three of them were there for a year or two. But it wasn’t until they were gone that I first got to see the garden. It was rambly and wild, a little overgrown from a decade without a trained horticulture teacher. And I felt a stab of jealousy at the time, that this beautiful place had not been there for my children. That they may not have even known about it. It was so brilliantly tucked away between classroom bungalows and the bleachers behind the football field. Its fences were hidden by vines and hedges.
I found out about it several years ago when my dear friend Amanda introduced me to the garden and the past teacher charged with maintaining it. Trained in special education, the teacher had no formal training in horticulture, landscape architecture, or plant science. He did the best he could to keep it going … and growing. It was a joy then, to visit Friday and see it returning to full use. The new horticulture teacher, Jeff Mailes, had invited a special guest to teach his students the basics of surveying. Willie Nakatani taught horticulture at Eagle Rock High from 1967 through 2004. “But don’t call me Mr. Nakatani,” he told the class when he got up to give his lesson. “Nak is what everyone calls me. Even going through the office today, people said ‘hey Nak!’ It was like I never left.”
Between his demonstration and answering questions, Nak sits with me at a table in the corner and tells me about how it used to be. When he taught horticulture, out of the 43 high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), 25 had fully operational horticulture gardens with two or three teachers running each one. Nak taught six horticulture classes and a science class. And he organized the students for the annual LA Beautiful competition held among all high school horticultural teams. The garden and program at Eagle Rock is now being revitalized, thanks to Principal Mylene Keipp hiring farmer, regenerative designer, and environmental educator Jeff Mailes.
It was Jeff who described so well the need for more of these places and programs today. In an age of increasing pressure to pass tests and decreasing programs that support real life skills, many young people grapple with the meaning of it all. Jeff went through something similar in college.
“I got into farming because it’s a real good zombie apocalypse skill to have,” Jeff said. “I was thinking about dropping out and growing my own food gave me a sense of security. And now I give that sense of security to my students.”
Jeff’s work in the garden exemplifies so many of the strategies we can use to support students’ mental health. Inviting Nak to teach him and the students surveying connects the students to their school’s past and connects Nak and his knowledge to a new generation of environmental stewards. The students are restoring the gardens with Jeff’s expertise guiding them, reconstructing walls, cleaning out the ponds, turning organic matter into compost. Revealing the path of water in the old creek bed that is now a fire lane is one of his many plans to bring nature back into the school’s consciousness. He leaves the gates open at lunch and during breaks, inviting students in to sit or study or volunteer. It’s become a respite in the middle of an urban campus, and a connector of generations and skills. Food grows in rows in the one sunny spot in the center. The lathe house is back in perfect shape, and the glass house is next on his list.
The students are notably engaged, following Nak’s instructions and volunteering to “read” the surveying scope. This in spite of the day it is: Friday, March 13th. Just as their class ended the LAUSD school board announced schools would close for the next two weeks, joining the growing wave of closures aimed at preventing further spread of coronavirus. Cal Poly Pomona, where I teach, had made the decision two days before. In his announcement to our students, Department Chair and Professor Andy Wilcox wrote: “As cultural, institutional and educational facilities close all around us, our public spaces, public gardens and public lands remain open. It is in these spaces that we might find some solace and respite from the anxiety of this current situation. In looking for social distance we may find a little time to close the distance to our natural world and reconnect with many of the experiences that brought us all to landscape architecture to begin with.”
What our students and communities need now, more than ever before, is for us to take the urgent action necessary to heal them. My graduate design studio is working with three local schools and their students to create campus landscape master plans that will incorporate regenerative design strategies to:
Improve air, water, and soil quality
Harvest rainwater, renewable energy, and sustenance for people and wildlife
Increase the physical, mental, and social health of students, teachers, staff, and community members
Act as community resilience centers during moments of personal or community crises
Support educational success and workforce readiness
Every school and every community around every school deserves a community-based, nature-based plan designed to heal our bodies, minds and ecosystems. Every student deserves an appropriate and healthy learning environment. And they deserve to be involved in the design process. We may be in the midst of social distancing. But we can still plan and design. We can still organize and communicate—albeit at a distance. We can ask students what they need and want. We can work to change school policy and devote more funding for gardens in every school. We can remake our schools and communities to support mental health and resilience before the next health or climate or infrastructure emergency. And if we do, maybe the chances for “a next time” will be a little bit smaller.
Sometimes life unfolds, unforeseen, like a desert mirage becoming a great lake right before your eyes. The past two years have felt like this for me. The Landscape Architecture Foundation fellowship that gave me the time and resources to explore design strategies to support mental health led to connections, ideas, and opportunities. After a decade of piecing together work around writing and thirteen years practicing landscape architecture at two of our region’s best firms—EPTDESIGN and Studio-MLA—this new career shift encompasses both. This fall, I became an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona.
To all of you who have been a part of this journey, directly or indirectly, professionally or personally—thank you. Thank you for supporting my work, my journey, and—through your friendship, support, and love—my mental health. My decision was made easier by Island Press editor Courtney Lix, who contracted me to write a book on designing K-12 schools to prioritize students’ mental health and wellbeing. Look for it in the next year or two. In addition to Cal Poly Pomona landscape architecture’s continued mentorship and guidance, thank you to the recent support of:
Landscape Architecture Magazine for this article on the work
Occidental College departments of kinesiology and environmental economics, who are among other things hosting Dr. Frances Ming Kuo to share her groundbreaking research on nature and mental health and wellbeing
With gratitude and excitement at this next chapter,
“It’s time to begin a movement.” Those words, included in my final fellowship presentation for the Landscape Architecture Foundation last May, came true last week. Our first Designing Schools for Mental Health Workshop brought together mental health, education, design, and environmental justice professionals for a morning sharing session and afternoon policy workshop to start a movement. More than 100 people registered from organizations and schools all over Southern California to listen to expert speakers and participate in our brainstorming sessions.
DESIGNING SCHOOLS FOR MENTAL HEALTH WORKSHOP Purpose
To convene the mental health, education, design, and environmental communities for a sharing and working session to facilitate school environments that support students’ mental health and well-being.
Participants Anyone designing, working in, or caring about school environments and how they can support students’ mental health and well-being.
Keynote Speakers Dr. William Sullivanexpert on design for mental health and Head of the University of Illinois Landscape Architecture Department Sharon Danksfounder of Green Schoolyards America and author of Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformations
Panelists Pia Escudero, Director of School Mental Health, LAUSD Maryjane Puffer, Executive Director of the LA Trust for Children’s Health Albert Grazioli, Asset Development Director, LAUSD Eileen Alduenda, Interim Executive Director, Council for Watershed Health Dr. Marcella Raney, Occidental College Professor Researching Student Activity and Behavior
Lead Partners Cal Poly Pomona Landscape Architecture Prevention Institute
Partner Organizations American Society of Landscape Architects Southern California Chapter Association for Women in Architecture Foundation Amigos de los Rios Children and Nature Network Council for Watershed Health Green Schoolyards America Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust Los Angeles Unified School District Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority The River Project TreePeople Trust for Public Land
Los Angeles area students experience high levels of instability and stress related to urban environmental conditions, family trauma, and neighborhood disinvestment. As an indication of the degree, fifty percent of LAUSD students suffer moderate to severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Design principles to reduce stress and to support students suffering attention deficit, sensory integration, and autism spectrum disorders are remarkably similar — provide a well-organized, comfortable, calm environment, plenty of access to nature, and small quiet places to escape chaos.
For fifty years, research has correlated access to nature with reduced aggression, reduced crime, reduced stress, and increased social cohesion. In addition to research by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan at the University of Michigan and Drs. William Sullivan, Frances Kuo, and Andrea Faber-Taylor at the University of Illinois, Rodney Matsuoka’s doctoral dissertation on Michigan High Schools related more trees and shrubs, larger classroom windows, open lunch policies, and schools on streets with higher activity levels to reduced student crime (like violence, illegal possession, and vandalism), reduced student disorderly conduct (like insubordination, fighting, and bullying), and more students planning to attend a four-year college. He also found that wide-open sports courts and fields related to higher rates of student crime and disorderly conduct.
After decades of research, this knowledge has not yet reached educators, administrators, the community, or the designers designing schools. We are taking the first step to bring together administrators, mental health professionals, researchers, trauma therapists and specialists, designers, non-profits and the environmental community to work through potential policy changes at the district and state levels as well as funding opportunities to prioritize mental health while achieving co-benefits of physical health, academic success, environmental and social justice, cleaner air, stormwater management, climate resilience, and beautiful, safe school environments.
Please help us gain momentum for this important work! Contact me if you’d like to organize a similar workshop in your city or school district.
The following is the talk I gave at last week’s Landscape Architecture Foundation Symposium in Washington, D.C. You can view the recorded talk here.
During fifteen years working and living in Los Angeles I’ve visited, studied, and helped to design landscapes for at least two dozen LA Unified School District public schools. For twelve years, my children attended (LAUSD) schools. As they reached high school, like so many of their peers, they suffered from stress, anxiety, depression, and bullying.
While I’m sure they were planned with the best intentions, the design of their schools—both inside and out— failed to support their mental health and well-being. They, and all of our teenagers, needed and deserved high schools that would guide them into adulthood with empathy, support, and love.
Urban communities are beset by air pollution, light pollution, and noise. LAUSD Director of Mental Health Pia Escudora reported in 2016 that fifty percent of the district’s students suffer moderate to severe post-traumatic stress disorder from family and neighborhood traumas like the death of a loved one, poverty, a parent suffering addiction or incarceration, or gang violence. These students, along with the growing number of students diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, sensory integration disorders, and on the autism spectrum disorder are hyper- sensitive to noise, light, and visual chaos.
Trauma Rates for US versus LAUSD
PTSD and Subsidized Meals for US versus LAUSD
To put this in perspective, 10-30 percent of combat veterans and rape victims suffer PTSD. Of the nearly 650,000 students attending Los Angeles public schools, 325,000 suffer PTSD. Add to this startling statistic, that 80 percent (well over half a million) of district students qualify for free or reduced cost meals. Designing school grounds to mitigate these traumas will help all who study, teach, and work there.
For the past year, with the help of the Landscape Architecture Foundation, I’ve studied opportunities to leverage high school environments to support students’ mental health and well-being. I’ve found solutions that can be applied not only at LAUSD, the second largest school district in the United States, but to urban schools everywhere.
Los Angeles campuses that were once planned and designed with open and welcoming entries, generous lawns, and large gardens were slowly eroded by pressures of a growing school population, auto-centric planning, concern for security, and shrinking maintenance budgets.
Last year, LAUSD finished a $20 billion effort to build 131 new schools in Los Angeles, in order to end overcrowding, involuntary bussing, and year-round school schedules. While some were designed by highly regarded architects, they continue to follow outdated codes & policies which lack empathy for the students’ experiences, and prioritize abstract architectural statements, secure entries, and vandal-proof materials over student comfort, mental health, and well-being.
And many more campuses remain physical manifestations of decades of neglect. I ask you what message are we sending the students attending these schools? After the bond-funded build-out, the district budget doesn’t allocate enough funds to renovate and maintain all of its school buildings and landscaped grounds.
LAUSD’s annual School Experience Survey asks students, parents, and staff questions about educational goals, supports, and expectations. The graph below of 44 Los Angeles public high schools represents how many students and staff agreed or strongly agreed to the statement, “I feel safe at school,” and how many parents agreed or strongly agreed to the statement, “My child is safe at school.” As you read the graph to the right, even in those schools where students feel the most safe, the number of students feeling safe remains over 15 percentage points below their parents and teachers. It is clear that teens feel markedly less safe in their school than the adults in their lives.
We can point to at least one reason why this is true. Neuroscientist Dr. Frances Jensen switched her research from infant brains to teenage brains when her sons hit adolescence. She writes in the Teenage Brain, that as adults the hormone tetrahydropregnanolone (THO) modulates anxiety … teenagers have that same hormone, but in their brains, it amplifies anxiety. Teenagers are physically wired to feel greater stress and anxiety. So, the same stressors that impact all people living in urban neighborhoods — mainly associated with sensory overload — are more troublesome to teens.
Schools can mitigate this problem with better design to make students feel safe.
Unlike programs that rely on teachers or staff to identify students in need of mental health intervention, physical school improvements provide equal opportunity to help everyone who uses the school grounds. This idea—that school environments can improve one’s mental state —is not new but it is rarely included in discussions on how to support school safety and the lives of teenagers.
Attention Restoration Theory
Fifty years ago, psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan began working on Attention Restoration Theory, positing that the restful attention paid to leaves moving in a breeze, sun glinting off of water, birds singing from a tree, or other natural scenes reduces heart rate and stress and restores attention. For the past three decades, University of Illinois landscape architecture professors William Sullivan, Frances Kuo, Andrea Faber-Taylor, and their graduate students have furthered the theory. They’ve related access to nature in public high schools and housing projects with improved test scores … increased social cohesion … higher self-esteem … reduced crime … and a deeper sense of community.
Ten years ago, Rodney Matsuoka’s University of Michigan doctoral study correlated environmental attributes in Michigan high schools with student behavior and educational success. He found that schools along high-activity streets and with larger classroom windows associate with less student crime (like illegal possession, vandalism, and violence). And natural features next to school buildings and an open campus policy associate with more students planning to go to four-year colleges.
Wide open views, on the other hand, even if they were of living grass, related to more student crime and disorderly conduct (like bullying, fighting, and insubordination); and fewer students planning to go to college. Despite decades of knowledge pointing to these impacts, exemplary models of school environments for mental health are difficult, if not impossible, to find. I found pieces … and the best examples were in Berlin.
Examples from Schools
Berlin has transformed its schoolyards for the past two decades. In addition to managing stormwater, their focus has been on reducing students’ stress and aggression. The most striking differences between these schools and those in Los Angeles are the number of small and medium-sized gathering spots amid trees and gardens. Where most Los Angeles schools maintain open schoolyards to allow easy supervision of students, the Berlin schoolyards were full of woods and plants that gave students plenty of small sheltered places where they could sit alone or with friends.
The gardens support science and arts education as well. Berlin’s school’s boasted bee hives and honey sheds … little food gardens … vine mazes … mosaic paving and sculpted benches … and small shaded seats. This “school in a garden” model is achieved with students and the community helping to plan and maintain the gardens, and with local artists who engage students to create art for the schoolyards.
Marshall High School in Fairfax County Virginia was the site of extensive school renovations six years ago. The new library is filled with sunlight and views of trees. Large classroom windows open onto a series of courtyards, one for each level, with trees and seating where students can eat their lunch outside and teachers can hold classes. Campus-wide improvements to manage stormwater became educational resources for students studying ecology and watershed health … and a source of pride when the news crews came to tour the new model green school.
In downtown Pomona, California, The School of Arts and Enterprise epitomizes the idea of a school on an active street with an open campus. It is housed in re-habbed bank, retail, and office buildings in downtown Pomona, California. The high school opened 15 years ago to serve students in a neighborhood which was known in the late 90s as “the deadliest zip code for children.” From the beginning, the school and the downtown revitalization efforts were seen as mutually beneficial in efforts to bring a downtown abandoned by manufacturing and jobs … this is an area that’s been called Southern California’s rust belt.
Students move through downtown to attend classes and galleries and theater events in four different buildings. They are free to leave campus for lunch and open classes. The students’ free movement has a number of benefits, one of the biggest being that the neighbors gets to know them, and say hello to them, and know not to be afraid of them. This creates a community where these teenagers feel welcomed and valued … I want you to think about this. Teenagers feeling welcomed and valued.
Finland, which the World Economic Forum repeatedly ranks number one in education, is redesigning its schools to support a move towards project-based rather than subject-based education. The schools are designed with quiet areas and flexible collaboration spaces replacing single-purposes classrooms and laboratories. The goal is to prepare teenagers for the workplace and collaborative environments of the present and future.
But these examples are few and far between. After half a century of research, Why aren’t there more? And what are we going to do about it? Dr. Sullivan told me, “If parents knew that green views were roughly equivalent to a dose of Ritalin, even for students without ADHD, they would demand that districts get rid of classrooms without windows and put gardens at every school.”
Six Obstacles and Responses
1. Lack of Knowledge: People don’t know … the research hasn’t left the academy. Restorative school environments for mental health isn’t yet part of conversations about school planning, design, maintenance, or school safety and mental health and well-being.
Response: It’s Time to Start a Movement. We need to share this knowledge with everyone involved in school planning, design, and maintenance … I’m sharing this work with architects and landscape architects, school administrators and teachers. And will continue writing to share with the general public … please help me share the knowledge!.
2. Lack of Policy: District and state policies don’t mandate or suggest school design for mental health. In fact many policies contradict it.
Response: We need to bring together students and the mental health, design, environment, and education communities to develop policies that prioritize students’ mental health and well-being. Working with the Prevention Institute and the Green LA Coalition, we’ll host our first Designing Schools for Mental Health workshop this fall in Los Angeles.
3. Lack of Eyes: While parent and community volunteers are common in elementary schools, in high school … that’s not the case.
Response: Nearby business owners, artists, and senior citizens can act as garden docents and informal mentors for students to add eyes in and around campus … and be there for those teenagers who might need a little extra support.
4. Lack of Involvement: During the Design process for schools, Students are not involved. Teachers and staff aren’t involved. The community is not involved.
Response: An inclusive design process that involves students, staff, and the community will better serve students and give them a sense of ownership and pride in their school. We are developing processes to survey and observe students to find out where and why they feel safest at school. Students deserve to have their voices heard.
5. Lack of Funds: The district barely has the funds to maintain what it has, let alone to renovate and add gardens.
Response: But California schools gets state funding based on enrollment and attendance. More than 80,000 LAUSD students missed three weeks last year, costing the district $20 million in lost funds. Since research shows that restorative environments reduce sick days at work, the same should be true in schools, boosting enrollment, attendance, and funding. Imagine using that money to create warmer, nurturing high school environments where teenagers want to show up?
6. Fear: These high schools were designed out of fear of vandalism, truancy, and added maintenance Costs. Yet, research shows it is access to nature, big classroom windows, and open campuses along active streets that reduce crime, disorderly conduct, stress, and anxiety.
Response: With love, we can design high schools to support teenagers dealing with trauma, stress, mental health issues, and the rest of them too. Teenagers are uniquely vulnerable to urban stresses. Public high school is the last chance to build trust, hope, and community before young people become independent adults.
Transforming the way we treat our teenagers will transform the way they think of themselves and the way they interact with the people and neighborhoods around them. Restorative high school environments can invite and build a broad community around our adolescents; improve the quality of the neighborhood; reduce teenagers’ anxiety and aggression; and make them feel safer, more hopeful, and whole. With love, we can provide school environments that nurture the future stewards of our public realm and our planet. This is the atmosphere that all of us, especially teenagers, deserve.
Even if you don’t yet or won’t ever have a teenager, you were one once. This one is for all of you.
Teendom is a time of exploration and change and stress and too often, trauma. This year I’m using my Fellowship for Innovation and Leadership with the Landscape Architecture Foundation to look for ways high school landscapes can support students’ mental health and well-being, academic success, and environmental justice as well as the many environmental benefits healthy landscapes can provide.
While I was guiding my own teenagers through some intense times, a dear friend gave me The Teenage Brain. Dr. Frances E. Jensen, a neuroscientist studying children’s brains, switched her research to teenagers to understand her sons’ adolescence. I finally read the chapter on stress last week, and it helped explain a disturbing pattern I’ve been seeing in my research on high school landscapes. I want to share this little piece as I begin exploring solutions for better high school environments for our teens.
Jensen cites research done ten years ago on the hormone tetrahydropregnanolone (THP), which calms adults, but actually increases anxiety in teenagers. She also explains that since research on animals shows the effects of stress lasts three weeks longer in adolescent rats than in adult rats, the same is probably true in humans. Teenagers feel more stress for much longer than we do as adults.
Every year, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) surveys its students, parents, and staff on issues to help with future planning efforts. This School Experience Survey asks a variety of questions to address topics such as positive school climate, academic expectations, school communications, social awareness, bullying, state standards instruction, and school safety. The results of these surveys are available online here.
In an effort to make some sense of how safe students feel in their high schools, I graphed student, parent, and staff 2016 responses to the questions asked about safety. Because LAUSD has 96 high schools, I start here with a smaller sample. I graphed the five highest and five lowest rated schools by the California Organization to Reform Education, and then selected fourteen schools representing a range of ratings and across LAUSD’s six local districts: East, West, South, Central, Northwest, and Northeast.
Students are shown in green, parents in pink, and staff in blue. The solid line in each color represents safety on the school grounds during the day. The dashed line in each color represents safety in the neighborhood around the school. The gray line is the school’s rating, between 1-100, given by the California Office to Reform Education.
If the many lines on the graphs are overwhelming, pay special attention to the dashed and solid lines of each color. There is a remarkable chasm between how safe students feel at school and the neighborhoods surrounding their school compared to the adults in their lives. It’s not that surprising that only 38 percent of students felt safe or very safe at Fremont High School, the birthplace of the Crips, compared to 85 percent of students feeling safe or very safe at Marshall High School, that iconic school where Grease and Pretty in Pink were filmed.
But it is surprising the level of safety that parents and staff feel about schools across the board, while students bring their perceptions of safety in the neighborhood with them into school. At all schools, over 80 percent of parents thought there child was safe on school grounds, and staff responses were even higher. This difference results in a 12 to 50 percent gap between how many teenagers felt safe on school grounds versus their parents, teachers, and school staff.
Teenagers so often get a bad rap. And yet, even as they suffer from extreme stress, the everyday environments of public high schools are rarely nurturing and supportive. We can change that. Rodney Matsuoka’s 2008 landscape architecture dissertation pointed to views of nature and open campuses as being the two highest predictors of high school students’ academic, social, and behavioral success. High school grounds can be planned, designed, and programmed to build community and social cohesion, improve self-worth and self-esteem, improve attention and learning, and improve physical health.
For the next five months, I’ll be gathering solutions and examples of high school grounds that break the mold to care for and nourish our teenagers’ intellects, hearts, and spirits. Please share with me any examples or solutions you might have.
And, next time you find yourself annoyed or disturbed by a teen, think about how much more annoyed or disturbed they are by the world around them.
Sometimes things happen that make you question everything.
Two weeks ago, I walked along 103rd Street toward the corner of Grape in Watts with several community advocates and a selection committee from the California Natural Resources Agency. Viviana Franco and Maria De Leon from From Lot to Spot, the non-profit who applied for an Urban Greening Grant, led us past Jordan High School and the Jordan Downs public housing development that is under redevelopment.
We described our proposal to the Agency, pointing out the portions of sidewalk to replace with shade trees and planting. Viviana had us meet in the beloved Heart of Watts community garden they installed a year ago, and showed us the parkway plantings and new concrete that brought patches of life and pride amid the crumbling curbs. As we walked, we talked about which trees would best shade people walking by and cool the apartment homes, which have no air conditioning. We noted the phone lines overhead, and the weeds and litter underfoot. We discussed native species and biodiversity. And maintenance.
A young man in a white suit and several teenaged girls passed by on their way to school. Otherwise the sidewalk was empty.
Our group included John Jones from Council District 15, Haleemah Henderson of Watts Labor Community Action Committee, Amada Valle from the Heart of Watts garden, and Watts Gang Taskforce member Pinkus Crowther. We stopped at the corner of Grape at a large fenced lot where Mudtown Farms Agriculture Park will soon be. A few scraggly trees and one large one lined the fence opposite us on 102nd Street.
The light was red where Grape Street dead-ended into 103rd. A line of cars gathered. One driver leaned out his window to complain, laughing, to John about a new sign reading “No Right on Red.” John told him, “The community asked for it.”
Pinkus and I talked about the huge change trees could bring to the street.
“I just hope they don’t come cut their branches,” he said. “We plant trees and as soon as they start growing, they cut the branches so the police can see.” He turned to John, “Do you know if the police came to cut the trees yet?”
“Not yet, but they need to,” John said. He pointed across the lot at the big tree. “That big one. That’s where one of the toughest gangs in LA hangs out. The police need to cut it so they can see who is there.”
As we walked back towards the Heart of Watts, I said to Pinkus, “I know nothing of the situation here. But how do we balance immediate security with providing the very thing that can improve social cohesion, reduce criminal behavior, improve self-esteem, and build a community? Because we know trees and gardens can do that.”
“I don’t know,” he responded. I don’t know either.
This is where the tension lies. Which approach would you choose: fear, or love?
The night after I walked through Watts for the first time, my son’s best friend was killed there, on the same street I had walked on the day before. He and two friends went to a birthday party meant to bring youth from different communities together. They left the party without a ride, were attacked by a group of men, and beaten until he lay unconscious against an alley wall. One of the men pointed a gun at his friends. They ran for their lives. Two gunshots sounded. They returned to their friend, called 911, and tried to stop his bleeding. He died while they watched over him.
His friends are devastated. My eyes ache from crying. I cannot imagine the pain his family is going through. We all loved him. I will miss his kind smile and gentle nature and the days and weeks he spent with us. I will miss the unconditional love and support he gave my son during our own family struggles.
I’m grieving the only way I know how, by writing. As I grieve, I cannot help thinking about that tree as a symbol of the lives that are lost in places like Watts.
Trees provide the air we breathe. They cool our homes and our cities, protecting us from deadly heat waves. They absorb rainwater and protect us from floods. Planting more trees may even prevent senseless deaths like our dear one’s.
Drs. Kuo and Sullivan compared Chicago public housing projects and found that trees and grass in the courtyard correlated with a greater sense of community, greater feeling of safety, less aggressive and violent behavior, and less impulsivity and irritability. A study with their colleague Dr. Taylor found greater self-discipline (and fewer pregnancies) in teenage girls who lived in housing where trees and grass were. These studies illuminate the power of nature to improve mental health … to reduce the stresses and irritability that can lead to violence.
The systems so many (cities, school districts, housing developments, detention centers) have in place now — security cameras, security fencing, security guards, Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), helicopter policing, reducing growth of trees and shrubs so people cannot hide behind them — these are based on fear. Fear of somebody doing something if we don’t control our environment.
This is the same fear felt by parents who keep their children inside and over-scheduled after the freer attitudes of the 60s and 70s when so many of us roamed our neighborhoods and creeks and parks by ourselves.
But what about design born of love? Love lets us imagine the best for all of our communities. Tree-lined, clean streets with safe sidewalks, public plazas and gardens for people to gather, public restrooms and parks where families feel safe. Shaded bus stops with benches and green schools with playgrounds open to the community at all hours. Jane Jacobs summed up a safe neighborhood with four words: eyes on the street.
I grew up in a neighborhood like this in the 70s. When our classmate was brutally murdered while walking home from school, our schools and parents taught us to walk in groups and know our neighbors … not to stay inside and hide. I lived in a neighborhood riddled with crack in the 80s, where gunshots went off regularly, few dared to walk after midnight, and our roommate was held at gunpoint at the corner deli. I’ve lived in a lot of situations in between, and I’ve known love and fear in all of them.
We need to overhaul the racist lending, housing, and justice systems that paved the way to where Watts and neighborhoods like it are today. Instead of the fear-based approach that led to barren projects surrounded by crumbling streets and punitive law enforcement, people deserve to be treated with compassion, humanity, and dignity. These communities need empathetic justice, medical and mental health care, education, job training, decent shelter, clean water, healthy food, and purpose.
People also need a respite from stress, a sense of community, self-esteem, beauty, and hope. These are things trees and gardens provide. Our children and teenagers, who are drowning in anxiety, need and deserve relief.
There are non-profits all over the city working for environmental justice. WORKS is a non-profit developer building affordable and sustainable residences with mental health services in LA’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. The Trust for Public Land in LA has created 10 parks in the last eight years, including Watts Serenity Park which opened in 2015. From Lot to Spot sees a more humane and beautiful Watts through planting street trees and community gardens. The Watts Labor Community Action Committee is leading the effort to build Mudtown Farms Agriculture Park.
We need to support these efforts, and others like them, by advocating for funds, programs, and services to help build healthier, safer communities without displacing people … to work towards social and environmental justice. Fear has had its chance, and it isn’t working. Let’s try more love.