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Introducing Students to Landscape Architecture

Originally appears in the Winter 2017 issue

ERNEST C. WONG recalls a youth that never focused on the outdoors. That changed at the age of 15 when Wong, the son of Chinese immigrants growing up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Chicago in the late 1960s, became a volunteer with the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a nonprofit that puts young people to work on environmental projects. He learned to build trails at North Cascades National Park and how to find his place in the world. Today, Wong is a landscape architect with his own award-winning firm and serves on the board of directors of SCA.

Wong, and several other landscape architects, want to connect students—particularly those living in underserved communities—to the outdoors and show them that they can make an impact on protecting the environment. They want to help teachers integrate landscape architecture into their environmental education curriculum through hands-on activities that incorporate the outdoors and introduce
students to the work of people who design the public spaces they enjoy. See two such activities at the end of this article, and try them out with your students.

Take a look at your community, and you’ll see landscape architecture everywhere. It’s in your parks, residential developments, gardens, transportation facilities, and trails and bike paths. Landscape architecture—the analysis, planning, design, and management of outdoor environments and related green infrastructure—helps define communities, yet remains a little-known profession.

Landscape architects work in all communities around the world. They employ sustainable design techniques to create landscapes that are responsive to the environment, regenerative, and can actively contribute to the development of healthy towns and cities. For instance, green roofs are one type of project designed by landscape architects that replace traditional roofing with a lightweight, living system of soil, compost, and plants. They help cool cities, clean the air, build habitat, and manage stormwater.

The following are some ways to introduce your students to landscape architecture and sustainable design. Familiarize yourself with different types of local projects designed by landscape architects and gather images to share with your students. In Toronto, Ontario, the urban waterfront park Sugar Beach, designed by Claude Cormier + Associés Inc., serves as one such example. Similarly, in Nashville, Tennessee, Cumberland Park is an innovative play space designed by Hargreaves Associates for children and families along the riverfront. The Emerald Necklace series of parks in Boston, Massachusetts is a collaborative design project by a number of landscape architects.

Collaborate with local landscape architects on classroom presentations, field trips, and design activities. For help in connecting with ones in your area, reach out to the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA), or your nation’s landscape architecture society. Consider inviting one of these local landscape architecture firms or associations to adopt your school and organize events and activities focused on design. ASLA recently teamed up with its Potomac chapter to participate in a Washington, D.C. school district’s adopt-a-school program. Chapter volunteers showed middle school students how to read a neighborhood map, helped them explore local parks, and participated in a career fair.

Talk to students about the landscape architecture that they encounter in some of their favorite videogames, including Pokémon Go and Minecraft. The explosively popular Pokémon Go, which came onto the scene in the Summer of 2016, was designed to get players out into streets, parks, and plazas. Minecraft is a world-building game in which players get to construct landscapes and buildings. The Indiana ASLA chapter recently helped students create outdoor spaces in a Minecraft-style activity. The chapter provided cutouts of people, landscapes, lighting and signs, and vehicles that students could assemble into their designs.

On a larger scale, encourage your students to become involved in national or regional youth design summits as the opportunities arise. For example, in 2015, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in Washington, DC hosted a high school design summit. Some 200 D.C. public high school students got to learn from national design award winners from all disciplines. Out of the entire group, about 25 students were put into small groups of four and asked to try out landscape architecture, practicing both design thinking and collaboration. Students were given a variety of prototyping materials, including straws, paper, and wire, to create models based on challenges. Students were asked to either create a healthy outdoor park or a space that would benefit their neighborhood in just 45 minutes. As they raced to create their prototypes, national design award winning-landscape architects hovered, critiqued, and offered guidance.

Landscape architects carefully design city and rural landscapes so that people can get the most of their experiences outdoors. By introducing your students to the landscape architecture profession, you will not only build lasting connections between them and nature, but also open the door to a potential career opportunity.


Lesson Plan One: Green Roofs

In this activity, recommended for grades K-6, teachers can invite local landscape architects to visit their classrooms and talk about green roofs and why they benefit the community. During the visit, students create their own green roof in the lid of a shoe-box. This activity takes about 50 minutes and can be done in various settings including a classroom, scout troop, community event, or after-school program. It could also be modified to support national testing standards for environmental education.

• Paper to cover tables
• Glue sticks or liquid glue
• Craft materials (foam shapes, buttons, pipe cleaners, construction paper, tissue paper, etc.)
• Markers
• Masking tape
• Scissors
• Shoe boxes (one per student)
• Aluminum foil sheets (sized to line each shoe box lid)
• Potting soil with fertilizer (enough to fill each shoe box lid)
• Forks (10 or so)
• Full size paper cups (10 or so) filled with ¼” of grass seed
• Extra grass seed (to refill cups as needed)
• Trowels for scooping potting soil
• Plastic bags (to transport potting soil and grass seed if green roof will be assembled at home)
• Hand washing supplies: sink, water, soap, towels
• Broom and dust pan
• Cloths (to wipe tables)
• Tables and chairs (number depends on your audience)

Advance preparation. Set up the work table(s) and cover with paper (tape paper to table). Place chairs around the work tables. On the work tables, set out the glue, markers, scissors, tape, and aluminum foil. Set out cups with grass seed, forks, shoe-boxes and lids, and potting soil on or near the materials table.

Introduction to the profession and green roofs

1. Introduce the landscape architect and invite him or her to explain what they do.
2. Tell students they will be making a green roof similar to those that landscape architects create on the roofs of some buildings.
3. Provide information about green roofs. Consider showing pictures of local green roofs. Ask students what they know about green roofs. Briefly review the environmental benefits of green roofs, including storm-water management; cool cities (reduce the urban heat island effect); clean the air; and build habitat.

How to build the shoe box green roof
1. Choose a box and lid from the materials table.
2. Move to a work table and securely tape the upside down lid to the bottom of the box.
3. Line the inside of the box lid with aluminum foil. Glue the foil in place to create a tight fit.
4. Decorate the outside of the box and lid to create a building: house; apartment building; grocery store; fire/police station; community center; church; etc.
5. Bring the decorated box to the supply table for potting soil. The soil already contains fertilizer. Spread the soil evenly on top of the aluminum foil. For easier transporting, potting soil and grass seed can also be placed in plastic bags so participants can finish them at home.
6. Sprinkle grass seed from one cup (1/4” of seed) onto roof soil. Use a fork as a hoe to evenly distribute the seeds in the soil.
7. Wash your hands when you are finished with the project.

Tell students that once they bring their green roof home, they should place it in a well-lit window so it can soak up plenty of sunlight. Sprinkle 1/2–3/4 cup of water over the roof when they get home and then every few days after that or when the soil is dry. Remember, the roof is made of cardboard, so be careful not to add too much water. Within two to three weeks the grass should germinate (sprout). The students may want to trim the grass with scissors if it gets too long. With good care, their green roof should continue to grow.

With extra time and an internet connection, you could provide more in-depth information about green roofs and their environmental benefits. Use portions of the ASLA Green Roof Education program to discuss the environmental benefits of green roofs. Access the program via

A larger and longer-term activity would be to work with students on designing and possibly building a green roof at their school. This would certainly require working with your local association of landscape architects or a landscape architectural firm.

Lesson Plan Two: Native Plants

Sustainable landscape practices reflect environmental awareness in both the design and maintenance of a space. Using native plants in a landscape is one practice that has many benefits. The benefits of native plants include: adaptation to local climates, less watering and maintenance, habitat for wildlife, no need for fertilizer, more resistant to disease and pests, and non-invasive growth. In this lesson, students in grades 8-12 will examine some native plants and try to determine how they’ve adapted to the local climate (e.g., thick, leathery leaves to reduce water loss, die back in winter, long roots, flower shapes to lure specific pollinators, etc.). For younger students in grades K-5, presenters can briefly teach students about the benefits of native plants and have them plant some native seeds that they can transplant into their garden at home.

Older students, in grades 8 through 12, can be given the following assignment: research at least seven plants native to their area. Use resources such as local nurseries, gardening books, native plant societies, gardening clubs, extension services, and the Internet.

Some questions they should answer include:

  • Scientific name (genus and species)
  • Is it a sun or shade plant?
  • What color is the bloom?
  • When does it bloom?
  • Is it evergreen or deciduous?
  • What is its maximum height? Maximum width?
  • Is the soil wet or dry?
  • What is the plant’s wildlife value?

During the next class, ask students to share information about the native plants they researched. Write the common and scientific names for each on the board. If there is time, show examples from a computer or distribute a handout listing local native plants. Ask students to check off on the handout the native plants listed on the board. Did students find many of the plants? Were students surprised that there were so many native plants in their area?

Show your students native plant samples that you or a local landscape architect have brought in. If there’s time, discuss some of the adaptive features of these plants. Let students know they can get up and look at the plants while they’re drawing, but remind them to be gentle with the plants if they touch them.

Next, tell students they will have an opportunity to design a native plant landscape. Imagine they’ve been hired by their city to design a park, outside reading area for their local library, a community gathering spot, etc. The city wants the space to feel welcoming and informal, to have minimal upkeep, and to require little to no watering.

Ask your students to incorporate at least seven different plant species in the drawing. You may want to add some other parameters (sun, shade, short, tall, trees, various hardscape features, etc.) and labeling requirements (dimensions, plant names, etc.).

Tell students they have the rest of the class period and may finish their drawings at home if they don’t finish in class. Circulate among the students as they draw, and answer questions, give suggestions, offer compliments, etc. To wrap up, ask students to share ideas about their native plant landscapes. What type of space are they designing? (park, space next to a sidewalk, community gathering area, etc.) What factors are they taking into consideration? Which native plants are they using? Why did they select those plants? How will the plants they selected impact their communities, the wildlife, etc.?

Landscape Architecture Resources
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) provides free educational resources that teachers may incorporate into their classrooms. You can access them on ASLA’s Tools for Teachers page: Be sure
to check out:

• Hands-on classroom activities aligned to national teaching standards, including full instructions for the mini green roof and reading garden activities described in the article.

•The Roof is Growing! green roof education program.

• Designing Our Future: Sustainable Landscapes pages offering educational animations, case studies, and K-12 classroom activities.

The Canadian Society of Landscape Architects has its own Resources page here: The Australian Institute of Landscape Architects’ website can be found at


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Karen Grajales is the public relations manager for the American Society of Landscape Architects. She also serves as the outreach chair for the D.C. Environmental Education Consortium. She may be reached at