Chester Arthur Play and Learning Lab

Submitted by Sara Pevaroff Schuh

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Client: Friends of Chester Arthur/School District of Philadelphia

Location: Philadelphia, PA, United States

Completion date: 2017

Artwork budget: $1,300,000

Project Team

Artist

Sara Pevaroff Schuh

SALT DESIGN STUDIO

Client

Friends of Chester Arthur

Overview

The Chester Arthur Schoolyard renovation transformed half a city block into an artistic arena for play and learning. Challenging the traditional public schoolyard model, SALT converted the existing asphalt lot into a high-performance, visually stimulating environment for studying habitat, systems, motion and energy. Organized into a series of educational labs, the new schoolyard design offers a myriad of hands-on opportunities for creative exploration and outdoor teaching of STEM curriculum, giving inner-city students the experience of authentic learning in the landscape. This Play & Learning Lab now functions as a neighborhood park, providing community open space in a dense urban area.

Goals

The goal was to create a recreational and educational space that through its visual and spatial design inspired students to experiment. Located in the wide floodplain of the city, an organic, flowing form shapes circulation, surface patterns and landforms in the schoolyard, echoing the two rivers that embrace Central Philadelphia. Native plants, paving, structures, screens and colorful paint reinforce the core artistic gesture, enabling outdoor instruction, free exploration and collaboration among teachers, students and the neighborhood. The various design elements are intended to form an integrated and unique experience for elementary school children through lush, natural landscapes and bold built components. In addition, the design provides a new social amenity for the neighborhood and a distinctive visual amenity for the immediate neighbors. A sculpted berm of synthetic turf creates a public amphitheater, a play mound, an outdoor classroom and now, the iconic emblem of the school.

Process

This project involved a unique public-private partnership between multiple stakeholders, and was the result of persistent grass-roots efforts at the community level to mobilize a broad coalition of parents and teachers. The non-profit, school-parent association, Friends of Chester Arthur, was instrumental in fundraising for school improvements, forming strategic partnerships, encouraging multi-generational use and advocating for community inclusion in the schoolyard.
Additional clients were the School District of Philadelphia, administrative leadership of the Chester Arthur School, as well students and teachers. Project funding came from many sources, including the Philadelphia Water Department, City of Philadelphia Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, and the School District. This mix of project users, clients and funding sources required SALT to lead an inclusive and collaborative design process among the various stakeholders, maintaining strong communication lines throughout the team.
SALT facilitated several design charrettes, known as “Discovery Sessions,” with school and community members to gather ideas and feedback, including a visioning workshop with student representatives from every grade. The high level of participation from the diverse user and client group led to an authentic, community-driven design solution, which in turn boosts the likelihood of long-term success for the renovated schoolyard.

Additional Information

The renovated schoolyard fosters an abundance of social, environmental, educational, and economic benefits at both neighborhood and city scales. There has been a surge in community use of the schoolyard during evenings and weekends, increasing opportunities for positive interaction and discourse among long-time residents and newcomers in a shifting socio-economic setting. Teachers and staff have noticed a significant improvement in student behavior and mood since the schoolyard was renovated. Project received 2018 Honor Award from PA-DE American Society of Landscape Architects