Nancy Striniste letter to Arlington School Board re destruction of Reed School Park grove, September 2, 2019

Dear Members of the School Board,  

As a professional sustainable landscape designer, educator, author, advocate, and nature play space design specialist, who happens to live in the neighborhood, I have some serious concerns about some of the choices that were made in siting and designing the play space for the new Reed School.

 The community is thrilled with the thoughtful and creative design of the building, the compactness of the footprint, and the degree to which the architects and APS responded to citizen calls to preserve “green space”; however, it now appears that playing fields were given priority over the mature tree canopy.

 In the current design, a bucolic, deeply shaded, and highly prized portion of the site will be mostly eliminated for play equipment and paths.  The design proposes to remove a large number of mature trees, representing a significant amount of environmentally valuable biomass, and extensively grade the area while preserving vast amounts of flat, open playing field space that could easily have accommodated the play equipment and significantly reduced the land disturbance.  

As we read in horror about the Amazon rainforests burning it is incomprehensible that Arlington would choose to remove so many mature trees, and all the environmental services these trees provide.  They are being removed not to accommodate the building, but for play equipment and walkways. 

There are proposed parking lots around the site apparently paved with asphalt, where pervious pavers could perhaps be used. This would allow the parking areas to do double duty as stormwater infiltration areas, thus potentially reducing the number of bioretention cells needed for stormwater management and saving space that might be better used for play spaces, outdoor learning, or playing fields.  There may be short term cost issues that informed those decisions, but in light of the recent catastrophic flooding in our community, any opportunity to avoid impervious surface should in my opinion be carefully considered. 

In place of this uniquely lovely and impossible to replicate natural space the design proposes new plantings of young American elms, tulip poplars, and willow oaks—commendable choices that will shade children in the future when the trees are mature, but deprive generations of children of the shade of the trees that are being destroyed until perhaps the year 2070. 

This area is a natural buffer to the adjacent residences that if preserved could provide generations of Reed schoolchildren with shade, wildlife habitat, noise reduction, privacy, and as we know from basic biology, quite literally air to breathe.  

At the most recent presentation by the design team to the community we learned that the concept of universal access was a design goal on the site.  I commend the team for going beyond what is required by ADA, however compliance with universal design requires extensive grading and thus it seems that the benefits of universal design in this particular corner of the site have been prioritized over the benefits of children’s connection to nature.  There is an exploding body of research that tells us that children need access to nature on their schoolyards. 

An exciting series of recent studies demonstrates that schoolyards that have nature and specifically tree cover have a direct effect on student well-being, ability to focus and attend, ability to recover from stress, and even, surprisingly, test scores.[1][2][3] One study found that the proportion of tree cover, as distinct from other types of “green space” such as grass, is a significant positive predictor of student performance, accounting for 13% of the improvement seen in test scores. Having views of trees out the classroom window, trees in the neighborhood, and trees on the campus have all been shown in academic research studies to contribute to aspects of student academic performance. I urge you to pay attention to the science.

I wrote a book about creating outdoor spaces that connect children to the natural world.  Since my book came out in April of this year I have had the opportunity to speak on this topic with groups of educators, environmental educators, and designers around the country and to share details of studies that confirm what we know intuitively: time in nature reduces stress, anxiety and depression; improves ones’ ability to focus and attend especially for children diagnosed with ADHD; increases activity levels and motivation around physical activity and thus reduces childhood obesity; and in the latest research, helps to counter the rapidly increasing rate of childhood vision disturbances caused by screen time.  Nature can help address every one of these very real concerns. 

I am certain that it is possible to design a play space that preserves the tree canopy for current generations of Reed School children (while we wait for new plantings to reach maturity)  and that gives our children the access to nature that they need. 

I believe deeply that it is our responsibility to do so. 

[1] Sivarajah S, Smith SM, Thomas SC (2018) Tree cover and species composition effects on academic performance of primary school students. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0193254.




[3] “The Power of Trees ” By Tina Prow.  Reprinted from The Illinois Steward, with permission. 
Volume 7 Issue 4. Winter 1999.

Nancy Striniste, APLD, CBLP

Author: Nature Play at Home: Creating Outdoor Spaces that Connect Children to the Natural World 
Founder and Principal Designer: EarlySpace, LLC  earth-friendly child-friendly landscapes
Virginia Certified SWaM (Small, Woman, and Minority) owned Micro-Business
Adjunct Faculty, Nature-Based Early Childhood Education,  Antioch University New England
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