Burke Park Outdoor Classroom: Community Design Build
Instructors: Brian Cook and David Kahn
Location: Admiral Arleigh A. Burke Park and the Horizons K-8 School Grounds, Boulder, CO.
Construction Budget: $30,000
Project Summary: The Burke Park Outdoor Classroom is a collaborative design/build project uniting six community groups around the common purpose of constructing educational landscape spaces. Driven by the concept of strands emanating from a central heart, the project gives form to the shared community value of connection—with nature, and each other. A central gathering deck anchors the design, while implied paths formed by a tree collection, grassy play mounds, and "pocket" biomes extend a welcome to the surrounding neighborhood.
Project Purpose: Public parks face issues of economic and social sustainability. To address this the City of Boulder Parks and Recreation Department reaches out to community stakeholders to provide stewardship.
At Burke Park, the City asked the Horizons K-8 Charter School, the Frasier Meadows Retirement Community, the Mountain View United Methodist Church, neighboring residents, and the CU Boulder Program in Environmental Design to work together to design and construct an outdoor classroom. The City provided a budget of $30,000, and a short time frame to design and execute of the project within three and a half months.
Burke Park sits in the heart of a diverse, multigenerational community. During public brainstorming workshops members of the community expressed one desire above all—the chance to connect and interact. The design team invited the community to view the project through the lens of universal space - the idea of an inclusionary landscape that is accessible and usable to every group or individual. To understand the potentials of the site, hay bales were procured so community members could compose, stack, and arrange them to create spaces and temporary places.
The design process allowed the project's intent to shift from solely creating a classroom space to a commitment to nurturing the community's ideals. The community's enthusiasm to use and learn from the park in many ways led to the concept of the whole park as an outdoor classroom. The result is a multi-faceted landscape project with an emphasis on place-making, rooted in the fundamental qualities of the site.
Role of Landscape Architect: In this project, the landscape architects acted as leaders in social engagement and community building. They facilitated a collaborative design process, and produced all design models, drawings, prototypes, and construction documents within two months. They obtained building permits, managed the budget, oversaw the volunteer construction of the entire project, and created an interpretive guide in an additional month and a half. During this process, the team maintained a blog to communicate the design and construction process with community members.
Special Factors: An intensive community design process led the projects' program to transform from a singular structure to a constellation of interactive, educational landscape features. These include:
- A central folded gathering deck punctuates the design. It can hold a class of students, so that they may study near the adjacent Thunderbird Lake, while also creating a fun and multivalent structure for people to occupy. The form and folds provide multiple ways of inhabitation, by groups or individuals. It is used for outdoor teaching, as well as reading, relaxing, picnics, get-togethers, concerts, weddings, and other community events. One fold faces Bear Peak, while the other orients toward the nearby wetland on the lake edge.
- An arboretum collection composed of existing and newly planted trees represents ideal species for the Front Range environment. It is the focus of educational opportunities for Horizons K-8, and provides practical horticultural information for surrounding neighborhood gardeners and naturalists.
- A series of three pocket biomes or "mini ecosystems" represent montane, foothills, and grassland/wetland ecologies. These environments use native boulders and trees indigenous to each biome, and become inhabitable learning opportunities for students at Horizons K-8.
- Five landform mounds shaped and planted with native grasses add an element of nature play, especially for toddlers and young children. They also provide seating for soccer matches in the adjacent playing field. One of the mounds is retained by a concrete seat-wall which provides additional seating near the deck for larger classes or gatherings.
- The 10 Walks of Burke Park, an interpretive guide assembled by the design team makes visible the layers of the park. It includes sections on bird watching, a guide to the arboretum, geological and ecological histories, and oral histories from community members who have seen the park transform over time. The document is available on the City of Boulder Parks and Recreation website, where students, teachers, and neighbors can download it as a personal guide and teaching tool for the park. The oral histories about the park are archived at the Boulder History Museum, and available online.
This work was accomplished under-budget with volunteer labor. The fact that it occurred during the months of January through the historic snowstorms of April, 2013 made things interesting.
Significance: This project left a tremendous impression on the surrounding neighborhood. The design was informed to a great extent by community participation. Particularly significant was the opportunity for young students to get involved, and see their input realized.
Beyond any physical accomplishments, this project was successful because it helped to establish a sense of agency and ownership in members of the next generation. Since they were invited to participate repeatedly in the design development process, neighbors and school children came to realize the power they can have to change their community via the landscape.
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