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Brent Elementary Schoolyard Greening: Phase 1

Landscape Performance Benefits


  • Decreases daytime summer surface temperatures by an average of 23°F and air temperature by 9°F by replacing 1,500 sf of asphalt play surface with a rain garden. 
  • Holds 720 gallons of stormwater (79% of the 1-year storm) in the rain garden. The ten trees in the rain garden are estimated to intercept an additional 1,600 gallons of stormwater annually.
  • Reduces annual hydrocarbon emissions by 1.83 lb and and carbon monoxide emissions by 69.2 lb, by replacing nearly 6,200 sf of lawn with an outdoor classroom that requires no mowing.


  • Introduced 1-2 hours per week of outdoor classroom experience for grades 1-5, and 4-5 hours per week for preschool and kindergarten. Sixteen classes use the “Nature Classroom” for subjects ranging from science to art, music, and English.
  • Helped increase the demand for enrollment by 191%. The improvements to the school grounds along with other changes in the school and surrounding community contributed to this marked increase.
  • Helped increase student attendance, reading test scores, parent engagement, and parent and staff satisfaction with the school. The improvements to the school grounds along with other changes in the school and surrounding community contributed to this increase.

At a Glance

  • Designer

    Sustainable Life Designs

  • Project Type


  • Former Land Use


  • Location

    301 North Carolina Avenue SE
    Washington, District of Columbia 20003
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  • Climate Zone

    Humid subtropical

  • Size

    18,000 sf

  • Budget


  • Completion Date


Located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of southeast Washington, D.C., the Brent Elementary School grounds underwent significant improvements between 2006 and 2010. During the design process, the school community was actively engaged in the campus redesign, with over 100 parents and teachers participating in 3 design charrettes over a two-year period to come up with a phased master plan. The first phase of was completed in 2010 and included the removal of impervious blacktop playground surface, lawn and traditional foundation plantings, replacing them with an outdoor classroom, butterfly garden, rain garden, and “Urban Canyon.” The first phase of the schoolyard greening has helped redefine the school’s identity and increase the demand for enrollment.


Brent Elementary School parents and teachers wanted to create a nature playground to engage students in serious environmental education, while fostering a school community dedicated to nurturing children in healthy outdoor spaces. Yet, due to budget constraints, DC Public School facility planning primarily focuses on maintaining building structures with little to no attention on schoolyards. When school officials and parents united together to brainstorm alternatives for their traditional public school campus, they were forced to look for funding from outside sources. Due to the volunteer nature of the project, the redesign had to be low-maintenance and cost-effective, and improvements to the campus had to be implemented in phases.


The designer worked with the DC Public School Office of Facilities Planning to address their concerns and come up with a low-maintenance and cost-effective campus redesign. In order to be able to finance the project in stages, the site improvements were divided into two phases. Active parents and the school community raised a total of $264,000 by holding fundraisers and reaching out to local and national organizations, including the District Department of the Environment, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Capitol Hill Green Schools Initiative. The United States Botanic Garden donated $25,000 in plants and materials to the project. Parents and faculty joined together to form a “Green Team” to take on the responsibilities of maintaining the grounds throughout the year.

  • Over 1,500 sf of asphalt surface was removed and replaced with a rain garden and planting beds.
  • The 1,438 sf linear rain garden runs along the west and south perimeter of the site and contains 10 native trees – 3 Serviceberry and 7 Common Hackberry.
  • The 7,000-sf outdoor “Nature Classroom” includes a crescent seating wall, detention pond, interactive musical instruments, and a vegetated living teepee. The classroom replaced nearly 6,200 sf of lawn.
  • The school’s narrow alley was greened to create an “Urban Canyon” that features native plantings along the perimeter, demonstration green roofs on two storage sheds, and 5 living walls constructed from recycled wooden pallets.
  • A butterfly garden lines the walkway at the school’s south entrance.
  • Signage throughout the campus helps to educate students and visitors on the sustainable features and their impacts on the local ecosystem.
  • Students, parents and faculty are actively engaged in maintaining the school landscape through two annual volunteer events that foster environmental stewardship and community spirit. During the summer, parent volunteers take turns watering and weeding.
  • Community volunteers save the school an estimated $18,000 in grounds maintenance costs each year compared to grounds that must be maintained entirely by paid staff.
  • The school was successful in building communities of students, staff and parents around the design of the landscape. Because the school community had a vested interest in the school grounds, it was easier to recruit volunteers to help with grounds maintenance.

Play equipment: Landscape Structures - Evos 
Smaller play equipment: Kompan

Project Team

Client: DC Public Schools, Brent Elementary Parents and Teachers Association (PTA)
Landscape Design Firm: Sustainable Life Designs
Landscape Design Consultant (Early Master Plan): Oehme van Sweden
Civil Engineer and Contractor: ARYA Civil, LLC
Urban Canyon Installation: DC Greenworks, ARYA Civil, LLC
Grant Writing: Brent PTA Green Team
Funding: District Department of the Environment, DC Public Schools, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Role of the Landscape Architect

The landscape design firm worked with the school community to develop a master plan, create construction drawings, provide construction administration, and assist with grant writing. The landscape architect’s role went beyond designer to community organizer and grant writer.


Stormwater management, Temperature & urban heat island, Carbon sequestration & avoidance, Educational value, Other social, Bioretention, Native plants, Green wall, Green roof, Educational signage, SITES®, Learning landscapes

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