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Priorities for school landscape design

Meg Collin, Field Officer

Every school, no matter where in the world, consists of an arrangement of indoor and outdoor spaces. Typically, most of the design energy and construction money is spent on the interior spaces and their building shells, while the external ones – also referred to as the landscape, lie neglected. This is true for schools in East Africa as elsewhere, and as part of our research into school design in Uganda and Rwanda, we have developed guidance on how to develop a flourishing school landscape.

The school landscape is important for several reasons: it helps tie together the buildings - creating a sense of place; it can improve biodiversity – helping wildlife to flourish; it can mitigate the effects of extreme weather - such as heavy rain or hot sun; and it can enhance the learning experience of the students at a lower cost per square meter than a building.

Trees provide shade to outdoor learning spaces © Nobert Ahumuza

However, the landscape budget for a school is often tight, meaning that the design must prioritise what is most important and the most cost-effective interventions. Each site will have different challenges and opportunities with regards to the external environment, but the following pointers can be used as a checklist.


Retain existing trees and biodiversity as far as possible. Simple seating can be arranged around trees to form a low-cost gathering space and the tree roots help to stabilise the soil, reducing soil erosion and improving water attenuation. Other shrubs should be retained for the wealth of wildlife that they contain to reduce biodiversity loss and teach children about the natural world. This must go hand-in-hand with educating the wider community about the benefits of mature indigenous plants for farming, local ecology and soil stability.

Large retained trees improve biodiversity and shade 2. PREVENT

Reduce the risk of problems occurring by ensuring that the ground is stabilised (both during and after construction). Steeper slopes need to be addressed with retaining walls or bio-engineering strategies, but shallower ones (with a maximum 1:2 height gain) can be stabilised with planting or terraces. Water runoff must also be properly managed with sustainable drainage strategies (SUDS) such as bioswales, French drains or soak away channels. Plants such as Vetiver grass can be a low-cost means of stabilising dug-out gullies and slopes.

A combination of retaining walls and planted slopes may be required on steep sites


It should be possible for all children, including those with mobility impairments, to move around the school unaided. This may be more challenging on a steeply sloping site, but where possible, smooth and step-free paths should be provided between all buildings. Compacted earth may be the lowest-cost option but is also the least durable so may need replacing more frequently.

Steps and slopes made from durable pavers create spaces for gathering as well as moving © Iwan Baan


It is extremely important that the external environment provides opportunities for children to play. These can be very low cost, using natural features such as large rocks or branches, timber posts in the ground or giving children a safe area to play in the sand. More formal play areas offer different benefits but may be more expensive. See the Feilden Foundation’s Outdoor Learning Toolkit for affordable, creative ideas.

Natural features can make versatile play spaces 5. PRODUCE

Look at what opportunities for productive planting there are. This could include planting indigenous fast-growing trees, which can be coppiced or pollarded for charcoal to supply the school kitchen, planting fruit trees for children to eat from or planting crops for school lunches. At certain times of the year it may be possible to sell crops to increase revenue for the school.

Growing greens can improve student nutrition

For each intervention, it should be ensured that the landscape can be maintained so that it remains safe and as intended. Community education and engagement should also be included, to improve the longevity of the scheme and to encourage more sustainable practices outside the school gates.

The beauty of landscape design is that it can be built up over time. It is something that children can contribute to while it forms part of their learning and can be done to suit any budget. These five steps can form a basis for a comprehensive and creative scheme which both students and staff can take ownership of as it builds the school identity.


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