Students sit at a picnic table overlooking the completed Crawford Elementary Learning Landscapes project.

Professor Lois Brink’s Learning Landscapes Promote the Health, Well-being, Sustainability, and Economic Value of Our Communities

May 1, 2024

Landscape Architecture Professor Lois Brink began her research and the implementation of Learning Landscapes in 1998 when she experienced first-hand the inadequacies of her child’s elementary schoolyard. Today, Learning Landscapes has become a $50 million design and construction initiative that has transformed all 96 Denver public elementary schools.

Founded on Brink’s landscape architecture knowledge, research, and business acumen and funded through Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants, Learning Landscapes not only creates better play spaces, but serves as a testament to the power of design in enhancing education, fostering community, and revitalizing urban environments.

McGlone Elementary learning landscape playground before and after. The after image features playground artwork, new activity equipment, shade, and less concrete surfaces.

McGlone Elementary Learning Landscape Before and After

Learning Landscapes and How They Work

Learning Landscapes are more than just playgrounds. They are more similar to campus designs, taking into consideration the usage of the space and the communities they serve.

“So there are gateways that welcome the community,” said Brink “a nice big entryway coming in that helps the kids know where not run. There are essential shade structures, outdoor classrooms, age appropriate play equipment, hard surface games, and painting games. There are art elements that are done by the children or by community artists. There are grass playing fields, habitat gardens, vegetable gardens, walking paths, fitness equipment, and other educational elements that are a little different at each school.”

When the initiative began, the goal was to benefit children’s health and well-being, but the impact has also shown that it can help with students’ test scores, attendance, and mobility.

Professor Lois Brink with students and New Orleans community members during the Immersive Landscape Architecture Studio in the fall 2023 semester.

Professor Lois Brink and students from the Immersive Studio and Adance Media and Technology course receive community feedback in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, LA

Learning Beyond the Classroom

Brink was the first, female full professor in the College of Architecture and Planning at CU Denver, and she has practiced landscape architecture for 45 years. In addition to her work as a professor and landscape architect with the Denver Public Schools, Brink has worked with the NIH, the Center for Disease Control, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a number of local and state foundations committed to interdisciplinary collaboration.

Brink is also a founding member of the International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA). The ISGA originally began as a group of like-minded people committed to improving schoolyards across the globe. As the group evolved, a new research cohort formed with Brink at the helm. Their work has collected metrics to understand the future of schoolyard greening.

Members of the ISGA conference stand under a tent in Belgium.

Katie Fillenwarth with members of the ISGA at their April 2024 conference in Belgium

Through ISGA, Brink was able to connect current Master of Landscape Architecture student Katie Fillenwarth with a role as the organization’s administrative intern, linking her with ISGA members from all over the world, and most recently, making it possible for her to travel to Belgium for the organization’s conference in Belgium.

“My internship with International School Grounds Alliance has added to my experience as a Landscape Architect Student by broadening my understanding of the practice both culturally and ideologically; as well as exposing me to some of the practical day-to-day operations of an organization,” said Fillenwarth. “My primary role at the conference and retreat was to take minutes for the organization’s records as well as to develop a deeper understanding of the organization so as to be able to enhance their website. The conference showed me exciting perspectives that were new to me in the field. It really helped me to understand the possibilities of what I can do with my education and the impact it can have.”

Firsthand, experiential opportunities like this are a hallmark of the Master of Landscape Architecture program at CU Denver. In addition to internships, students studying landscape architecture also participate in an immersive studio, which includes a travel component with community engagement opportunities.

Most recently, the Immersive Landscape Architecture Studio traveled to New Orleans to see community play spaces and better understand intergenerational spaces and their resiliency.

“So, students came up with designs that would allow for these outdoor learning landscapes to actually have off-the-grid systems,” said Brink. “They would have off-the-grid electricity so that during times of outages or storms, buildings are flooded and you can go and charge your phone. They would capture stormwater and have misters and outdoor fans to help mitigate the heat in the summer so that children and family members can spend more time outside.”

Side by side images of learning landscapes. The left image is of the Ellis Elementary schoolyard and the right image is of the Oakland Elementary schoolyard.

Left: Ellis Elementary School after conversion to a green schoolyard. Photo by Brenda Kessler. Right: Pollinator and native landscapes at Oakland Elementary in Denver, Colorado. Photos by Lois Brink

The Longitudinal Study of Schoolyard Learning Landscapes

In 2022, the Children & Nature Network approached Brink with funding to support a longitudinal regression model based on data Brink has collected since 2008.

“So, there’s always been a research piece [to Learning Landscapes]. So, for Children & Nature Network to give us the funding two years ago was to say, okay, because we had all that data I’ve been collecting since 2008, data I had before for the schoolyards were renovated including aerial images and CAD,” said Brink. “I had this treasure trove of data and had just been waiting for someone to give me the money to do a longitudinal study.”

The new economic study conducted by The Big SandBox and Autocase Economic Advisory with Brink as the chief strategist digs into 12 years of Learning Landscape data and the impact of converted schoolyards on their communities.  Once complete a summary report was written by Economics and Public Policy Consultant Rob Grunewald which primarily covers the Denver study but also includes other findings showing that green, converted (formerly paved) elementary schoolyards enhance the economic value of their communities by boosting learning, environmental sustainability, and physical and mental health.

Read the full report titled, How Green Schoolyards Create Economic Value.

Read the Denver Study, An Analysis of Learning Landscapes—Lessons Learned for a National Movement.