Words by Lauren Mitchell
Last September several local organizations came together, alongside community volunteers to design and install “Stormwater‐Tree Squares,” a significant playground improvement project at Vernon Elementary School, a Portland Public School.
The Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership managed the project, initiating the effort by formalizing the school’s vision and providing the project’s parameters through a Request for Pro Bono Design‐Build Services. The school invited Open Architecture Collaborative’s Portland Chapter (OACPDX) to provide design services. The collaborative developed three concepts, and presented them to student representatives and the school’s Parents Association, who chose the final concept to be implemented.
The roughly 1000 square foot improvement project was made possible through a grant provided by Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services Community Watershed Stewardship Program and the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership. The project budget for materials was approximately $4,500. Portland City Bureau of Environmental services provided additional funding for the trees and soil.
The design-build initiative consisted of removing pavement for stormwater management, planting trees and adding benches to the school’s playground. Nearly 75 volunteers united to realize the seemingly simple, yet complex design. OACPDX, Vernon Elementary School and DePave were vital in organizing communications campaigns to mobilize and coordinate volunteers to get the job done in just two build days. The volunteers consisted largely of parents of Vernon School students, De-Pave, who took up the pavement, additional OACPDX members, and a number of interested individuals from Ankrom Moisan Architects. Support from Turner Construction was instrumental in the bench construction, transportation and installation following the OACPDX specifications.
The collective environmental effort remarkably transformed the playground into a play space that now responsibly manages stormwater and offers space for the newly planted trees to thrive. While the new tree canopy provides shade the juniper benches protect the trees and offer spaces for everyone to sit while surrounded in play space. The new trees and breaks in the concrete also reduce the volume of water flowing through gutters and along roads after a storm resulting in less runoff, as well as cleaner water entering local rivers and lakes.
The benches of the six Tree Squares double as geometry teaching aids, offering teachers an opportunity to take their class outside for lessons. The modular benches fit together to create shapes that progress in the number of sides. The first tree square seating element forms a triangle, made up of three benches. Adding one segment transforms the triangle into a square, and again into a pentagon. All the shapes fit within the same sized square for a clear understanding of area. Each bench has hidden ‘Vernon’ owls laser etched on the benches for the students to find. The number of owls present within one Tree Square represents the type of polygon.
A final thank you to team leaders and lead recruiters Caroline Hather and Whitney Chase for inspiring so many volunteers from Ankrom Moisan Architects and to Ed Boyle for lasering the owl engravings!