School biotopes: engagement that starts early

By David Maddox

Keitaro Ito, in his recent essay called "Growing Places" at The Nature of Cities, poses the following question: where will children learn about nature? This is especially relevant in highly urbanized (and often fast growing) cities that are rapidly losing their green spaces, or perhaps never had much nature to begin with. This is the case in much of Japan, where Ito lives and works. There has been so much construction that much of the green space in cities has been lost. In such places, where will children learn about nature? Where will they play together in living spaces? How will they grow up to appreciate the critical role nature has in resilient, sustainable and livable cities?

Ito's solution is direct, and looks to the future. He and his colleagues create patches of nature - biotopes - within school grounds, placed in areas that might otherwise have been wasted as non-educational, non-kid, and not-fun space - for example, a parking lot. A "biotope" is essentially synonymous with "habitat", but in this usage refers to a relatively small ecological installation of a limited number of vegetation or wetland types. Check out the photographs of a school biotope created in a barren parking lot between school buildings. This patch is a place children play together in green surroundings, learn about nature, and discover the world.

Better yet, Ito’s team doesn’t design and build these biotopes by themselves, hidden away from their actual clients, imposing the designs on the schools. In fact, this has been one reason why such nature-education-biotope projects have failed in Japan in the past, when designs have been created without local input. The kids and teachers have no connection to the final product, they feel "acted upon", and end up not using the biotope. They don't really like it that much. Ito's clients aren't the school administrators - the kids are the clients. Ito's team bursts the old model apart by working directly with the school children, teachers, and parents, in workshop settings - engaging them - to design their own spaces. Because they design it themselves they actually like it. They feel invested in it. And so they use it.

It is also hoped that such biotopes can be refugia for biodiversity too. It remains to be seen whether they are sufficiently large and ecologically sophisticated enough to support significant biodiversity, but to me this would be icing on the cake of their most important benefit: releasing and feeding the innate biophilia of children.

Can such a schoolyard biotope model be spread? Why not? There are schools in cities all over the world. Many of them exist in urban settings with relatively little green, maybe with just some concrete for open space. Even a small space in a schoolyard, converted into a rich ecological green space, could have magical benefits for a school community, and to the children there - particularly if, as in the Ito model, the children are actively engaged in the biotope's design and creation. If more such projects are implemented - why not all over the world? - maybe more children will grow up to be adults that see the value of green spaces in their own communities, and demand and create and participate in more ecologically rich and livable cities.

Photo 1: Changes of the schoolyard over 10 years, from 2003-2010, in Japan. Photo: K. Ito

Photo 2: Children’s activity in the school biotope: finding small insects and herbs, 2005. Photo: K. Hidaka

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