Making clean air a matter of child’s play

Janet Loebach and Sarah McCans hope clean air around one schoolyard will be child’s play.

As PhD students working out of the Human Environments Analysis Lab (Geography) at Western, Loebach and McCans are adding a community ‘greening’ project for a London elementary school to their already busy academic schedules. And through a recent $25,000 grant from the London Community Foundation, the duo have a great head start in making one schoolyard a healthier place to play.

“We want to find a way the students can reclaim this area and start using it again,” Loebach says. “We want to try and create a natural play space.”

Located in a high-traffic area on busy Oxford Street, one of the school’s play areas is considered ‘out-of-bounds’ for the children over safety concerns. Testing the area has also shown high levels of pollutants from idling vehicles as well as the exhaust of nearby vehicles.

“Greening or ‘naturalizing’ school grounds, for example adding trees, shrubs, sand and mulch, can help reduce exposure to airborne pollutants in several ways,” McCans says. “Removing asphalt and planting shade trees help to reduce the amount of heat given off by impermeable surfaces which contributes to smog formation as well as severe heat exposure for students and staff. As vegetation captures airborne contaminants, increasing the amount of trees and other plants on school grounds can also reduce site levels of air pollution.”

With Loebach’s environmental design background and McCans’ landscape design talents, it could be a project the two could handle alone. However, they are planning to involve the most important clients in the project – the school children.

“We believe children have a lot a capacity to help change the communities they are part of,” Loebach says. “Children should be involved and have the ability to be involved in the designs that are made. Plus, they have a lot of great design ideas.”

Over the winter, Loebach and McCans will hold a series of workshops at the school to receive input from students, teachers and parents. The process positions citizens as co-researchers and decision-makers, instilling a sense of pride and ownership, McCans says.

“As adults we tend to think we know what kids want,” she adds. “They know their own environment and are able to point out issues we may overlook.”

Along with improving air quality, the pair hope to generate evidence of the impact of school grounds greening, raise community awareness about air-quality issues and build capacity among the children and stakeholders in their school.

All of which will possibly lead to additional greening projects.

In working with the principal and teachers, McCans hopes the process will be embedded into the curriculum and used as a way introduce students to air-quality issues and principles of environmental planning through fun, hands-on activities.

“Naturalized school grounds also provide inspiring places to teach in, about and for the environment,” McCans says.

For Loebach, it’s a very empowering process to participate in a project that “creates change in the community.”

“The process is as important as the product,” she says. “Since kids, in general, don’t often get much say with such things, when they can have some ownership in something like this it becomes a space of pride for all. It also gives us the chance to re-enforce some of the ideas about how important nature and habitats are.”

Air quality measurements and heat imaging tests – along with student and teacher surveys – will be administered after the project to test the impact of greening on air quality on the children’s activities taking place on the school grounds.

While it may be a year until the project is actually complete and kids are once again playing in front of the school, McCans loves the opportunity to be involved in such a project.

“We know we’ll be getting to that point of completion eventually, but it’s the journey along the way as well,” she says. “We get so much in working with the kids; that’s where you get your energy from to make it such a rewarding experience.”