Photo Credits: The Outdoor PLAYbook
Initial Research by: Kathryn McCudden
Edited by: Samantha Miller & Nicole Brekelmans
Case study compiled in 2019
Project: Folly Forest: A dance floor for 100 trees
Type of Urban Strategy: Green Cities
Type of Project: Schoolyard - Playscape
Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba
Date Designed/Planned: N/A
Construction Completed: 2012
Designer: Dietmar Straub & Anna Thurmayr of Straub Thurmayr CSLA Landschaftsarchitekten
Folly Forest is a playground intervention for the 21st century. From a handful of constraints which included stormwater management issues, large swaths of asphalt and a reasonably rigid expectation that it was unavoidable in the schoolyard, design guidelines that made it hard to change, and budgetary restrictions, emerged a wonderfully playful, imaginative, and yet simple design, which utilized recycled and repurposed materials wherever possible. To quote the designers: “Rust. Cracks. Leftovers. These are the building blocks of the Folly Forest”
(Straub and Thurmayr, n.d.).
Dietmar Straub and Anna Thurmayr didn’t approach this redesign by thinking about ways to replace the asphalt play surface, but rather how to repurpose it. They punched holes in the pavement to improve surface drainage and used these roughly star-shaped perforations to plant a forest of 100 trees, turning the old asphalt into a dance floor where the human, plant, and insect life can engage with each other, get fresh air, and grow. Lisa Landrum writes that “This primary design-move subdued the asphalt while reinterpreting its chaotic geometry of grass-filled cracks as cues to renewal. Surface failures were seen as enabling a resilient return of natural growth.”
In addition to the newly planted trees and perforated pavement, a bricolage of recycled paving fills in the gaps while maintaining permeability and gives the space character and texture. Timbers from an old stadium have been transformed to climbable benches throughout the site. Large hulking iron mounds, rusted with time and exposure to the air and the small hands that leave little fingerprints on their sides, also punctuate the space. The upturned industrial vats are a sculptural addition, intended to spark the imagination. The designers suggest they are look-out towers for earthworms, or perhaps nests for dinosaur eggs. (Landrum, n.d.)
The project is a breath of fresh air in schoolyard design. Most schoolyards must comply with rigid design guidelines which dictate the amount of paved surface per child, how distant trees must be from buildings, and what kind of play equipment is deemed safe. There is a veritable typology of playground design across Western Canada, and it leaves so many playgrounds looking a bit the same. They may be in different neighbourhoods, different cities, with different kids, but one can recognize the before pictures of the site without ever having been there: we have all walked through it enough times. Folly Forest challenges the type of playgrounds we have come to expect.
At the same time, it rethinks the budgets we expect from redesigned playgrounds. Spending only about $20 per meter squared, this project truly demonstrates that great playscapes don’t need equally grand budgets. Using recycled and found materials are not only an environmentally friendly approach but budget-friendly as well.
Bringing a project like this for a school in an underprivileged area of Winnipeg has an impact on the students, earthworms, plant life, and on the community as well. As the air changes the surface on the slowly rusting earthworm fortresses, the playground could have a slow effect on the lives of the children who play there, perhaps the neighbourhood itself: a chemical reaction from exposure to fresh air.
Strathcona School is a public elementary school located in a lower-income area in the North End of Winnipeg and is attended by just under 300 children from Kindergarten to Grade 6. (Strathcona School, n.d.)
By 2011, the asphalt surfaced playground was 50 years old and cracking, making it difficult to run on and to serve its purpose as a play surface. The community came together to raise funds to redevelop the schoolyard, and Straub and Thurmayr Landschaftsarchitekten were able to complete the design pro-bono.
“The whole project cost $80,000, funded entirely through fundraising, repurposing materials, and volunteer work. Folly Forest is a prime example that you don’t need a million-dollar budget for a great schoolyard environment.”
(Outdoor Playbook, n.d.)
As for the design fee – it was waived. The project was pro-bono for Straub Thurmayr Landschaftsarchitekten.
(Straub and Thurmayr, 2015)
Located in the North End of Winnipeg and taking up a full city block, the condition of the Strathcona schoolyard was quite typical, it was slightly worn down over time and with use. Large, rectangular areas of paving were placed close to the building (including filling the courtyard formed by the school building’s “C” shape from wall to wall). A grassy playing field filled the far end of the schoolyard (and still does).
The previously impermeable and wall-to-wall asphalt within the courtyard is now broken up by perforations; the visual field is populated with the vertical forms of trees, springing from the irregular star shapes in the paving. Children can move from the emerging forest of the courtyard to the more extensive playground just beyond, where the perforated asphalt continues, with introductions of gentle landforms for climbing or sitting. These rocky outcrops are permeable and host small communities of plant and insect life.
Benches and the overturned tanks (earthworm lookouts, dinosaur egg nests, petrified beehives, little houses for genius loci (Landrum, n.d.) create tangible objects that can be incorporated into the play and inspire the imagination. The benches can be climbed, and everything invites engagement of the mind, the senses, the body.
The challenge was to build something that would solve issues with stormwater drainage on the playground while maintaining three-square-meters per student of hard surfaced exterior play areas that is required by the Winnipeg School Board, and existing guidelines on how far trees must be planted from the building.
Additionally, the design had to create something that the children and community could accept and enjoy, so engagement in the design process with the students, teachers, and the school board was involved (Landscapes/Paysages, 2013).
This was a project to revitalize a schoolyard in a low-income area of Winnipeg and needed to consider a restrictive budget. (Azure, n.d.) Funding for the project was found entirely through donations, and the design was completed pro-bono by the firm. (Straub and Thurmayr, 2015) The funding constraints allowed the designers to get creative with the reuse of materials and found objects.
GOAL OF THE PROJECT
The goal of the project was to give the schoolyard a much-needed revamp, and in doing so, improve the functions of the site, from the ecological to the social.
“By perforating the field of asphalt to plant a forest, their design solved localized stormwater issues, transforming large paved areas into a more functional ecosystem.” (Long, n.d.)
The design also aimed to prove “that projects do not need million-dollar budgets to bring people together. The “folly” in a schoolyard, located in an underprivileged district, demonstrates the immense potential of landscape architecture as a spatial and social transformer.” (Landscapes/Paysages, 2013)
GENESIS OF PROJECT
The asphalt of the Strathcona Schoolyard was 50 years old, cracking and crumbling in places, with grass starting to poke through. It needed replacement, and this need presented an opportunity.
The designers suggested not pulling up and replacing the entire slab, but breaking it strategically, working with the cracking of the surface rather than against it:
“Straub and Thurmayr pitched their strategy as a quintet of interventions: breaking open the asphalt; planting trees in newly exposed earth; filling gaps with soil and a permeable bricolage of salvaged bricks, cobblestones, logs, and asphalt chunks; sowing prairie grasses; then finally, welcoming urban wildlife. This wildlife includes not just pretty birds and butterflies, but also bugs and earthworms.”
DESIGN, DEVELOPMENT, AND DECISION MAKING PROCESS
“The concept of perforating the existing asphalt, a simple ecological measure, became a formative design element. The “star-shaped fugues” and existing grassy cracks create free spaces for trees, water infiltration, soil organisms, plant communities, insect habitats: composed pieces of everyday ecology and biodiversity. Bricks, logs and stone, silvery wooden beams and rusty cauldrons – all became objects trouvé.”
ROLE OF DESIGNERS
The unique position of the designers as educators at the University of Manitoba and practitioners in Winnipeg, allows them to experiment with bringing theory from their classrooms into their designs. Part of their role in this project was to challenge the requirements laid out in the Winnipeg School Division’s guidelines for school developments, specifically about where trees must be planted in relation to the building, and the requirement for 3-square-feet of hard play surfaces per student. For example, Straub and Thurmayr were able to challenge the latter by using permeable surfaces (mostly of found or recycled materials like stones, reused bricks, and cut ends of wood), that could still meet the requirement. Challenging and pushing the guidelines was done with the goal of a more ecologically functional schoolyard, but their role wasn’t just to improve ecological function on the site, “their role was also to educate the client, the public, and even contractors about the intrinsic value of trees and maintenance required for them” (Long, n.d.).
The success of the project and the “[School Board’s] approval of this design approach has led to the possibility for local practitioners to assist in upgrading the school board’s other 76 schools.” (Long, n.d.)
The design for the schoolyard includes unique but simple elements that have a significant impact.
-Irregular, star-shaped holes were cut in the asphalt and removed, creating a “perforated dance floor for students, trees, and worms” (Landrum, n.d.)
-Bright yellow and red paint add colour and emphasizes the irregularity and beauty of the cuts in the asphalt.
-100 trees were planted, many within the space created by the asphalt perforations
-Recycled and found materials were used to create permeable paving around the base of the trees, to fill up the perforations to both meet and challenge a school board requirement for three-square-feet of hard-paved outdoor surfaces per student. (Long, n.d.) This new paving of recycled bricks, stones, and wood offcuts also “add[s] rich texture and provide[s] ground cover for the new plantings.” (Azure, n.d.)
-Benches built from recycled timber repurposed from the old Winnipeg Arena (CBC [video]).
-New landforms which provide hills to run up and down, created with fill from the rubble of the removed asphalt. (Landrum, n.d.)
-“Rocky Island”- an outcrop of rocks to climb. (Landrum, n.d.)
-Three industrial tanks found at Winnipeg’s Salvage Supermarket and repurposed as strange, sculptural instruments of play and imagination, inviting speculation and storytelling amongst the students. A favorite imagined use: observation towers for earthworms. (Landrum, n.d.)
Folly Forest has received many awards since its completion in 2012, including:
-The Manitoba Excellence in Sustainability Award (2013, category Sustainable Community)
-The Deutscher Landschaftsarchitektur Preis (2013, Commendation),
-A National Citation from the CSLA (2013)
-The AZ Award for Design Excellence (2014), People’s Choice Award
-Award of Merit in the Landscape category (2014)
-A Prairie Design Award (2014 Award of Merit in Landscape)
-As well as being a finalist for the highly prestigious Rosa Barba International Landscape Prize (2014).
-Perhaps worth more than any prizes, the project is a success because it serves its community and brings joy to its users (CBC [video], n.d.).
Not only this, but it has proved that creative, fun, and beautiful playgrounds can work within limited budgets, within seemingly limiting developmental guidelines: “With modest resources ($20 per square meter), but great resourcefulness, the team transformed a playground of hard tar into a terrain of soft spots for serious play. This schoolyard is no longer a paved lot to park children during recess. It has become an enchanting outdoor classroom and community park.” (Landrum, n.d.)
MAINTENANCE AND MANAGEMENT
PROJECT BACKGROUND + HISTORY
Strathcona School first opened in 1905 and has always served a diverse community: in 1908 approximately 90% of its students were non-English speaking.
At some point in the sixties, a large part of the schoolyard was paved in asphalt to provide a hard surface on which the students could play, and this surface appears to have been mostly unchanged for approximately 50 years. “Before” images of Folly Forest show grass and plants growing through cracks in the pavement (Landscapes/Paysages, 2013).
Located in a low-income neighbourhood of Winnipeg, funds weren’t readily available for a playground renewal project. The community was able to come together and gather donations to the sum of $80,000 to revamp the site.