There was a song written in the 1970s that talks about paving paradise to put up a parking lot. Students at Unity Christian High School (UCHS) in Barrie spent this past Earth Day doing exactly the opposite. Parents, students, and community members gathered together in the high school parking lot to break ground—literally—making room for the installation of a student-designed rain garden.
Unity Christian High School is located in a former public school building that was built in 1906. It is situated near Kempenfelt Bay (Lake Simcoe), and is a significant building for the Allandale neighbourhood of Barrie. The building is surrounded by parking lots that have deteriorated over the years. It has been the desire of the UCHS community to create a more environmentally friendly area around the school—a grassy park area for students to play sports, and a place where members of the surrounding community can sit on park benches and enjoy the space as well.
[caption id=”attachment_13099” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] Parking lot behind Unity Christian School, ready to be de-paved.[/caption]
“About a year ago, we started thinking about creating Green Space on our school property,” shared UCHS principal Aaron Harnden. “We have a lot of pavement here, and we started thinking about what we could do.”
At about the same time, Mr. Harnden attended a presentation by Andee Pelan, the watershed coordinator for the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, during which she led a discussion on the benefits of cleaning up the water in our neighbourhoods to provide healthy run-off water to Lake Simcoe. Together, Ms. Pelan and Mr. Harnden began to dream about possibilities for property improvement and ‘making things greener’ at UCHS.
The board and membership were immediately supportive of the idea of cleaning up the parking lot, making the school property more attractive and user-friendly. They were equally enthusiastic about the concept of creating a rain garden with Garden Paving intsalled by a professional company which ran alongside it on the property to limit water run-off, making the lake healthier.
Mr. Harnden was passionate about engaging students in this project. In fact, working alongside the community is not a new concept for Mr. Harnden or for his students. A few years ago, several classes worked together to create a community garden, which is currently being used by and provides food for many Barrie community members.
Students willingly dove into the project. “Planning and working on the rain garden project is a lot of fun,” shared grade 11 student Nick Selkirk. “Just like when we created plans for and then built the community garden, we had to start with an idea and then continue to build on it as we learned more about it.”
The grade 12 Resource Management Geography class and two senior Biology classes have been working together on the project since January, creating plans and designs for the new rain garden that they plan to build behind the school.
[caption id=”attachment_13102” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] Grade 12 Resource Management Geography students make plans for rain garden.[/caption]
“Making the garden is a lot more work than I first anticipated,” admitted Nick. “We thought it was going to be fairly simple to put together a garden, but we’ve since realized that we have to think about soil composition, how much sand and gravel we need to filter the water properly, what kind of plants grow best around here—there’s a lot to think about!”
Rain gardens are shallow, sunken gardens designed to collect rain water that runs off your roof, driveway, or patio. They can be planted with any combination of shrubs, grasses, and flowers, and look just like a regular garden. The most important part of the rain garden is what you can’t see—the loose, deep soil underneath that absorbs and filters rain water.
“When you have a large surface area, such as the paved parking lots at UCHS, the water has to funnel across it into a catch basin or storm drain,” described Conservation Authority Andee Pelan. “As it goes in there, it takes along all the sand, salt, grit, and pollution that it has captured along the way, and all those things go directly into our lake.” The creation of a rain garden helps to slow the water down and filter it through soil and other mediums to clean it before it goes into the lake water.
“The plants themselves actually clean the water and funnel it down into the ground,” added Ms. Pelan.
[caption id=”attachment_13103” align=”alignleft” width=”300”] Materials gathered and ready for the evening de-paving event.[/caption]
[caption id=”attachment_13101” align=”alignleft” width=”300”] Steel-toed footwear and gloves for the de-paving event.[/caption]
To help with the planning of their rain garden, UCHS students visited the Kortright Centre for Conservation, an environmental and renewable energy education and demonstration center in nearby Vaughn, to see the rain gardens that have been built there.
“It was really helpful to get an idea of the different plants and materials that we can use when designing and creating the green spaces at our school,” shared Nick. “They test all kinds of different things there, like how much time it takes for different sand and clay mixtures to drain water, as well as how they handle different types of runoff.”
Students have also created plant profiles, researching what sorts of plants are native to the area, their root structures, how much light they need to grow best, and other factors to determine which ones would be best suited for their rain garden. Once they have created their first draft of ideas for the garden design, they will be meeting with local experts for guidance and feedback.
[caption id=”attachment_13114” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] Paved area marked out for student-designed rain garden.[/caption]
Grade 12 Biology teacher Amy Petrin is thankful that her students were chosen to participate in this pioneer project along with the local conservation authority. “It’s just so easy to get our students to read textbooks and learn definitions, especially in Biology, and have no contextualization of how these things apply in a real world setting,” she shared. “This project provides for such an enriching learning experience that goes beyond just the textbook details.”
Ms. Petrin admits that involving students in larger, hands-on community projects can take up a bit more time in a semester, but she believes that teachers need to be flexible when it comes to opportunities such as this one. “My students are doing research, creating designs, and being a part of a process that other schools will be looking at as an example for others in the future.”
[caption id=”attachment_13112” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] Warming up the muscles before starting to dig up the pavement.[/caption]
Friday’s community de-paving event was a kickoff to get the community excited about and involved in the project. Parents, teachers, students, board members, and community members gathered together on the chilly evening to begin tearing out some of the existing pavement, replacing it with fresh topsoil and grass seed.
Aurora mayor Geoffrey Dawe, who also serves as the chairman of the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, was thrilled to be a part of the event. “We have worked very hard over the last number of years to promote the ‘greening’ of our environment,” he shared with the group of volunteers that had assembled to help. “Certainly what you are doing here today is a huge step forward to helping us achieve that goal, and we are extremely grateful that Unity Christian High School has volunteered to be a part of this undertaking.”
“There are a number of reasons for our enthusiasm about this,” echoed Mr. Harnden. “One of them is having the opportunity for our students to be working with a number of organizations and to be involved in the community. But it is also an opportunity where we can help our lake, so that others will start thinking about what effect we can have on our environment in big and small ways.”
“Of course,” he added, “We’re also passionate about the idea of creating a nicer environment for our students—to sit at picnic tables on the grass to have their lunch, and to interact with community members as they walk by.”
UCHS student Laura Mulder agreed. “When the pavement is ripped out and we have the rain garden finished, we can just hang out on the grass to study or enjoy the outdoors more,” she shared. “We won’t have to walk all the way to the park just to enjoy grass.”
[caption id=”attachment_13105” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] The de-paving begins![/caption]
According to Mr. Harnden, the de-paving of the parking lot and building the rain garden are just the first phase of the work to be done at Unity Christian High School. “It will be an ongoing project,” he shared. “We are starting with the de-paving and the rain garden, but we hope to keep going and plant more grass, install a green roof, add in a basketball court using permeable pavement, and create more green spaces around the property for students and community members to enjoy.”
[caption id=”attachment_13117” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] Working as a team to de-pave the parking lot.[/caption]
“It’s great to be a part of a project when you know that the upcoming grades will continue to build on it and make more new plans,” Nick concluded. “It’ll be fun to come back and tell people, ‘Hey, I picked out that plant for that garden’, and then share with them how it all started.”
The grade 11 and 12 students plan to have the installation of their rain garden completed before the end of this school year in June, and they are looking forward to seeing the various other phases of the project take shape over the next few years.