M’lis Bartlett knew that if she wanted to create an outdoor learning space that students would actually use, she should just ask them what they would want to see.
So she began working with a ninth grade science class in February 2013 discussing environmental justice issues and ways to address them. Through a process of participatory design, they chose and began re-designing an under-utilized concrete space at the Beecher School District’s Ninth Grade Academy.
She spent ten weeks in the summer constructing an outdoor classroom space next to the school’s Moses Lacy Field House.
Bartlett asked the students to make models of the existing site and what their dream space would look like. Teachers also provided feedback. Students wanted the outdoor learning space to be used for eating lunch or hanging out before sport events. The class voted on each other’s ideas and then volunteers from University of Michigan’s Landscape Architecture program compiled those ideas into a final design.
The concrete was torn up in June and volunteers began recycling chunks of it for paver stones and inside s-shaped benches made from recycled urban Ash trees that were cut down because of Emerald Ash Borer infection. Permeable red gravel, colorful flowers, a water catchment barrel and an ADA accessible ramp were added to the site. There will be a free- standing arbor installed for shade by October. Four trees will also be planted on the space and Bartlett said an intern will work with teachers to effectively use the outdoor space and to design and plant a vegetable garden. The project was funded by the Ruth Mott Foundation and a University of Michigan Arts of Citizenship grant.
A lot of teenage space is criminalized in places like Flint or Beecher, Bartlett said. She said that Beecher students discussed how there were not many safe spaces in their community to hang out and so this was an opportunity to create one right on their school campus.