by Cathy DeFrances-Vittorio, CPSM, Associate | Business Line Manager
and Dean Audet, PE, Senior Vice President | Business Line Leader
“Wow – look at that beautiful stormwater management system!” are words you don’t often hear. But you have probably said “I love this part of the park – it’s so peaceful” or “let’s walk on the shadier side of the street” – without realizing that you’re actually appreciating natural resource designs that improve water quality by reducing the runoff of rainwater or melted snow into streets, lawns, and playgrounds.
The term “stormwater management” likely conjures up images of sewer grates, large concrete flood barriers, or giant pipes directing rushing waters. But stormwater management can actually be beautiful while being practical.
We’ve written about the differences between gray and green infrastructure for managing stormwater before (“Using Natural Systems to Reduce Flooding Risk”), but now we’re seeing the next iteration in merging practicality and aesthetics: outdoor classrooms. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic increased the desire for outdoor educational space, educators understood the benefits of immersive and hands-on learning, which develops creativity, confidence, and motor skills. Additionally, being outside can support better physical and mental health. And when the outdoor learning center is, itself, a learning opportunity, the benefits are multiplied.
Through our on-call stormwater contract with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, we helped RIDOT to support the development of an “Outdoor Learning Zone” for the Melville Elementary School in Portsmouth, RI. Thrive Outside led the design of the Outdoor Learning Zone, while Fuss & O’Neill developed the calculations to support the RIDOT credit program and monitored construction of the treatment elements. This outdoor classroom was designed to provide an outdoor learning space for elementary school students while connecting them with natural features that were incorporated into the classroom. This project incorporated green stormwater infrastructure as a learning feature and provided impervious cover disconnection credits for RIDPT’s stormwater program.
In addition to creating an aesthetically-pleasing academic space, this classroom addresses current stormwater concerns, provides additional treatment capacity, and prevents runoff from entering Melville Pond. The design included re-grading the entire area to direct stormwater into two grass swales along the perimeter of the space and creating a vegetated swale that runs through the Outdoor Learning Zone. The swales direct any overflow into a rain garden. Each of these best management practices will slow the water, remove pollutants, and provide an opportunity for infiltration before the water flows further downhill into Melville Pond. And these natural treatments create educational opportunities to learn about soils, plants, weather, pollution, animals, and much, much more.
It’s hard to imagine a project that can be better described as “win-win”. This project treats stormwater and educates at the same time. If you want to incorporate an outdoor educational center at your school, daycare, or university, our stormwater engineers, civil engineers, and landscape architects are here to create charming and functional sites to improve conditions and to sculpt impressionable minds.
About the Authors:
Cathy Defrances-Vittorio, CPSM is an Associate who routinely works with architects and engineers on educational facility, healthcare, and land development projects. Her background in the architectural industry facilitates collaboration and problem solving.
Dean Audet, PE is Fuss & O’Neill’s Water and Natural Resources Business Line Leader. Dean has led a number of large-scale stormwater, green infrastructure, and resilience projects in New England and has helped his clients identify, apply for, and receive funding for their projects.