Dustin Bajer, The 5 School Garden Pace Layers, Midjourney AI

The 5 School Garden Pace Layers

Designing Better School Gardens Using Pace Layer Thinking

School boards live for centuries, school buildings last decades, teaching careers come and go in thirty to forty years, the curriculum changes every decade or so, students come and go every three years, semesters turn over twice a year, units last weeks, and lessons are over in an hour. The education system isn’t a single system but a group of nested systems, each travelling at its own pace. Pace layers aren’t considered when building or running schools, but friction between layers affects students, staff, and the community.

A School Garden is a System of Nested System

The idea of nested systems working at different timescales was popularized by futurist and technologist Steward Brand in his 1994 book How Buildings Learn. How much architects embrace or disregard these pace layers impacts the building’s construction, maintenance, and function. For example, buildings with utilities buried deep within their structure are expensive to service and more likely to be torn down than retrofitted.

Steward Brand, How Building's Learn, Pace Layers of a Building
Stewart Brand’s 6 Pace Layers of a Building, in How Buildings Learn

Pace laying recognizes that systems contain moving parts that change at different rates. We can design better systems by maintaining each layer in its proper position. Stewart Brand expanded pace layering in his 1999 book The Clock of the Long Now when describing the seven pace layers of civilization.

Dustin Bajer, Stewart Brand Pace Laying, Redrawn By Leon Lin
Civilizations are built open various layers, each moving at a different pace.
Photo Credit: Stewart Brand and Leon Lim

I was fortunate to meet Stewart and a group of passionate educators at a conference in San Francisco. Over three days, we explored the concept of pace layering in the context of education. As a teacher building school gardens, I began thinking about some of the challenges I was experiencing in terms of Stewart’s pace layers.

I’ve come to believe that the best way to design a garden is by starting with its slowest, most stable layer and designing upward toward the fastest. As Stewart would put it, “slow remembers and fast learns,” and a design needs both to thrive and grow. How, then, might we apply pace-layer thinking creation design of a school garden?

5 Pace Layers of a School Garden

How do we deal with the out-of-sync nature of school gardening – the “what happens over summer holidays” and “what happens when the teacher changes schools?” How can we design gardens resilient enough to stand the test of time but responsive enough to change with the needs of the school and community? For that, let’s look at the five pace layers of a school garden from slowest to fastest:

School Garden Pace Layer 1: Garden Site

Like a building, a garden’s site rarely changes and ideally never does. A good site makes everything else easier. Get the site wrong, and you’ll be fighting with it indefinitely.

Site properties include climate and seasonal changes, access to water, sunlight, students, and the general public. Who owns the lands, and what agreements need to be in place? Will the garden interfere with maintenance or access to nearby buildings?

Long-term sites can accommodate trees and fixed infrastructure such as paths, garden beds, and seating areas. If your site is temporary, everything in your garden is temporary or must be mobile. Sort live annuals are preferred over perennials, and pots over growing in the ground. Your site will impact every aspect of your design going forward. Not two gardens are alike because no two sites are alike.

Within a site, certain plant species can be incredibly long-lived. Plants rarely see their full potential when the lifespan of a site is shorter than the life expectancy of the plants it contains. This has huge implications for growing old trees in fast-moving cities.

School Garden Pace Layer 2: Curricular Connections

What makes a garden a school garden is the opportunity to connect its design and day-to-day operations with the curriculum. The curriculum changes every decade, classes change each semester, and lessons turn over daily. As staff comes and goes, the garden must adapt to various programs of studies, lessons, and labs.

If a school garden doesn’t support students, is it really a school garden? What’s its function? How should the garden be run? Is the garden run as an extracurricular club, a course in itself? How will the garden interact with the school community, and what design considerations will facilitate these interactions?

School Garden Pace Layer 3: Garden Infrastructure

A garden’s site and curricular connections will dictate what infrastructure is possible. Infrastructure can be permanent (fixed) or mobile (temporary) and will impact the type of gardening and techniques used.

Infrastructure needs regular maintenance and will eventually require replacing. Maintenance can be costly but is also an opportunity for renewal, feedback, and recommitment to the project.

School Garden Pace Layer 4: Garden Plan & Design

With a list of infrastructural needs in hand, we need to determine placement with the garden. A well-designed garden is built upon slower layers but is able to change over time with use. The garden’s design should be flexible enough to shift its function over time. What happens if the school wants to sell bedding plants to raise money? Can the garden adjust to a new focus on growing medicinal, indigenous plants? Can the garden’s design accommodate a shift from an extracurricular club to a credited course?

If slow layers remember and fast layers learn, a garden design exists as a malleable middle layer. Ridged designs fall out of favour or fail to meet new needs. Ill-planed gardens require too much work; they are born fast but die young.

School Garden Pace Layer 5: Gardener & Human Interaction

The faster pace layer is day-to-day activities such as planting, weeding, watering, or enjoying the garden. Actively find ways to invite interaction.

I learned early on that garden maintenance is an opportunity for student and community engagement. Gardens need people, so there must be reasons and opportunities for people to interact with the space. These daily interactions bring life to the garden and will, over time, inform design changes.

Use School Garden Pace Layers To Build a Better Garde

Use pace layer thinking to make a garden that functions for you and your school. Remember that slow layers remember and quick layers learn. A resilient garden that can change and adapt is the key to more school gardens.

An Ecological Garden Design Course

For more information on designing a school garden, check out my post on Ecological Garden Design.

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