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Designing a Better Education


By Robert J. Kobet, AIA

For most American children, teachers and administrators, education is a linear process.

We march from kindergarten through middle and high school with many of the same classmates, and few institutions of higher learning have any partnership with K-12 school districts.

What does that have to do with school design? Potentially, a great deal.

Regenerative education refers to partnerships among K-12 schools, colleges and universities that throw off the traditional linear process in favor of cross-curricular, intergenerational learning; diverse STEAM groupings (not homogeneous STEM “teams”); and academic credit for nontraditional activities.

Bronx Green Machine
Photos: Bob Kobet

Initiatives like the Florida Atlantic University / Pine Jog Environmental Education program inspire students to learn and to care for school property while beautifying the school environment.

Many of these creative, inspirational learning programs depend on nontraditional site designs and alternative school landscapes.

These are manifest in such initiatives as Steve Ritz’s Green Bronx Machine urban gardening phenomenon and the work of Susan Toth, Fred Barch and staff in the Florida Atlantic University / Pine Jog Environmental Education program, among others.

Each is a successful and valuable model for reducing site development and maintenance, improving security, and providing effective teaching activities.

How it Works

Here’s how design becomes an integral part of the learning experience.

The school site and landscape encourage a culture of hope, cooperation, personal accomplishment, self-esteem and community service not found in lawn monocultures.

These qualities may be found in traditional school facilities, but they are clearly visible in these programs. The Green Bronx Machine challenges the boundaries of conventional school sites by extruding the learning environment into the community.

The Green Bronx Machine has garnered national and international attention and has a growing list of partners that have enabled Steve to transform whole communities and school cultures.

Pine Jog Kids

The Green Bronx Machine challenges the boundaries of conventional school sites by extruding the learning environment into the community.

His ability to elevate school attendance from 40 percent to 93 percent while providing food, jobs and opportunities to students and their families, the homeless and disenfranchised in one of the poorest school districts in the U.S. is nothing less than stunning.

Learning and Stewardship

The FAU / Pine Jog program has enjoyed similar success on a smaller, but growing, scale by partnering FAU Environmental Education Students with the K-5 population of Pine Jog Elementary School, which is staffed in partnership with the adjacent Pine Jog Environmental Education Center.

Inviting community stakeholders into the process buoys the “hands on” approach and provides teachers and students with a diverse mix of expertise and resources, multiplied by the ways they are integrated into the K-5 experience.

School gardening activities are woven into classes and activities, including supporting the local food banks. About 40 percent of Pine Jog Elementary and 100 percent of the Education Center facilities are planted in alternative native landscapes or organic food producing gardens. Stewardship of this acreage is given to the staff and students, removing it from the daily charge of the maintenance staff.

Each recognizes the value of architecture as pedagogy and the power of using school facilities and the community as teaching tools.

Eighty percent of American students who drop out of school have passing grades; they simply don’t want to be there.

The Green Bronx Machine and Pine Jog programs exemplify creative site approaches that inspire students to learn while beautifying the school environment and entice students to care for school property.

students in classroom
Scott Roberson / Flickr / Creative Commons 2.0

Learning enthusiasm emerges from nontraditional programs.

The enthusiasm for learning by doing in nontraditional “garden classrooms” is obvious when you interact with these students. Equally obvious are the improvements in test scores and the reduction in negative social consequences when students are well fed, physically and emotionally healthy, empowered, gainfully employed and respected.

Care and Value

Beyond the students’ success is a significant reduction in the amount of school property that needs maintenance; lowered vandalism; and increased property value, community pride and grant opportunities that can benefit a number of school programs.

None of this is supported by traditional high-maintenance, energy-, material- and resource-intensive lawn monoculture site design.

More significant, perhaps, is the rich mix of race, creed, and age; the lack of grade-specific parameters or economic class distinction; and the intergenerational mentoring and love that saturates each of these programs.

Conditions in the South Bronx differ from those in South Florida, but the dedication of those educating students to be responsible global citizens is the same. Each serves as inspiration to countless others, and that is a trend that I hope will continue to grow.


Robert J. Kobet, AIA

Robert J. Kobet has enjoyed a dual career as an architect and educator. For more than 35 years Kobet practiced internationally in the fields of sustainable design and development, high-performance green buildings, LEED consulting and environmental education. He is currently enjoying a working retirement that includes a position as adjunct faculty in the Kent State University College of Architecture and Environmental Design where he teaches a variety of courses based on sustainability and regenerative environmental stewardship. For more about Kobet, please visit



Tagged categories: American Institute of Architects (AIA); Architects; Building design; Construction; Good Technical Practice; Green building; LEED; Schools; The Kobet Collaborative; Aesthetics; Architecture; Color + Design; Design; Education

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