From blacktop to green spaces

Minnesota's Montessori School of Duluth transforms its campus

In the corporate world, it’s known as workplace optimization—a growing awareness of the surrounding environment.

And just as corporations from Apple to Coca-Cola redesign their offices, creating physical spaces that help staff engage and learn, the Montessori School of Duluth is following suit with an overhaul of its own outdoor areas.

With assistance from Enbridge’s Ecofootprint Grant Program, the northern Minnesota school is trading in its large, underused asphalt parking lot for a smaller lot and more green space, including rain gardens and permeable surfaces to reduce water runoff and help the environment.

“Being outside working on a picnic table or sitting on a rock will have more benefits to the kids than sitting on blacktop,” says school principal Daphne Amundson. “The additional green space will be better for the kids and for the environment.”

Twenty-five years ago, the Montessori School of Duluth moved into an old church with a parking lot that was much larger than necessary for a school of 50 students. Runoff from the parking lot’s impermeable surface flows into two watersheds—Tischer Creek and the 34th Ave. E. Creek—affecting water quality and contributing to soil erosion.

By transforming the outdoor space, the school has “cut in half the amount of paved surfaces on our property. There’s less runoff, and less issues with storm water,” Amundson says.

A parking lot excavation took place in the fall of 2015; spring will see the installation of rain gardens, raised garden beds, and other features yet to be determined, such as a small orchard with apple trees or a natural playground with tree stumps for climbing.

Following the Montessori educational philosophy, the students, aged 3 to 12, will be involved in the construction and maintenance of their green space.

Amundson also notes the change in landscape will allow more classrooms to operate outside. “The more time kids spent outdoors, the more benefits there are—a change of scenery and fresh air are good things for learning,” she says.

As a non-profit organization, the Montessori School of Duluth needs financial assistance for such a major undertaking. An $80,000 grant from Enbridge’s Ecofootprint program—a “huge, amazing grant,” says Amundson—has helped move the project forward.

“Ecofootprint has taken care of some of the biggest expenditures we were looking at,” she says. “It changed everything for our planning purposes.”

Established in 2015, the $3-million Ecofootprint Grant Program is investing $1 million per year in grassroots environmental stewardship projects in communities in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin along the Sandpiper and Line 3 Replacement project corridors.

“The school is creating a play area that is responsive to kids’ needs and also benefits the environment,” says Cindy Finch, Enbridge’s senior public affairs advisor based in Duluth-Superior.

The project has also helped strengthen the school community, with parents and grandparents volunteering time and donating funds. “We are inspired by the energy of the community,” says Finch, “to make a change with lasting benefits to the school.”