Sharon Gamson Danks’93, and a former PP55 fellow, is the author of Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation, which was published by New Village Press in November 2010 and has been acclaimed nationally and abroad (www.asphalt2ecosystems.org).
This comprehensive book includes documentation and vibrant photographs of over 150 ecological schoolyards in 11 countries and is one of the outcomes of Sharon’s successful career which began with a Princeton Project 55 fellowship at CONCERN, Inc. in Washington, DC in the fall of 1993.
Directed by Susan Boyd, wife of Steve Boyd ’55—one of the founders of AlumniCorps—CONCERN’s environmental work was a perfect fit for Sharon’s growing interest in this field, and Susan was her ideal mentor for her first job. After being hired at CONCERN, Sharon worked with Susan on the emerging field of community sustainability and was inspired by her colleagues and their work. Sharon’s primary responsibility at CONCERN was to catalogue and organize information from around the U.S. about local “sustainable community” initiatives.
During her time at their office, before the World Wide Web was well developed, Sharon created a survey and database of sustainable community information that became the foundation for the current Sustainable Communities Network website, www.sustainable.org.
After working with Susan, Sharon moved to California, married, and settled in the Bay Area. Inspired by her work at CONCERN, she decided to become an environmental planner, specializing in ecological design, so that she could help cities move toward a more sustainable future. She studied at UC Berkeley, receiving joint Masters’ degrees in City Planning and Landscape Architecture in 2000. After graduation, Sharon was awarded a traveling fellowship from UC Berkeley to expand on her Master’s thesis research by documenting green schoolyards abroad.
When she returned, she formed her own consultancy, EcoSchool Design®, and began working with the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance, conceiving and directing the first conference for this newly founded organization. Coincidentally, Susan’s children also settled in San Francisco so on trips to the area she and Sharon would visit, eventually joined by Sharon’s daughters and Susan’s grandchildren. In the fall of 2007 Sharon took Susan on a tour of exemplary schoolyards in Berkeley and Oakland to see how they were teaching the principles of ecology and sustainability to their young students. Upon returning to Washington, Susan was contacted by the U.S. Botanic Garden, which was planning a Sustainability Exhibit from May to October 2008 on the National Mall and was open to a proposal from CONCERN. Thus the idea of a Sustainable Schoolyard Exhibit was born and a series of synchronicities followed.
Unbeknownst to Susan, Sharon and two of her colleagues had just formed a new landscape architecture and planning firm, Bay Tree Design, Inc. (www.baytreedesign.com), which would specialize in designing ecological schoolyards. Would they like one of their first projects to be to design the sustainable schoolyard exhibit on the Washington Mall next to the Capitol? Despite the fact that there were no funds, budget, or staff, they said an enthusiastic “yes” and a very creative and challenging five months of design and planning ensued. Collaborating with Susan and her colleagues, they performed the impossible and created one of the most popular exhibits, attended by over three-quarters of a million visitors from around the world.
Sharon and her business partner, landscape architect Lisa Howard, are continuing their work to green school grounds at schools in the Bay Area and beyond. They have been working with the San Francisco Unified School District on their bond-funded green schoolyard program over the last two and a half years, helping almost 30 schools to create green schoolyard master plans. Sharon was also instrumental in shaping this ground-breaking program, using research from her master’s thesis, fellowship travels abroad, and the sustainability principles she learned long ago at CONCERN.
The publication of Sharon’s new book is providing fertile ground for Susan and Sharon to collaborate further on a new set of projects—starting with an international sustainable schoolyards conference planned for San Francisco in October 2011. The conference will help to launch a national and international initiative to encourage more schools to design their grounds with sustainability in mind and thus inspire their students to green their communities as they grow up to become tomorrow’s leaders.