A green roof with roots in Morningside Heights



Marni Baker Stein, a mother of three children who attend the Lillian Weber School for the Arts (P.S. 84) on the Upper West Side, had discussed the best use of the school’s rooftop courtyard with other parents before. But one day, sitting with another mother near a small garden in the schoolyard on West 92nd Street, the senior associate dean for curriculum and instruction at the School of Continuing Education decided to toss the question over to the people who know best—students in Columbia’s master’s program in landscape design.

Baker Stein’s idea meshed with the program’s community outreach goals; in recent years, landscape students designed gardens for public housing in East Harlem and a Bronx park. “Students need practical, real-world experience, not just theoretical lessons in a classroom,” said Richard Alomar, a lecturer at Continuing Education and landscape architect.

Joe Disponzio, the program’s director, Alomar and his 10 design development students met with P.S. 84 teachers, students and parents last year to discuss their vision for the approximately 7,000-square-foot space. The school’s wish list included an outdoor classroom, vegetable garden and a fish pond—a place where “kids who were raised on asphalt can put their hands in soil and learn where their food comes from,” said Sherri Sandfort-Sémon, head of P.S. 84’s garden committee and mother to both a first and a third grader at the school.

“We were delighted to work with a public school, bringing nature back into students’ lives. That’s so beneficial to these kids. And our students will have this project to show for themselves when they graduate,” said Disponzio, also a landscape architect with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

The Columbia students, each charged with drafting a design and presenting it to the P.S. 84 community as their final project for Alomar’s studio course, conducted on-site research and analysis and studied urban agriculture and community gardens during their summer term last year.

Professional landscape architects helped students refine their designs, which were first presented to a jury of P.S. 84 parents and students and then displayed in the school’s cafeteria. The entire school community voted for their favorites, and two rose to the top—designs by Hannah Warren and Judy Gelb.

“This project created an opportunity for my students at P.S. 84 to actually watch how older students learn and design,” said Principal Robin Sundick, who is grateful for Columbia’s involvement with her school. “It’s a model for children today to see that learning never stops—it goes on and on into adulthood.”

In the fall, Warren and Gelb combined their work to form a final plan for a bi-level space that includes a greenhouse, windmill, vegetable beds, bird dwellings, and desks and chairs designed by their classmate Rebecca Giampietro McMackin. Students, anticipating their new outdoor classroom, have already planted peas in vegetable beds at school.

With their dream plans in place, P.S. 84 needed to find out how much it would cost to bring the design to life. Students in Continuing Education’s construction administration master’s program stepped up this spring, delivering a cost estimate—roughly $500,000—for an extra-credit assignment from their teacher Aleksandra Chancy, a Columbia lecturer and founder of her own construction management firm.

Meanwhile, 14 students in Continuing Education’s fundraising management master’s program, with guidance from Jan Mittan, a development executive who teaches in the program, are conducting a study of stakeholders in the P.S. 84 community in order to produce a strategic fundraising campaign for their capstone project.

“Many of my students have careers in development, so I know it’s been incredible for them, as students, to put all their knowledge to practical use,” said Mittan.

The Columbia students’ findings and recommendations, which will incorporate fundraising goals for the school’s annual fund, parents’ association and teaching assistantships, in addition to the rooftop project, will be presented to the P.S. 84 community in May.

“What we’re doing aligns perfectly with our school’s mission to ‘transform knowledge and understanding in service of the greater good,’” said Lucas Rubin, who oversees both the fundraising and landscape programs at Continuing Education. “We’ve integrated disparate fields in the name of the greater good, and it’s happened organically.”