Urban Oasis:
Elevating Outdoor Space in a High-Rise School

Occupying a limited 0.9-acre lot less than a mile from Boston City Hall, the new Josiah Quincy Upper School (JQUS) design responds to its urban site constraints with a dynamic rooftop designed as an accessible outdoor space for learning, gathering, and activity.

With the positive attributes of an urban site—proximity to public transportation, recreation, and rich local culture—come associated design challenges: tight lot lines, lack of greenery, and air quality concerns that make it nearly impossible to incorporate outdoor program space on site. Understanding the vital connection of open-air green space to student wellness and equitable education, the JQUS project team spun these challenges into opportunities, literally elevating precious open space to the school’s rooftop, 130 feet above ground level.

Filled with greenery, furnished with seating, and enclosed by trellises and perimeter windscreens, the JQUS roof is the crown jewel of this high-rise middle high school. The layout—designed in collaboration with project landscape architect Arcadis | IBI Group—accommodates learning, socializing, and physical activity with an outdoor classroom, gardens, walking paths, and various informal spaces for small group study to large presentations.

Student well-being

JQUS serves an urban and predominantly minority student population for whom access to natural light, fresh air, and connections to nature are critical to their health and wellness. The new rooftop is an urban oasis with open space and gardens, where ample plantings filter pollutants for optimal air quality. To ensure that the entire school is isolated from the ambient ground-level air pollution in this transit-oriented location, fresh air ventilation is captured and distributed from roof level to interior spaces on floors below.

To prioritize mental health through design, a mindfulness garden provides a calm, contemplative space complete with meadow grasses, meandering stone paths, and intermittent benches. Here, urban students have a safe, relaxing, and peaceful place to unwind in a natural setting.

Environmental sustainability

Beyond programmatic benefits, the JQUS green roof significantly improves the building’s environmental sustainability.

The planting system absorbs precipitation to slow stormwater runoff and lowers both the rooftop and surrounding air temperature to mitigate heat island effect and reduce the building’s cooling loads (as well as associated costs). JQUS’s rooftop contains a blend of native plant species, promoting biodiversity in its urban environment.

Educational opportunity

Located in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood, JQUS students have little access to outdoor learning environments. The new school’s rooftop provides outdoor learning spaces for subjects from science and art to environmental education. The designated outdoor classroom offers an ideal setting for hands-on learning and messy project work that cannot otherwise be accommodated indoors.

The JQUS green roof is not only an educational environment but a learning tool in itself. Teachers can integrate various components of the green roof into their curriculum using first-hand examples of complex sustainable systems and native plant species at their fingertips.

As educational facilities trend toward building up, not out, and communities seek strategies to mitigate climate change challenges, accessible green roofs could become standard in contemporary public school design. Pioneering this effort in the Boston Public School System, JQUS serves as a model for the many sustainability and programmatic benefits of green roofs.