New Haven

By Taylor Nicole Richard

common ground new building exterior is a high school, urban farm, and environmental education center that functions entirely within New Haven city limits. Its location at the base of West Rock Ridge State Park spans 20 acres of parkland while still accessible by city public transit. The site allows students and community members to engage in the natural world while connecting their education to urban sustainability.

High school students enrolled at Common Ground have the opportunity to learn about agriculture, environmental sustainability, and interact with animals all while taking traditional school classes in math, science, visual and language arts.

“We have very specific classes that are focused on sustainability. For example, this semester we’re running our sustainable design class where they look at how buildings can be constructed incorporating sustainable features,” said Melissa Spear, the executive director of Common Ground. 

Recently, the school completed construction on a new building on their site. The design and infrastructure will serve as an educational tool for the sustainable design class. Students will dive into understanding how some of those features function and what it is that classifies them as sustainable features.

Their new building is constructed from cross-laminated timber, an engineered wood product. Cross-laminated timber has high strength and dimensional stability, so it can be used as alternative to concrete, masonry and steel. It’s also very energy efficient: since the panels are solid, there’s practically no air infiltration through the walls. As a result, interior temperatures can be maintained with about a third of the normal heating and cooling energy.

The building also uses geothermal wells for heating and cooling instead of burning fuel or oil. There are solar panels for electricity and LED lighting throughout. Common Ground’s older buildings are about to undergo renovations that will incorporate sustainable features as well.

Another class Common Ground offers is called “Food and the Environment.” Students learn about the sources of their food, different ways food is produced, and what the social/economic impact is of food production and the food they choose to buy. 

“The main thing we focus on is the pedagogy of experiential learning. It’s very project-based, so we provide opportunities and ask students to engage and address challenges in their community, whether it’s an environmental justice issue or a social justice issue,” said Spear. “We support them in engaging with their community in coming up with solutions to these challenges.”

Common Ground is not only for high school students. There are after school programs for public school students in grades K-8 that allow them to “create a healthy connection to the environment,” accord to Spear. The younger students in the programs can interact with the gardens, go on hikes around West Rock, or learn how to cook.  

In addition to after school programs, Common Ground opens their site to the public every Saturday. Families can stop by on open farm days, and adults can take cooking classes and gardening workshops. There are also volunteer opportunities to maintain their wetlands and work on the urban farm. Spear said that Common Ground is invested in community engagement and sees the site as a “resource to New Haven.”