How one of London’s most polluted schools turned over a new leaf

St Paul's Primary School in Hammersmith was found to be the second most polluted in London – so here's what staff and students did about it

In 2017, the Mayor of London commissioned an air quality audit of 50 primary schools across the capital. St Paul’s CE Primary School was found to be the second most polluted in the city. It sits next to the Hammersmith Flyover and Hammersmith Bridge Road, with pupils exposed to high levels of noise pollution and fumes from 100,000 vehicles every day. Now, after a campaign spearheaded by the school, and a project with Trees for Cities, it is home to an urban woodland, providing a greener, healthier shelter for pupils to learn and play in.

Claire Fletcher, headteacher at St Paul’s, tells the story of how the grounds went from grey to green:

Named as the second most polluted school in London by a national newspaper, our school welcomed the chance to be part of the London Mayor’s air quality audit. Soon after, we began to take on the task of ‘greening’ our large but very grey site to improve air quality for pupils, teachers and the local community.

Our campaign, Grey Goes Green, was born. Wanting to educate pupils and their parents, we held air quality workshops with representatives from the local authority. Inspired by what they had learned, our pupils were determined to spread the word and bring about change. The youngest children walked the local streets carrying banners and placards emblazoned with #greengoesgrey to make the need for greener, healthier grounds clear. Others created a huge drawing on the tarmac of the flowers, plants and wildlife they wished to see in the playground of their dreams. Some wrote letters directly to the Mayor of London, telling him what they envisioned for the future health of their playground, and school family.

We had 125m² of space and plenty of imagination so picturing an urban woodland at the bottom of our bleak and barren playground was easy

All the while, we were thinking hard about what a greener version of our playground could look like. We had 125m² of space, and plenty of imagination, so picturing an urban woodland at the bottom of our bleak and barren playground was easy to do. The vision in our minds was something that would serve as a barrier to pollutants from the many thousands of vehicles that pass through the neighbouring Hammersmith Flyover; attract wildlife and provide a enhanced space for pupils to learn and play in.

The next step was to make our dreams a reality. Applying for the Mayor’s Greener Spaces funding, we were thrilled to be awarded £16.5k. Within weeks, we had forged a partnership with the charity, Trees for Cities, and were discussing plans which far outshone our initial hopes and dreams for the space we wanted to improve! Trees for Cities engaged with a number of organisations to gather more funds for trees, the structural build of the woodland and more plants. Meanwhile, we shared our plans with the Local Authority, London Diocesan Board for Schools and Friends of St Paul’s, looking for any funding partnerships in anticipation of the project expanding. Soon, the project became more complex, sophisticated and imaginative than we had ever thought.

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We always hoped to introduce trees flowers and shrubs to our playground, attract birds, insects and future growth. We wanted to empower our pupils to discover more about the power of green space in our capital and create a haven that would also educate their parents and the Hammersmith community about actions to mitigate air pollution for our health, and that of our environment. Trees for Cities listened carefully, drawing up plans for the space and engaging pupils along the way. With a combination of workshops and educational sessions, we saw our vision for our playground develop, and start to unfold before our eyes as we went about school life as normal. As the building and planting progressed, our pupils imagined themselves in the new woodland, picturing the first thing they’d do in it. Stan in year 3 said: “The very first thing I’ll do in the woodland is sit under a tree with a book, and pretend I’m in a forest.”

Our “Grey Goes Green” woodland opened after pupils returned from the Easter holidays, and it far surpasses our initials hopes for the space.

Filled with greenery seating, platforms for performance, meandering walkways and nooks for wildlife, we finally have a renewed greener space which will help to reduce poor air quality, demonstrate the vital link between green spaces and learning, and serve as a sanctuary from the noise and bustle of the city. And as its plants, shrubs and trees grow, the woodland will grow in its value to us. This is a living example of how green spaces can make a school and a city healthier, better versions of themselves.