April 30, 2024

In conversation with Maia Puccetti, Executive Officer, Facilities and Planning with the Toronto District School Board


The Climate Ready Schools Conversation Series connects those interested in transforming school grounds with the expertise of key leaders who have partnered with Evergreen on climate adaptive design projects.

Evergreen’s Climate Ready Schools builds on our 30-year legacy of transforming school grounds across Canada into nature-rich play and learning environments for both children and their communities. The Climate Ready Schools Conversation Series is focused on connecting people and organizations interested in this important work with the knowledge and expertise of key leaders and change advocates who have partnered with Evergreen on these innovative climate adaptive design projects.

Maia Puccetti - Executive Officer, Facilities and Planning with the Toronto District School Board

Maia Puccetti is the Executive Officer, Facilities and Planning with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), the largest school board in Canada consisting of 583 schools. This is the third board she has worked with in her 20 years of experience working with schools. During her time with the Halton District School Board (HDSB), Maia played a key role in initiating the Irma Coulson pilot project. She is a registered architect and is passionate about using her design and problem-solving experience to create engaging and welcoming spaces for students.  

What inspired you to want to be involved in the Irma Coulson Climate Ready School pilot project? 

Well, first off, Irma Coulson is a beautiful school. It’s bright and modern, it brings light in and is very welcoming and engaging. It had a lovely, naturalized kindergarten play area, but the rest of the school ground was a flat field with a major road on one side, 18 portables, and trees every 20 feet outlining the field. The only play value was a giant puddle in the spring or a giant snow mound after clearing the parking lots in the winter.  

You could see that this was a site that was suffering from erosion, low play value, and excessive noise due to its proximity to the major road. 

The beautiful school and naturalized kindergarten play area inspired me, though. 

The other thing that inspired me or scared me was that during my first summer in Halton, we had two significant rain events and I saw how the Irma Coulson field was not able to absorb the water. It was like a lake! The fact that the climate is changing becomes much more apparent when you have sites with no ability to deal with excessive rain or the heat and you’re putting 1,100 kids out there.  

What hesitations did you have? 

I was concerned about the scale of the project because I couldn’t figure out how we could approach it by half-measures. I didn’t think we could only do a small portion of the site. This is a typical approach for many school boards; do a little, but at more schools. Looking at Irma Coulson, I didn’t think that was an option. I felt like we had to do the whole site, but it’s big! How are we going to do this? How much will it cost? 

To address that concern, I put on my practical hat regarding operations and maintenance. If we were to only do a little, would there be longer term issues maintaining the site down the road? 

I also wasn’t sure if we would encounter willing participation from the school. As an architect, you can design the most beautiful space, but if you don’t get buy-in and support from the community if they are not committed to and involved in the design you may fail.  

We were so fortunate to have an extraordinary principal and a school board with a commitment to sustainability and outdoor education. It just snowballed and grew from there.  

Climate ready schools are lovely, messy spaces where kids can use their imaginations to create play opportunities and they can stretch their boundaries physically, get dirty, jump on things, and explore! A little mess is okay! 

How did you make the Climate Ready Schools pilot happen for the Halton District School Board? 

I spoke with many different people at the senior team level on the academic and program sides. Fortunately, pretty much everyone on the senior team was on board with this! 

However, I had to explain what a climate ready site meant, because a lot of people didn’t understand that initially. That’s why working with Evergreen was key Evergreen has the experience and the knowledge having done these kinds of projects all over Canada. Evergreen brought a national perspective, as well as a global perspective, with examples of what was happening in Germany. It’s just a different way of thinking about school sites. 

So, I started by getting senior team buy-in. Then, I looked at our available capital funding. I knew that we would have to address drainage at Irma Coulson because it was becoming a pretty big issue. There was a compacted soil situation on the field and poor drainage, and I knew that within the next couple years we would have to do a significant renewal of the site. This was an opportunity to try something different that addressed multiple challenges! 

Evergreen brought the information we needed to these senior team discussions and shared the impact that this kind of landscape can have on student learning, development, and wellbeing. The experience that children have outdoors has so many behavioral and physical benefits. When the senior team started to hear about that, they got excited. 

What are the opportunities and challenges in bringing school boards into alignment with sustainability goals?  

School boards have been paying attention to this for a few years, but even more so now because you can’t help but see the impacts of climate change.  

Many school boards belong to energy committees as part of the Ontario Association of School Business Officials and that’s a great opportunity for boards to share initiatives. Many of these focus on energy efficiency and sustainability of buildings, but boards are realizing that there are many other synergies that can happen.  

School boards are very good at sharing information with each other. Many boards have some form of climate or environmental policy they are working towards. For example, the TDSB has a very fulsome environmental policy. We don’t just look at the energy efficiency of buildings we look at the entire site and consider outdoor education and how to engage students. 

In facilities, we aren’t always comfortable in what we need to do to engage students, but we need to show students that we’re trying to make a difference and be responsible. The younger generation can feel a sense of hopelessness relating to climate change. To demonstrate that we are trying to make changes, we present our environmental plan for each year to the students in our board.  

Our Climate Action Plan at the TDSB includes things like planting trees, outdoor education opportunities, and professional development for educators. It’s not just about heat pumps it’s a fulsome plan that includes all these other things we can do. things we can do.  

Do you have a dream or vision for the TDSB?  

I am very fortunate to have a strong sustainability department that works hard to bring people together under a common goal. Because the TDSB is so large, we have so many different people who work on different aspects of the same thing, so it’s important to have very clear and reasonable measures, something I’d always advise for anyone developing a climate change report or setting a direction for their board. 

What are the things you can tackle? We’ve changed our design standards to focus on clear, practical actions. My big goal at the TDSB is to get everyone on the same page and figure things out together! 

How do you bring forward innovation projects like Climate Ready Schools at your board?  

When I worked with Halton, we didn’t just pick Irma Coulson out of the blue. We had a process with evaluation criteria to develop a short list of schools in different areas.  

Given the diversity in the City of Toronto, there are areas with tremendous needs and areas that are very dense, so we would consider not only the opportunities for the school, but also for the surrounding community. We’d want to find a school that is ready to take on the opportunities posed by the climate ready school program: the learning, the participatory design process, the professional development. 

How do you engage school communities in the decision-making process about their school grounds?  

You need to engage communities in the steps of design and planning. The process to select a candidate school should include the approval of the selection criteria by the senior team to ensure you haven’t missed anything. Then you go out and apply the approved selection criteria. 

With Irma Coulson, we interviewed principals and school teams to gauge their understanding of the project and whether they wanted to be part of it. We then went to the senior team with a list of the top candidates and, once we were all in agreement, we came back with a recommended candidate. 

When it comes to working with the school community, most school boards already have a process for outdoor environments. Outdoor sites and play environments are near and dear to everybody, so engaging the community in the design process is something a lot of school boards already do. However, it may not be as fulsome as most architects would think of as design participation, because boards are limited by the ministry in what they can build. You still want to get people’s thoughts on what’s important to them in outdoor spaces.  

Why should children be involved in the design of their spaces? 

Well, it certainly is fun! You get some creative ideas, which is great! Kids are very observant and there is already a social structure that exists outdoors about where kids play soccer, where kids go to sit quietly. When you work with kids, you must ask the right questions. 

What advice would you give to leaders in other school boards who are interested in pursuing a Climate Ready School of their own? 

My first piece of advice is that it’s important to dream a little and not to be too concerned about all the existing rules because there are opportunities to think differently. You will hear concerns raised by groundskeeping or maintenance departments or caretakers that are valid. It’s important to be respectful of those considerations, but also to engage them to see the bigger picture and keep moving forward.  

With outdoor projects, there are opportunities to engage with people to find funding. Municipalities sometimes share green standards and values that can create an opportunity for a partnership. Funding exists, but the way it is typically packaged and presented may be different. Think outside the box and broaden the category. Look for opportunities! Dream a little! 


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Are you interested in supporting the Climate Ready Schools program? Are you representing a school board interested in your own Climate Ready Schools journey? Please send your inquiries to We’d love to hear from you!   


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