Thursday, February 18

An honest question about minimum school acreage

Many building codes require large sites for public schools. Flickr: Valarie Renee
I heard a story the other day about a major flood that hit Albany, Georgia in 1994. As is usually the case, many of the poorer neighborhoods in the core of the town, set along the river in the low-lying land, were hit the hardest. The U.S. FEMA agency had funds set a aside to help the community rebuild, including the reconstruction of two schools that were completely lost in this neighborhood. However, one of the stipulations was that the new schools had to be placed on at least a twenty acre campus. Naturally, the only suitable parcels were in the outlying suburbs, which happened to be more affluent, so not only did these folks have to get their own lives back in order but they had to start busing their children outside of the community from that point forward.

The obvious question: why a twenty acre minimum? Where did we get this fortress mentality that requires all schools to be set apart on a separate campus?

This brings me to some personal anecdotes about two schools:

Hellgate High School occupies a site very close to the center of Missoula, Montana. It was built in 1908 and somehow managed to not be destroyed in the intervening century. The school is nicely woven into the urban fabric of Missoula, and on any given school day the extensive row of bike racks in the back are filled to the brim. There is very limited motor vehicle parking.

Students are allowed to leave the school for lunchtime, and many of them walk to the local shops and restaurants across the street. I'm sure there are some who worry that the students will engage in the practice of shenanigans while let loose, but, as a nearby worker in downtown, I never saw a problem. What they did get was a half hour to explore the real world everyday in a relatively safe environment, even those who did not yet have their own drivers licence.

Newark High School in Delaware is where I attended school. The school abandoned its urban site in 1954 for a more spacious modern building further out of town. Although it is still relatively close to downtown Newark (we're talking 1950's after all), the site is designed for driving only. It's set back from the street, fenced off on two sides, and accompanied by a large parking lot.

When I was there, school administrators were not willing to risk the liability of letting students out for lunch, but many of us did anyway. Because teachers took turns patrolling the borders, we literally had to run out the door, cross a four-lane divided highway, and trek through a strip mall parking lot just to get to an Auntie Anne's fast food joint. I look back wondering why we were will willing to exert so much effort for a pretzel. I don't think we were being deviants for the sake of deviancy; I think we just wanted to act like adults.

The one student in our class who did die during school hours perished when his automobile rammed into a tree. He was running late for school in the morning. The self-contained fortress school design may be able to keep students sheltered while they are on its premises (that is, while the school district is legally liable for their safety), but all of those cars in the parking lot have to arrive from somewhere. In reality, all other threats of accidental harm are negligible in the shadow of teenage driving fatalities.

It turns out that Newark High School may have to move further yet out of town. Delaware has updated the school building codes, now requiring a minimum of 25 acres for the school site. Newark is in non-compliance, and some are starting to complain about the lack of parking.

Again, what is the reasoning behind requiring larger and larger lots?


Neil Williamson said...

One other potential benefit to urban small footprint schools is the use of existing mass transit to ferry students.

One potential challenge is VA's stormwaterm management laws that will actually increase schol footprints.

Steve D said...

The requirements vary state to state, and the Council of Educational Facilities Planners used to have a minimum acreage requirement in their manual — which is essentially the bible for school builders and policymakers. They DID remove that minimum acreage requirement a few years ago, and have been encouraging states to do the same. SC removed theirs (one of Sanford's best moments) and other states have followed suit.

There's a lot that's been written on the subject if you're so inclined to find it. And someone at the National Trust works full time on this project. We used to have an initiative about it at SGA, which has since folded.

CarFree Stupidity said...

I would also add that I think the setting in which Hellgate finds itself creates a different character for the students because of the interactions they experience on a daily basis.

I think the push for bigger school footprints isnt just about keeping students "safe" but also about America's idea of progress. Bigger is better and if your going to build a new school, why wouldn't you make it bigger, spend more money, upgrade the sporting facilities, etc...

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog entry. Steve D accurately states the influence of the CEFPI guidelines impact. It all started with Sputnik in 1957. James Conant, Harvard president, was tasked with figuring out how to compete with the Soviets. He wrote a book that called for larger high schools. His recommendations were good, but they were misinterpreted to call for much larger schools. There are many other factors, but this started the big change.

You might want to visit the Smart Growth Schools web site which covers these issues at

Daniel Nairn said...

These are all very helpful comments; reminds me why I wanted to start a blog in the first place.

I figured this issue was on the radar screen for some people, but I didn't know it had been researched so extensively. Thanks for raising these ideas and pointing me to valuable resources.

Bill said...

Another question; where the heck did the planners come up with the minimum parking requirements that are mentioned in the zoning codes of so many towns and cities in America? i think its just the product of lazy local governments that just copy the crib notes of neighboring towns, going all the way back into some forgotten primordial moment in planning history where someone pulled out ratios like "2 parking spaces to every hotel room" straight out of their $#$, without further study. I like planning that is constantly in flux, rationally re-examing regulations, but I hate arbitrary, inexplicable rules like this school acreage mess. Planning is meant to bring order and rationality, too much of these type of rules more closely resembles anarchy.

ronjacobson said...

hey there,

I believe that it would provide the students with avenues which will develop various characters in them with the experiences they will have by interaction.


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