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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

A photo essay on school sprawl (part 1)

Kaid Benfield

Posted September 18, 2008

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How in the world did we get from this . . . 

a junior high school in Partsmouth, NH (by: Melanie Burger, creative commons) neighborhood school in Vancouver, BC (by: squeakymarmot/Mike, creative commons)

To this?

a middle school in Aurora, CO (courtesy Aurora Public Schools) a high school in McHenry County, IL (courtesy Woodtsock Community Unit District)


Even worse, why have we moved away from this . . .

a high school in Lakewood, TX (by: hamiltonpl, courtesy city-data) school playground in St. Louis, MO (by: Marjie Kennedy, creative commons)

Just so we can build this?

how do you get from the houses to the school? (by: Smart Growth America)

Schools used to be the heart of a neighborhood or community.  Children and not a few teachers could walk to class, or to the playground or ball field on the weekend.  This was relatively easy to do, because the schools were placed within, not separated from, their neighborhoods.  They were human-scaled and their architecture was not just utiliatarian, but signaled their importance in the community.  Now it has become hard to tell one from a Walmart or Target.

I was moved to find and show these photos by a couple of things:  First, when our LEED for Neighborhood Development committee met last week, we had a healthy discussion on the subject and adopted some draft revisions to make sure that our standards reward true neighborhood-scaled schools, not sprawling ones.  Second, I noticed a story in the newspaper about a school system in a fast-growing county that was looking at a two hundred and thirty acre site for a new high school.

Sound far-fetched?  A neighborhing county already has a high school on a157-acre site, below.  That, incidentally, is roughly twice the size of Disneyland in California and about half again as large as the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida.  Here is the school: 

a high school in Fairfax County, VA (courtesy Fairfax County Schools)the same school from the air (by: USGS)

Note that the parking lot is larger than the school itself, and about as large as the football and soccer fields combined.

In both aerial photos above, note also the utter lack of connectivity to the surrounding area, not that there is much to connect to.  So much for being "the heart of the community" and so much for even the remote likelihood of walking.

The problem extends to elementary schools, too - the ones that should be the most closely integrated into the neighborhood.  Look below at a new suburb in Virginia (whose school is ironically named after one of the most famous rural places in American history).  The cul-de-sac layout of the subdivisions that are nearby makes walking inconvenient to start with, but to compound the matter the school is placed on an isolated tract separated from the rest of the community.

an elementary school site in Fairfax County, VA (underlying image capture from Google Earth)

How did schools become agents of sprawl rather than antidotes to it?  In its seminal publication Why Johnny Can't Walk to School, the National Trust for Historic Preservation points out that it has not been by accident.  School districts across the country have adopted nationally-recommended minimum acreage standards that not only are much larger than necessary but also force administrators to seek very large parcels that, by definition, are beyond the edge of existing communities.  And it gets worse:  published in 2000 and written by my friend Constance Beaumont and her co-author Elizabeth Pianca, Why Johnny Can't Walk also highlights a concurrent set of policies that require administrators to raze or abandon existing schools if the cost of rehab reaches a certain percentage of the cost of a new one.

This is basically legally mandated disinvestment and legally mandated sprawl.

If you want to get really disturbed, you can check out an Illinois high school's web site that unwittingly shows step-by-step how, over the decades, essentially the same school has gone from a traditional one to something that now resembles a strip mall.  Look at "the phases of JCHS."  (At least the fight song is cool.)  Sigh.

Tomorrow: some better ways.  (Read Part 2 here.)

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Dave ReidSep 18 2008 01:26 PM

Those photos were almost scary. The parking lots are bigger than the school, there is no way you could walk to these school. And we wonder why school boards put up referendum after referendum and why kids have to bus to school....

Melissa BSep 18 2008 01:28 PM


I wonder how the trend of schools moving to the edges of neighborhoods, instead of the center, links up with the problem of schools being located near freeways. Schools near freeways are, of course, a problem for the respiratory health of kids playing outside. Any connection? Less asthma at the close-in, traditional schools?

Kaid @ NRDCSep 18 2008 02:02 PM

Dave and Melissa, thanks so much for reading and commenting. Melissa, you raise a very interesting point. There certainly is literature about proximity to freeways elevating health risk. I'm not specifically aware of the issue with regard to schools, though. It's possible that, because parcels near freeways cost more (guess where the Walmarts and malls want to be), school boards can't afford them.

Tomorrow one of the images is of a school on the edge of a new neighborhood, but in a good way. It can be done if the connectivity is good. Beyond the edge of the neighborhood, the problems multiply.

Dan TroutmanSep 18 2008 04:17 PM

Two reasons for "sprawling" schools here in Texas: football and "look at me."
Local city officials and school board members are obsessed with football facilities and other sports complexes. Small towns looking to attract growth construct massive school buildings next to Interstates so that can't be missed! Take a drive along I20 west from Dallas to see all of the new massive structures. It's a case of "who's got the biggest?" run amok.
Local politicians using the flawed logic of children can't learn unless they inhabit a state-of-the-art megaschool have raped the taxpayer again and again.
Sorry, but my dad received an excellent education in a one-room schoolhouse in central PA. Crazy, huh!? ;)

Kaid @ NRDCSep 18 2008 04:55 PM

Before I die, I really do want to see a HS football game in Texas. It's one of the things on the list, like hearing jazz in New Orleans or eating salmon in Washington state.

There are ways to do it in town, of course, but I'll grant that a bigger-is-better premise doesn't help! My grade school was small, too, but not one-room. My high school was large, but in town. It wasn't walkable for many people, either, but I took a city bus every day, which was convenient enough. We played our games in the city stadium a couple of miles away, but practiced there at the school.

Merry RabbSep 18 2008 09:16 PM

Responding to Dave Reid who commented "and we wonder have to bus to school". Don't forget that in some areas many kids get driven to school by their parents even though they could take the bus. Back in the spring I read that in Wake County NC (Raleigh) 45% of children are driven to schools in cars. Of course that may have changed with the recent spike in gas prices.

TubbsSep 22 2008 05:55 PM

Great Post. Please be sure to promote this on Digg and Reddit. The more people see of this the better.

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