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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Looking for a model of a walkable, green, community-serving school? Start here.

Kaid Benfield

Posted July 20, 2012

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  Rosa Parks ES, Portland (courtesy of American Architectural Foundation)

Rosa Parks Elementary School in Portland, Oregon is housed in a super-green building that earned a LEED-gold certification and, according to the US Green Building Council, uses 24 percent less energy than a comparably sized but conventionally built school.  About a third of its building materials were locally sourced, and virtually none of the construction waste went to a landfill.  All stormwater is managed on site, none becoming polluted runoff.

But having a green building is only a small part of the story.  Unlike so many new schools being built today, Rosa Parks sits right in the middle of a neighborhood where most of its students can and do walk or bike to school.   A community garden is right across the street.  Five large “heritage trees” were preserved on the 2.38-acre site, now a “community campus” also containing a Boys & Girls Club and neighborhood community center managed by the Portland Parks Department.

  Rosa Parks ES anchors its neighborhood (via Google Earth)

The website Architects of Achievement describes the school’s role in reviving a diverse and recently distressed neighborhood:

“The school is part of the largest revitalization project in Oregon history.  Set on land donated by the Housing Authority of Portland, the K-5 school is part of the New Columbia Community Campus, which replaces the old crime-ridden Columbia Villa housing project.  Serving as a model for educational improvement throughout the School District, this project was designed to serve the whole child, as well as the family, neighborhood, and greater community.”Seeds of Harmony Garden, across the street (via Google Earth)

Architectural Record adds:

“The new school is divided into four ‘neighborhoods,’ each containing 125 students.  Each neighborhood contains five classrooms, a resource/student support room, and support functions around a ‘Neighborhood Commons.’  At the entry to the school, families are provided their own resource room, as well as access to a library information center.  Functions including art, computers, music, and food service are shared with the new Boys & Girls Club.”

By all accounts, the school has been a great success and is now a source of much community pride and activity.  Instead of relegating our kids to places where it has become illegal to walk to school, instead of schools plopped in the middle of nowhere, this is what we need more of – schools that anchor their neighborhoods, extending sustainability beyond their walls. 

This video elaborates on these concepts better than I can.  I love the beginning:  “It wasn’t simply a school project.  It was really a community project.”:


For a longer version that I like even better, go here.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channels.

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Rob BlighJul 23 2012 03:16 PM

Rosa Parks Elementary School
Portland Oregon
2010-11 School Year
Read 51.1 percent failed
Math 65.3 percent failed
Science 56.7 percent failed

Kaid @ NRDCJul 23 2012 03:33 PM

Not sure if you have a point to make there, but to me that suggests a community that can benefit from the kind of investment that this school represents.

Rob BlighJul 24 2012 06:13 PM

You seem to suggest that the school should be used as a tool to reform the community even though the school is unable to effectively educate its students.

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