Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

One way in which community planning is completely backwards

I hate to be put in the position of agreeing with Washington Examiner editorial writer Barbara Hollingsworth, of whom I normally have the tendency to excoriate, but her piece, "Fairfax school officials to review closing Clifton Elementary," on the closure of Clifton Elementary School, a community school serving a rural section of Fairfax County, illustrates a problem that we have in cities also, when decisions to close schools based on enrollment levels or the cost to rehabilitate the school end up having devastating impacts on the quality of neighborhood-community life. (Also see this article about the school from 2010, "Parents, officials 'appalled' at decision to close Clifton school.")

This morning's Washington Post also has a long piece on Clifton School, "Closure shuts many doors ," focusing on the community-connectedness, volunteerism, and involvement of the community within the school and outside of the school deriving in part from the way that the school knits the community together.

I joke sometimes that "offices of planning" aren't really planning offices, but "offices of land use" or even "offices of land use development" because so much of the "planning" done by the other government agencies isn't coordinated by the office of planning and/or never comes before the office for substantive comment.

A key example is schools planning, which for the most part, is the domain of the local public school system, with limited input from other agencies, including the office of planning.

As far as delivering educational programs that's fine. (Well, it isn't, but that's another story.)

But the problem is the disconnect between the reality that schools, especially elementary schools, are a basic building block and foundation of quality neighborhoods and local community.

Schools are the fulcrum of community activity in so many places, and provide the means for people to meet and interact within communities outside of strict propinquity--meaning you have a chance to meet and become friends with a wide variety of people, not just the people you live next door to or across the street from.

Just like I believe that transportation planning needs to be done at two levels: (1) at the metropolitan level, setting requirements for network breadth and depth, level of service standards for the network and specific services; and (2) at the level of transit operations; schools planning in terms of providing a base level of "coverage" and neighborhood strengthening qualities and programs should not solely be the domain of the school system, the community's land use, neighborhood, and economic development planning initiatives need to take the lead on this so that all neighborhoods are served by at least one quality public school.

But in my neighborhood, which is gaining households with children, I don't know any families that send their children to the local elementary school, which is five blocks away. Mostly, their children go to charter schools or private day care. Although I guess people with children (and the people who live next door to them) end up meeting other families with children throughout the neighborhood because when they are out walking with their children, the kids end up being a "social bridge" that ease the process of meeting and making others' acquaintance.

In Baltimore County, the school system and the parks and recreation department have had for at least 50 years a memorandum of understanding about joint use of public school facilities for recreation programs.

In practice, that means that schools are used for more hours of the day and that the County doesn't need two different buildings to serve different functions. At the same time, certain school facilities such as gyms and auditoriums may be "overbuilt" so that they also can handle larger community functions, but that the money to pay for this comes in part from the Department of Recreation and Parks.

This idea needs to be extended so that a base number of schools are designated as what we might call "neighborhood foundation" schools, and the resources provided to the school would be funded in part for neighborhood stabilization and resident attraction and marketing purposes, meaning that some funds to maintain the schools in such places would come from outside of the budget of the school system.

Fixing the quality of the education program that is delivered is another question, one that I have written about plenty over the years.

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