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.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Missing the most important point about closing Clifton School in Fairfax County

The Post's Robert McCartney writes today, in "Board member punished for trying to do the right thing in Fairfax school dispute," about how Fairfax County School Board member Liz Bradsher is stepping down, and frames the story in terms of loss of civility and making hard decisions.

Ms. Bradsher voted to close the Clifton Elementary School, which is the anchor of its rural community, because "after studying the costs and enrollment forecasts, she concluded that it made more sense for the county to spend scarce renovation dollars elsewhere."

In response, many anonymous web writers excoriated her.

While we should understand and support the use of "cost-benefit" analytical tools to make this decision, and while we should not support the decline in civic discourse and engagement, to my way of thinking McCartney's column misses the most important point, a point that is more important than the loss of civility.

Schools are fundamental anchors which build and maintain quality neighborhoods and communities. Therefore to maintain communities we need to maintain the schools located within them.

This ought to be obvious.

It's why houses in high-performing school districts and school zones (e.g., a house in the Walt Whitman or Richard Montgomery High School enrollment zones in Montgomery County) cost a lot more compared to equivalent houses located in areas with schools that aren't "as good."

There is an article in the Boston Globe real estate section about potentially gentrifying communities in the Boston region, "Gentrification in the suburbs: Who's next?" The person quoted makes the point that there are four characteristics that must be in place for a community to be able change. One is schools:

1) They have decent schools ... good enough so that people don't freak out about it and feel like with some effort and personal attention, they can be "just as good" as some of the towns with excelling systems baked in.

(The other three points are high quality transit access; a variety of types of high quality housing; and personality (authenticity).)

Because schools are such important anchors for neighborhoods and communities, the reality is that the decisions about school maintenance and closure are too important to solely be left to school systems, which don't normally consider neighborhood maintenance and improvement to be part of their mission and therefore don't consider this issue as a normal part of the decision-making calculus on school closure.

And yes, it's just as easy to bend too far in this direction, but it should be considered a basic principle of community planning that most neighborhoods should be served by or have access to close by excellent schools. Therefore, community planning processes need to be structured so that this principle is a preferred outcome.

Therefore, school closure decisions should be subject to planning approval. If more money is required to improve or maintain a school than would normally be seen as justifiable from a school system budget, then money could and should be obtained from the general funds of the jurisdiction to do so, if it is decided that maintaining the neighborhood and its quality of life is a priority.

Sadly, these issues aren't discussed in planning circles very much.

It's clear to me that the very basics of how local planning processes are organized and coordinated have to change.

Even though the Clifton Elementary School closure in Fairfax County is a rural issue, it's in fact an example fully relevant to us in the urban setting.

Consolidation pressures within school districts has been a multi-decade phenomenon which first had significant impact on rural areas (and the closure, for example, of one room schools) and now has equally important impact on urban and inner ring suburb neighborhoods, especially in communities and regions that are shrinking/in weak real estate markets.

Related is the walk/bus to school issue, which is generated in part by how accreditation standards favor large sprawling campus-based schools over more compact multi-story schools.

See the Community-Centered Schools webpage from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for more resources on this topic.

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