School Building and Siting

The ideal envisioned by advocates of the Smart Growth and new urbanism movements of the ‘70s and ‘80s--and embraced by a generation of planners and designers--is one of mixed-use communities that are walkable and bikeable, where kids attend community-centered schools, and residents walk to nearby retail shops and businesses. It’s an idea that’s been made increasingly compelling by the growing recognition that we have to reduce our energy consumption and gas emissions--and improve the health and fitness of our children. But in many communities, school siting policies have been stuck back in the 1950s. While planners of all stripes were advocating Smart Growth zoning and building policies at the local and state levels, school districts continued to follow school construction guidelines and state policies that favored so-called sprawl schools--schools that require large tracts of land in outlying areas. Those same policies and guidelines disadvantaged the renovation of existing schools and the construction of smaller, community-centered schools.

The numbers speak for themselves. Nationwide, over the past 60 years, schools have become significantly bigger and there are fewer of them; since 1945, average school size has increased fivefold, and the number of schools has declined by 70 percent. And schools are located farther from the families they serve. Consider this: In 1969, 87 percent of students lived within one mile of their school; by 2001, only 21 percent lived within a mile of school. The environmental and health consequences of school building and siting decisions made over the past 60 years--and the impact on the quality of life in surrounding communities--have been enormous. Among them are these:

  • Most kids can’t walk or bike to school anymore, a situation widely recognized as a factor contributing to the rise in obesity rates among U.S. school children. (See related article, Issues in Public Education, “Walkability and Safe Routes to School”)
  • Traffic congestion and emissions associated with transportation to and from school have become major problems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cites the rise in rush hour traffic associated with school trips as a key contributor to air quality problems in a number of cities.
  • The cost of busing students--even those that live within walking distance of schools--has emerged as a financial issue facing school boards around the country. Nationwide, in the 25 years from 1978 to 2003, the cost of transporting students to school doubled.

In 2000, The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) played a major role in bringing the issue of misguided school siting policies to the forefront of the national debate with the publication Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl: Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School. The report raised serious questions about policies and processes that have effectively sabotaged the construction and renovation of community-centered schools--and promoted sprawl at the expense of established neighborhoods. For one thing, the report notes that schools are often exempted from zoning regulations, and school officials have a history of selecting sites without consulting local planning officials--so, in many cases, school boards choose sites that are out of step with the overall community planning goals and requirements. But the report laid partial blame for runaway sprawl school development on two widely accepted standards used to make decisions about where and whether to build a new school: minimum-acreage guidelines and the so-called two-thirds, or “percentage,” rule.

Building Big: Minimum Acreage Requirements

The Council of Education Facility Planners International (CEFPI), the Arizona-based professional association that issues guidance on school construction, played a significant role in influencing the trend toward building megaschools. From the 1970s until 2004, acreage guidelines for new school construction, set by CEFPI, specified that an elementary school of 500 students required 15 acres, and a high school of 2,000 students needed at least 50 acres. As a point of reference, the LEED for Neighborhood Development Rating System sets maximum acreage standards for schools: New school campuses must not exceed 15 acres for high schools, 10 acres for middle schools, and 5 acres for elementary schools. To put the issue in further perspective, an older neighborhood school typically occupies two to eight acres. “The problem has been that, in order to meet those standards, given the cost and availability of land, school officials feel the need to abandon neighborhood sites and build in the middle of nowhere,” says Constance Beaumont, author of Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School, in discussing the report.

The National Trust had raised a red flag. In 2002, the Trust issued a second edition of the report, and not long afterwards, the EPA commissioned a CEFPI study of state policies. Based on CEFPI’s findings, most states do publish acreage guidelines, and as of 2004, 27 states had minimum acreage standards, many of which mirrored CEFPI’s recommendations. In 2004, in a major reversal, CEFPI revised its siting recommendations to embrace a more flexible approach to school siting--one that now supports community-centered schools.

Over the past decade, some states, including South Carolina, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and New Mexico, have eliminated--and even prohibited--minimum acreage requirements for school sites. In other states, minimum acreage guidelines remain in place. Either way, deeply ingrained policies and practices are hard to change. According to a follow-up report published by the National Trust in 2010 called Helping Johnny Walk to School: Policy Recommendations for Removing Barriers to Community-Centered Schools, “South Carolina did away with minimum acreage standards in 2003, but failed to educate localities about the change in policy and the benefits to the community of smaller sites. As a result, local districts continue to build sprawling school facilities on the outside of town.”

Building New Versus Renovating: The Percentage Rule

The National Trust’s 2000 and 2002 reports also took aim at the percentage rule--or two-thirds rule--a widely accepted standard for determining whether to renovate an existing school or to build a new one. The rule basically states that if the cost to renovate a school exceeds 60 percent of the cost of replacing it, the best option is to build a new school. Based on this standard, school districts around the country have abandoned existing schools in favor of new construction. According to an article published in Governing magazine, the percentage rule comes from the writings of a relatively obscure Columbia University professor of the 1940s and 1950s; the original article apparently contained no documentation to back up its assertions, which essentially were nothing more than “one man’s opinion,” according to Royce Yeater, Midwest director of the NTHP, who calls the percentage rule “an old wives’ tale.” Nonetheless, even today, the percentage rule continues to drive decisions about whether to build or to renovate.

When it comes to assessing the cost of building new versus renovating, there are other factors that come into play. “Astonishingly, certain costs, such as demolishing the existing building, building new infrastructure, and land acquisition, are not typically part of the calculation,” according to the 2010 NTHP report, Helping Johnny Walk to School. Generally, such formulas fail to take into account the higher costs to communities of transporting students, not to mention the health and environmental implications of building in areas where students can’t walk or bike to school--or the cost of adding sidewalks and pathways 10 or 20 years down the road, a process under way in many communities today. Advocates for community-centered schools encourage policymakers to undertake feasibility studies to get a clear picture of the actual costs before abandoning the old for the new.

Preservationists also cite the hidden cost to communities of closing down existing schools that could be renovated--schools that serve as important anchors for existing neighborhoods. The impact can be significant. In Hard Lessons: Causes and Consequences of Michigan’s School Construction Boom, researchers at the Michigan Land Use Institute found that a school closing can affect property values in the surrounding area and had cost the city, county, and schools an estimated $2 million in unrealized property tax revenue from 1994 to 2003. And, according to that report, “In every case we studied, building a new school cost more than renovating an older one.”

Then there are the environmental costs of relocating schools in outlying neighborhoods. In 2003, the EPA released a study of its own: Travel and Environmental Implications of School Siting. It was the first empirical study exploring the relationship between school siting policies and transportation, including the impact of emissions. The study compared two Florida high schools--Gainesville High School, centrally located within a community and surrounded by development, and Eastside High School, located “at the edge of the urbanized area amidst undeveloped land.” The researchers determined that auto emissions generated by Eastside students were more than twice as high as those for Gainesville students. The conclusion, “Schools located closer to their students help improve public health, not only by helping children stay active, but also by reducing traffic and automobile emissions. Schools built close to students, in walkable neighborhoods, can be called neighborhood schools. We conclude that compared to our sample from existing schools, neighborhood schools would reduce traffic, produce a 13% increase in walking and biking and a reduction of at least 15% in emissions of concern.”

The Trends

A lot has happened since the National Trust for Historic Preservation released its groundbreaking report in 2000. For one thing, in 2008, the Trust created the Helping Johnny Walk to School project under a cooperative agreement with the EPA. The project provides grants for advocacy, education, and local programs that support community-centered schools. In addition, in 2005, Congress authorized an expenditure of $612 million over five years to support the establishment of the National Center for Safe Routes to School, creating a national network that reaches into the 50 states and Washington, DC--and is effecting change on a range of issues related to walkability, including school siting policy. Today, there is a significant movement under way--among planners, environmentalists, educators, families, communities, and health, biking, and walking advocates to address the issue of creating more walkable communities, maintaining and building community-centered schools, and changing misguided school siting policies.

Nonetheless, the trend toward building big schools that require large tracts of land is deeply entrenched, and based on current data, it shows no signs of abating. Our nation has recently passed through a school construction boom. New school construction rose steadily from 1995 to 2000 and remained at high levels until 2008, then declined with the onset of the economic crisis. According to the annual review of the school construction industry published in 2009 by School Planning & Management magazine, most of the schools under construction as of 2009 are larger schools. Says the report, “The reason, of course, revolves around questions of efficiency and cost. “ When measured in terms of construction costs alone, large schools are simply less expensive per student to build.

One thing is clear: As long as decisions about building versus renovating, about school size and school siting, are made simply on the basis of narrowly conceived--and, in some cases, misguided--cost formulas, school districts will continue to build big. For decades, these decisions were justified in part by the belief that larger schools resulted in better overall performance and that bigger schools produced economies of scale that translate into greater opportunities for students--better facilities, a broader curriculum, and more extracurricular activities. But a growing body of research suggests that small, community-centered schools outperform so-called megaschools. For example, studies show that smaller schools have lower drop-out rates and that students at larger schools are actually less likely to participate in extracurricular activities. In addition, the benefits of putting schools--or keeping schools--in walkable neighborhoods are now widely recognized. Given the compelling need to improve student heath, conserve resources, and protect the environment, attitudes are shifting. And a host of public agencies and advocacy groups are calling for school building and siting policies that strengthen existing neighborhoods, promote energy efficiency and reuse, reduce emissions, improve the health of American schoolchildren, and make economic sense.

In that regard, have we made progress since 2000? Perhaps the National Trust’s 2010 report provides the best answer when it says, “Awareness about the health, transportation, and sustainability ramifications of school siting choices has grown significantly. But despite this growing awareness of the benefits of community-centered schools, far too many existing schools continue to be threatened with abandonment, and new schools continue to be built far from the residents they serve.”


Web Resources

Smart Growth and Schools1
For EPA resources on the subject of building and siting schools according to Smart Growth objectives. Presentations, articles, and links to a host of organizations are available at the site.

State Guidelines for School Facilities2
Access to up-to-date school guidelines for various states.

Helping Johnny Walk to School Project3
The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Helping Johnny Walk to School Project awards “sub-grants” for communities and provides resources for advocates and policymakers on how to preserve, renovate, and reuse historic schools.

NTHP Policy Recommendations4
Download detailed policy recommendations from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for establishing smart school siting guidelines and public policies.

National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF): Build New or Renovate School Facilities?5
Resources that help schools determine whether to build new or renovate.

Additional NCEF Resources on School Siting6

Safe Routes to School National Partnership: School Siting7
Information on state school siting guidelines for walkability.

EPA Guidelines for Safe School Siting8
Information on new voluntary school siting guidelines released by the EPA in 2010 and other valuable resources.

Safe School Siting Toolkit9
Published in 2009 by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, this toolkit provides information on how to promote safe school siting guidelines.


See related article in Issues in Public Education, “Walkability and Safe Routes to School.”
See related article in REALTORS® Making a Difference, “Organize a Walk/Bike to School.”

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