Posted February 21st 2013 at 10:29 am by
in Education

The Self-Defeating Disconnect Between Cities and Schools

Planners are always looking for the bigger and bigger picture: what’s the externality and how can the system expand to account for those outcomes? “Traffic engineers” begat “transportation engineers”, which begat “transportation planners”. City Planning expanded into Regional Planning. Community outreach is all the rage, and new technologies are dreamed up every day to better engage adults in the community planning process.

Still, we planners have a tremendous collective blind spot on age. Seniors and adults are easy enough to rally; I’m talking about schools and youth.

Schools are more than just another form of public investment, because they directly drive housing choices and transportation behavior. The National Association of Realtors reports that school quality and proximity are the deciding factors for 44% of home buyers. Safe Routes to Schools found that half of school age children are dropped off each day by a family car. Want to draw people to an area? Improve the schools. Want to reduce automobile trips and emissions? Encourage walking and biking to school.

It’s surprising then that schools are not only missing from the planning process, they’re often exempt from it.

Consider Plan Bay Area. The nine-county San Francisco Bay Area is wrapping up this long-range regional plan, under direction from the unusually well aligned transportation, land use, air quality, and conservation districts. The Plan distributes many of the region’s next 2 million residents into transit-oriented developments. How long do you think it took for anyone to contact a local school district to say: “Hey, we’re changing the zoning, so expect a bunch of new kids here in the next decade”?

Answer: Two years.

The Priority Development Districts were designed, vetted, and adopted without anyone ever comparing them to school district boundaries. It wasn’t until well into the public involvement stage that a member of a school board caught wind of the process, but by then it was too late for any intentional alignment of boundaries, resources, or plans.

Another case, already reported on CoLab Radio, is from Covington, Georgia. Essentially, school districts are incentivized to buy the cheapest land possible, regardless of the cost to route buses, the cost to construct, or the cost to other agencies for providing infrastructure like sewer and roads. Covington’s newest high school, Alcovy, was pushed 10 miles out of town to an entirely undeveloped timber zone. Once the school was built, the water and sewer authority were obligated to lay pipe to serve it. Property values rose, several new subdivisions were built, and now hundreds of homes dot a congested two-lane rural highway never intended for walking or biking.

This happens all the time. Restrictions on private development, such as growth boundaries and urban limit lines, often don’t apply to public infrastructure like schools. School construction easily forces these boundaries to change.

Alcovy High School in Covington, Georgia.

It’s one thing to exclude school boards from discussions of transportation and housing, but students themselves are routinely excluded, too. Youth have a different, but incredibly useful perspective on a place. And children, especially young children, can be much more direct about their impressions of a place, if you’re willing to listen.

A few years back, I was one of about a dozen facilitators for a neighborhood workshop in Oakland. I was 25 at the time, and easily among the dozen youngest people in the 100+ participant group. Understandably, few venues can hold a crowd this size, so we were working out of a senior center. A beautifully restored historic senior center, but still a senior center. The organizers, nearly seniors themselves, clearly didn’t see an issue with this, but the building was unwelcoming to young people. I felt unwelcome, and I was staff. The precise feeling of unwelcoming was hard to pin down and difficult to describe, but it was there nonetheless. Once you made it to your discussion room, dozens of adults with years of workshop practice were ready to throw down for/against parking/development. Both sides had varsity talent, and many participants, young and old, needed the facilitators to create a safe space in the conversation for them to speak.

Unsurprisingly, very few youth showed up to this Saturday morning workshop. The organizers made a half-hearted attempt to lure people under 18 by raffling baseball tickets. After the four-hour workshop, they finally called ticket numbers. It became apparent that most of the youth who dragged themselves out of bed for the 10 a.m. start time had already left, and number after number was called with no claimants present. After an embarrassing eight or nine tries, they just asked for everyone under 18 to approach the stage, and the two kids left took home a dozen tickets each.

Not only are youth scheduled out of opportunities for public participation, or made to feel unwelcome, but they aren’t given the tools to discuss these issues confidently with adults. Frankly, most adults aren’t given these tools, either. Think back to how you learned about planning. Was it handed to you, or did you have to seek information out for yourself? Were your life circumstances different, would you have taken the time?

What would it take to get zoning or transportation planning into a high school civics class? Or to include the highway revolt in U.S. History? Or to teach architecture to kindergarteners?

A lonely few organizations are moving to fill this void, including the Center for Cities and Schools at the University of California, Berkeley (full disclosure, I am a graduate fellow). Their Y-PLAN (Youth Plan Learn Act Now!) curriculum presents a guide for teaching youth community participation. In addition El Carrito, a mobile public participation cart in the Fort Pienc neighborhood of Barcelona, and PLACE IT!, based in Los Angeles, both work from the point of view that people of all ages can work together on a vision for their city.

Finally reaching adulthood, it’s easy to think “Finally! It’s my turn!” and close the door behind you. But it’s impossible to be inexperienced at living, observing, or traveling a place you call home. All perspectives hold value in community planning, and it’s time to expand our dialogue about place to schools and youth.

Post by Ruth Miller.

6 responses to “The Self-Defeating Disconnect Between Cities and Schools”

  1. Nse Esema says:

    You make some really great points here Ruth. I get the sense that the use of games in urban planning processes (ie Participatory Chinatown: or CommunityPlanIt Philadelphia2035: is helping to increase youth involvement. Is that true?

  2. Ruth Miller says:

    Hi Nse: Great question. I think these digital tools definitely help democratize information, but don’t integrate themselves into discussion. Putting the tool out there doesn’t get it adopted, they need great supportive groups like the ones you mention.

    That said, StreetMix is my new favorite of these tools:

  3. Ryan Wozniak says:

    In my experience, public school districts do become notified when a subdivision is under review and they can claim their space during the entitlement process. Who on the school district’s staff decides where and how? I don’t know, but it would have been on my list of things to find out with a little more time on staff (I interned in a Town in AZ for 10 months). All schools are treated with a very hands-off approach, because they are public bodies of their own and their site plans are not open to much discussion with a municipalities planning staff, with the exception of having to meet parking requirements and building heights as outlined in the zoning ordinance. Fascinatingly, charter schools are well on the rise and they are cut out of the process all together. Charter schools are then left to buy up property outside the developing subdivisions and usually then locate on arterial streets where they can find the real estate. Charter schools often have phasing plans that will discourage a public school district from even taking interest in developing new schools when the pool of children are being soaked up as quickly as possible (by schools with horrible locations for safe routes to school).

  4. Eric says:

    Some Plan Commissions require one school board member or administrator to have a seat, but even when they do, that doesn’t mean they could tell you what a neighborhood school is. Sounds like you want a Neighborhood Unit renaissance.

  5. Dave Herlihy, AICP says:

    Many points in the article ring true for me. As a Florida school district planner, I think the legislature here got it just about right: 1) require local govs and school boards to enter an interlocal agreement to do big picture planning for schools, 2) establish how the parties will coordinate and what info they’ll share and when they’ll share, and 3) leave school boards fairly autonomous (let them “contract away” whatever they might care to, but don’t require districts to give away autonomy).

    After ~20 years of local government planning AND 7 years of school planning, I can say that planning for school locations/timing and infrastructure needs appears to receive little attention from local governments. The location of a school site is far more important than what happens on the site. In my opinion, local governments can do a better job of learning the problems schools have and then focus on aiding the districts in getting optimal sites with ready infrastructure. Give schools the same kid glove treatment that economic development prospects get.

    The process of awakening local governments to the nuances of school planning is a long slog. School planning (at least in Florida) seems to be on the same long slow trip that mandated Comprehensive Planning made (from 1985 to its recent evisceration? liberation?).

    School districts have their planning shortcomings to. Resisting the allure of cheap land, analyzing the school location/student location/transportation route cost link, right sizing schools for their location (vs. repeatedly stamping out the same prototype) and assuming uniform student distribution, etc. …These are just a few areas we can do better in.

    On the whole,…things look to be improving. After all,… articles like this are appearing and the discussion is happening.

  6. Evan Lowenstein says:

    I love what you are saying–I think “blind spot” is exactly the way to describe the problem. I want to find a way to dedicate my career (I have a Masters in Planning) to meaningfully involving youth in the community planning process, and have wanted this for some time (life has gotten in the way of this quest a few times)! Youth can and should be owners and authors of their communities’ futures. I have many times run a role play through which youth (mostly upper elementary-aged) participate in a land use/development scenario. It’s fascinating and encouraging to me how even the younger kids can understand land use/community planning issues, policies and practices if they are just given a chance. I would love to talk with you more about this very important but absent form of experiential education for our youth, and see what kinds of synergies might emerge!