Sustainable Site Selection for Schools
Environmental considerations include both positive and negative impacts. Positive impacts could include on-site provision of needed hydrological detention areas for the entire surrounding area. School landscape planting could help link flyways and provide habitat for native fauna. A school project could include improvement of existing infrastructure or mitigation of an existing degraded site.
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Negative impacts might include disruption of an existing habitat, park, or prime farmland. Unless the open space of the school can be shown to mitigate such a disruption, such sites should be avoided.
But transportation/ traffic to and from school probably will be the most significant impact and the most difficult to isolate. The temptation exists to say that this problem is too much a part of the greater society's way of life for a school to solve. But it is major; for most California schools, transportation accounts for half their current energy use. They could be off the electric grid entirely and half their energy use would remain.
The U.S. Safe Routes to School program began in local districts seeking to reverse the trend of students arriving at school one by one in private automobiles. Organizations are now active in 40 countries trying to get children back on their feet or their bikes to get to school.
Parents' perception of the dangers to children from both traffic and predatory adults have no doubt influenced the decline in children's walking to school. But it is possible to create safety improvements and to raise consciousness about the advantages of children who learn to navigate the streets and get themselves to school.
Planning for children to get to school on foot or bicycles should be part of choosing a school location. At the very least, the site selected for a new school should not make it more difficult to walk to school. Ideally it will be easier.
Other operational issues affected by location include hours of school operation and community use outside of school hours. Will high school students drive and need to park? How will food deliveries be made and garbage picked up? What impact will such service traffic have on surrounding residential neighbors?
Depending on jurisdiction, the bureaucratic process for developing open land will differ, but in most areas, some oversight exists. Usually impacts of the kinds just discussed will need a formal study and report. Sometimes the impacts of a school might have been included in the process for a larger development with housing, workplaces, shopping, and transportation links.
It is easy to say that the sustainable school location is in the neighborhood where the children live. But social, educational, and historical realities may mean that the neighborhood schools in a given community are not equitable or no longer provide the range of choices in educational approaches that can help different children thrive.
Alternatively, new housing may be developed at low density or in sensitive areas where additional development could be problematic. For these reasons, a sustainable approach to school location could include school busing, cooperation with municipal busing, biking, and carpools.
School locations often outlast the specific circumstances that exist at the time of their creation. Thus, family needs might require greater distances to be traveled now.
At a planning level, a reasonable distribution of schools throughout residential neighborhoods, and perhaps even with some specialty schools in center business districts, offers a community the infrastructure that could make it possible to reduce car trips to school in the future.
Similarly, in many suburban communities that are short on parks, such distribution can ensure that the school grounds are available for sports and play after school and can serve the wider community.
The sustainable school site is:
- Central to the community it serves.
- Linked to walking and bike-friendly routes.
- Outside sensitive habitat.
- Coordinated with existing transportation, water, waste, and energy networks.
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Lisa Gelfand, AIA, LEED AP, one of the preeminent experts in green school design and construction, is managing principal of Gelfand Partners Architects in San Francisco. With more than three decades of experience, she has served on the technical committee of the California Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS). Her firm, which has designed many award-winning sustainable schools and has been the district architect for several school districts, has pioneered innovative ways to serve public and not-for-profit clients with practical and affordable sustainable architecture.
Eric Corey Freed, LEED AP, the founding principal of organicArchitect of San Francisco and Palm Springs, California, is a nationally known sustainability expert who is the author of Green Building and Remodeling for Dummies.
This article is excerpted from Sustainable School Architecture by Lisa Gelfand with Eric Corey Freed, copyright © 2010, with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons.