Elegant Innovation: Lessons from Urban School Design, A Final Thought
In my last two posts I’ve examined the benefits and assets of urban schools, mostly built pre-WWII, and innovative educational programs that have been available to urban students for decades. Urban schools have set trends for years, and these same districts are inventing creative solutions to spatial challenges. Urban planners understand that density in urban design is an asset, and not a deficit. Urban schools, likewise, have pioneered ways to overcome space constraints, by delivering peak experience over mere expansiveness.
- Small but mighty school yards: Though urban schoolyards tend to be small, often located in the midst of communities, they offer desirable enclosed spaces that should remain, to the greatest extent feasible, unencumbered by the presence of auto and bus drop off traffic so predominant in suburban settings. A few years ago, national planning organizations wisely ended outdated recommendations for high acreage elementary, middle, and high school schoolyard spaces. Instead, there is a growing acceptance that schools in densely-populated neighborhoods can thrive with much smaller sites – sometimes even within office towers or other unorthodox settings. The focus is on creatively accommodating the program rather than on a ‘one-suburban-size-fits-all’ acreage matrix.
- Steps to Success: Schools with three levels can work well, as long as the youngest children (pre-school through first grade) can be accommodated at ground level. Even elementary schools can function well vertically. And, a more vertical building frees ground level space for play and for limited parking and service.
- Rethinking the single-occupancy vehicle: Urban areas are often replete with public transit options. Many cities will design bus routes to support public education transit demands to ease overreliance on private cars. Though today’s administrators, teachers, parents and students may prefer driving, supporting carpooling and creating an awareness of the environmental benefits of transit over single-occupancy vehicles are increasingly popular options.
- Creative use of space: Using rooftops for play and/or outdoor educational space has long been a feature in our largest cities. Interestingly, now suburban areas where the cost of land is at a premium are emulating this trend.
- The city as school: A striking benefit of urban school systems is the array of city assets available at short distances. Many urban school districts utilize parks, museums, public libraries and even nearby colleges or universities to compensate for lack of space. This trend has successful application in suburban and rural areas as well.
Urban schools have long been a crucible for evolution, re-invention, and reform. Because of the challenges faced by urban communities, creativity has been a necessary characteristic of urban educators and policy makers. The rich fabric of America’s cities provides a density of resources and ideas that have application well beyond the urban core.