|Transportation instead of place|
represents 1/3 of the public transit passengers of the entire MTA, buses and rail combined. With almost 30,000 employees, the two Baltimore school systems (City and County) are by far the largest employer in Maryland. Combined, they operate over 350 buildings, as many as the entire downtown of a mid-size city. Shouldn't these mega organizations be considered highly important not only for education but also economic development, urban renewal, and urban space?
Unfortunately, for all the public attention that public schools get, economic development, urban renewal, and place-making aren't typically the topics of discussion. As a consequence, schools frequently undo places instead of making them, especially when they need more room and move out of their established spots.
We don't have to search too hard to find the reasons why schools are rarely considered as an integral component of urban development.
|Booker T. Washington School in Baltimore, built to|
last and instill pride and place
One reason is that schools and school systems are safely siloed and walled off from agencies concerned with urban development. In a desire to insulate education from politics, Mayor and Council typically have little influence on how schools are run beyond some control over the buildings themselves. Take the capital budgets of schools: In many cases it is actually quite unclear where the money comes from. School systems lead a life of their own and how exactly the governance works differs from state to state and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Elected school boards, appointed school boards, schools where local government owns the buildings but the school board runs the operations, does education fundingdoes come from property taxes, state budgets or both? All of these conditions and questions make forthe general public a system that is usually pretty obtuse and poorly understood. Urban design, then, is the least of worries for concerned parents or even the school boards themselves.
Instead, debates rage about how US education performs in international comparisons, to what extent schools should equip their students with computer tablets, whether “Common Core" or some other curriculum is better, how the deficiencies in science and math can be overcome, how arts can help students’ self-confidence, or how physical education and better cafeteria food can combat obesity. These issues seem all so much more relevant than the school as a place maker in the community. As a parent who shepherded five children to public schools I appreciate all those preoccupations. The obesity question, however, illustrates well that several seemingly unrelated issues eventually lead to place making. Why is it, for example, that kids can't walk to school anymore?
The departure of schools from their communities in which they were proud anchors in favor of the never-spaces between communities is the story of sprawl, the dominant development pattern of the many decades after the war, not only in the US but also overseas. I experienced it first hand: My grandfather was a small town mayor and according to common lore his biggest achievement was to abolish one room schools in the three tiny villages of his district in favor of a brand new joint school shared between them, and located in green fields equidistant from each village, reachable only by bus. On my grandpa's seventieth, eightieth and even his ninetieth birthday the village elders never tired to tell the story how this forward looking man had brought progress to his communities in the shape of a school kitchen, a cafeteria, and even a library, and how my grandfather had gone into battle to get this done over the objections of those stuck in the past. Of course, a school which opened in the late sixties doesn't look so bright anymore. In fact, they come from a period when school design clearly had a low.
|The school my grandfather initiated: Too unsafe to walk to|
Similar stories played out all across the United States as well and they still occur to this day The tiny spot of Prices Fork outside Blacksburg, VA, for example, just last year rolled one of big sprawling single story educational villages into the fields that once constituted a considerable distance between Blacksburg and Prices Fork while the town of Blackburg itself gobbled much of the green buffer up with not just one but two sprawling compounds, a Middle and a High school side by side on an area larger than the entire town center. By now Blacksburg and Prices Fork have almost grown together, each having lost a good part of their previous identity in the process.Similar stories played out all across the United States as well and they still occur to this day. The tiny spot of Prices Fork outside Blacksburg, VA, for example, just last year rolled out a big sprawling single-story educational village in the fields that once constituted a considerable rural expanse between Blacksburg and Prices Fork. The town of Blacksburg itself gobbled much of the green buffer up with not just one but two sprawling compounds, a middle and a hHigh school side-by-side on an area larger than the entire town center. By now, Blacksburg and Prices Fork have almost grown together, each having lost a good part of their previous identity in the process.
|Prices Fork ES, hardly a place maker, certainly not|
a walk to school
In addition to sprawl other forces are at play which don't help community development-based place making: Frequent attacks on schools foster a bunker mentality in which security concerns squash any desire for openness and community mingling. Immigration and demographics having to do with the baby boomer "echo" and their offspring made many centrally located schools too small or obsolete. Baltimore County, especially hit by overcrowded elementary schools, resorted to complicated new deals in which several historic school buildings and community centers are supposed to be gutted in favor of efficient and cost-effective new construction often in a new location. In one case a much beloved tree studded open space was selected as the site fora new school, pitting parents against dog-walkers, seniors, and runners. In Catonsville, the recently awakened main street is being threatened with the loss and demolition of its 1912 Elementary School, by far the largest historic structure on the street and an important character-shaping element of the village core.
|Catonsville Elementary. In the community and of the|
community but threatened by demolition
The relationship of school and community is increasingly recognized not necessarily for urban design but for its value to education itself. Needless to say, when schools moved away from their communities those relationships suffered in many ways. The Enterprise paper "Reconnecting Schools and Neighborhoods" summarizes the mutual dependencies:
Families,schools, and neighborhoods also influence each other. Families can reinforce or detract from school activities, and schools can influence family behavior by encouraging certain educational practices within the home. Neighborhoods can influence families by providing access to jobs, a sense of physical safety, and social networks.In addition, advantaged families tend to select prosperous neighborhoods where other affluent families send their children to school.The influence of families,schools, and neighborhoods are interconnected, making it exceptionally difficult to quantify the independent effect of each on children’s academic performance. Nevertheless, all three forces clearly play a role in shaping children’s outcomes.
Big cities, often landlocked inside the surrounding county, not only have a hard time finding space for sprawling expansions, therefore spawning more urban solutions, but their long history also allows a nice comparison of school architecture over time and a comparison of facilities and how they performed in their communities. Let's just say, the schools from the seventies aren't the top performers. The windowless, low-flung imitations of the suburbs are absent of any architectural ambition and guided only by what was then considered functionality. As a result they are often the least loved and most in need of a drastic overhaul, while stately multi-story buildings that were designed to be proud civic landmarks in their community are still that, even if their interiors are outdated and in need of upgrades. A 2013 exhibit titled "the Edgeless School" showed many good urban schools that opened up to their surrounding communities in tight urban settings. (East Harlem Center for Living and Learning). Washington DC has a School Without Walls that "uses the city as a classroom".
|Layout of the Henderson community|
school, mimicking city blocks
Baltimore City, then, presents an instructive example for what community-based schools can be, especially with the promise of an even more community-based approach for the upcoming capital investment program, a concept that fellow Baltimore architect David Hong dubbed Community Investment Zones. The idea of school investment zones around the billion dollar city construction program is still mostly an idea supported by AIA. Baltimore City has yet to translate it into action in the form of focused improvement action in the communities surrounding the schools. David states this in his newspaper editorial:
True transformation will require a larger, more comprehensive vision for community development that addresses both the problem of failing neighborhoods and the problem of failing schools.
Two recently completed new schools in Baltimore City could be especially instructive: one, the public "magnet" Design School (graphic design, fashion and architecture), is a renovation of a three-story former garment factory funded by a private developer and leased back by the school system. The Design School is an important anchor of the Station North Arts and Entertainment district.
The other is the Henderson Hopkins School, a brand new, state-of-the-rt K-8 "community school," located in what used to be the poorest area of Baltimore, "Middle East," Henderson Hopkins was funded for the most part by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Johns Hopkins School of Education, and is run as a "Contract School."
|Rehabbed and partially re-built rowhouses for|
Hopkins-Henderson library: In and of the
Both schools are interesting as buildings, as models for funding, as examples of wide ranging partnerships and as trendsetters for new pedagogy. But for the purpose of this article I bring them up as models of economic development, as urban design contributors and as anchors of their respective communities, each deeply disinvested and disenfranchised until recently. Both schools aim for interaction with the community down to special entrances that allow the public to use parts of the school even while other parts are full of students. Unlike their suburban counterparts they don't stand withdrawn in the middle of parking and greenery but form a street-edge on a regular city block just like city buildings normally do. The Henderson school design by Rogers Architects in New York was the design competition winner for the very reason that it rebuilt the urban patterns that were germane to the East Baltimore Community. As the architect explains:
The Library is not only place for knowledge from outside the community but also a place for knowledge of the community from inside the community.
Another interesting Baltimore example of the community building power of schools is far less direct, Seawall's recent strategy of providing affordable housing specifically for teachers. The purpose is to attract quality teachers to urban communities which have often difficulties attracting them. Seawall has expanded its teacher communities from rental housing to starter homes for teachers and small businesses that serve the teachers and surrounding communities.
Pedagogy, the renaissance of cities, the interest in walkable mixed-use urban communities and the desire to create healthy communities all point in the same direction: Into a future where schools once again are engines, centers, and proud landmarks in their communities.
|The concept of school/ community investment zones (David Hong, AIA)|
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited Ben Groff
updated for link to Smart Growth Schools 8/24/14
updated for link to Smart Growth Schools 8/24/14
Links related to this story:
Enterprise Report (2007): Reconnecting School and Neighborhood
Building a School with a Future (NPR)
Smart Growth Schools Report Card (A toolkit for assessing how much school investments are smart growth)
Baltimore City Schools, Baltimore City ten year construction plan
Baltimore County Schools, Baltimore County ten year plan
Baltimore School Community Investment Zones (suggested strategy, see also here)
Related stories on this blog:
Cities in Search of the 21st Century School
My Walkable Childhood Habitat
Why dealing with the Past through Demolition may not Work
Art as Neighborhood Regenerator
Baltimore Design School
Comments to this piece submitted on other websites: