Schools and Sprawl: The Impact of School Siting

By Guest Columnist KATHERINE MOORE, senior director of The Georgia Conservancy’s statewide Sustainable Growth program

This holiday season, I’m thankful for … an easier-than-normal commute.

katherine moore

Katherine Moore

School is out this week for Thanksgiving break, but if you’re like me, you may find yourself heading into the office at some point to escape from the excess of family time and turkey leftovers. With most metro-area schools deserted this week, you will no doubt enjoy a noticeably smoother and shorter commute.

Schools’ impact on traffic congestion is something we can all see and feel immediately. In some communities, school trips now account for 10 percent of all short trips and almost 30 percent of morning peak hour traffic. While the rhythms of the school year can be a solid predictor of traffic jams, the calendar isn’t the only culprit.

School design, planning, and placement in the community – what we planners call “school siting,” – has a range of consequences, both intended and unintended. Traffic is the most obvious consequence of school siting decisions, but their impacts on air quality, public health, and community stability grow in urgency over time.

In my role as director of Georgia Conservancy’s Sustainable Growth program, I work with communities to leverage school siting as a catalyst for smart growth instead of an enabler of sprawl. Since 2012, Georgia Conservancy has been a national leader in educating decision-makers on best practices under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) School Siting Guidelines.

Academy bike rack

Decatur’s 4/5 Academy at Fifth Avenue encourages students to ride a bus, but its compact site and walkable location make “walking or rolling” an appealing option. Credit: The Georgia Conservancy.

Many Georgia communities wrestle with the high cost of building and operating new schools, as well as the repercussions of closing existing schools. School boards, stuck between the requirements of new facilities and growing student populations, often seek large greenfield sites on the urban fringe. These campuses attract new residential and commercial development, thereby inducing further sprawl and creating longer travel distances to school.

As a result of our state policies and regulations, Georgia has some of the largest schools in the country. These mega-campuses come with mega impacts, both for the environment and the community. As schools become larger, they are more disconnected from the families they serve, both physically and socially. Walking or biking to school is unrealistic when students live miles away from campus. The distance also makes it harder for students, parents, and staff to become involved and attached to a sprawling campus designed for economies of scale.

How can we do school siting differently? On my morning commute from Kirkwood to Downtown Atlanta, I pass through the vicinity of 3 or 4 different school campuses – old and new, big and small – and some work better than others in terms of school siting.

drew traffic

Charles R. Drew Charter School isn’t walkable or accessible as it could be, given that there’s one way into and one way out of the campus. Credit: Kevin Bacon

The award-winning Charles R. Drew Charter School, completed in 2014, is phenomenal in terms of curriculum and design, but the 30-acre campus is not as walkable or accessible as it could be. There’s basically one way in and one way out. A fair amount of children walk to school, so off-duty officers are there to keep students safe as they navigate traffic. I’ve made the mistake of attempting to drive down East Lake Boulevard at dismissal time and got unintentionally caught in the queue line.

Then there’s The 4/5 Academy in Oakhurst. It’s a newer building, but the location has been a school site for over 100 years. The entire facility fits neatly onto a 3-acre site with a long, permeable barrier with the neighborhood along Fifth Avenue. Because the school serves 4th and 5th graders, I often see kids walking and biking without their parents. The bike rack is always full.

On Hosea Williams Drive, I cruise past Fred A. Toomer Elementary and Whitefoord Elementary schools. The first is a suburban style campus with two soccer fields that are shared by a variety of community groups. Thanks to Kirkwood’s short blocks, many parents would rather walk their kids to school than drive.

Crossing guards halt traffic as students as they walk to and from Charles R. Drew Charter School. Credit: The Georgia Conservancy

Crossing guards halt traffic as students as they walk to and from Charles R. Drew Charter School. Credit: Kevin Bacon

Blink and you’ll miss Whitefoord Elementary, a 1924 two-story structure that fills a city block. Whitefoord houses a school-based health clinic, which is another example of how facility-sharing can make a school into a beloved community anchor. These small, well-integrated schools strike a balance between campus security and openness to the community in part because their edges are always active.

Walkability. Livability. Community character and stability. Strategic school siting can have far-reaching benefits. Just like our roads and bridges, schools are public infrastructure and we all should have an interest in their impacts.

School siting decisions affect everyone in a community, yet a majority of the decisions fall into the hands of a few. Georgia Conservancy partners with school facilities planners – often faced with rigid budget and location options – to develop creative solutions to school siting challenges. But they need to hear from you, the public, during the process. As voters, property owners, and citizens, we must challenge the status quo – and be prepared to support change with our tax dollars.

The Atlanta City Design Project has emphasized that Atlanta could potentially double its population over the next 20 to 25 years and some of that growth will include families with children in the public schools. It would benefit us all to situate and design our schools in a way that produces community cohesion and fewer cars on the road.

It’s worth the investment. When communities feel connected to their schools, the schools’ value increases, which leads to increased property values. And while I might appreciate an easy commute this week, over the long term, those widespread benefits are something that makes me truly thankful.

To learn more about best practices in School Siting, and to read case studies from around the state, visit our website: georgiaconservancy.org/schoolsiting

Note to readers: In addition to her position with Georgia Conservancy, Katherine Moore, AICP, has served in the community development and environmental fields for 19 years in both the private and nonprofit sectors. The statewide Sustainable Growth program works with communities across Georgia to emphasize school siting and small town stabilization as approaches to sustainability. 

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