Neighborhood Schools

Providence School in the Village of Providence, Huntsville, Alabama is a 2-story neighborhood school

   Schools should be located in neighborhoods for many reasons, and their positioning is important to the walkability of the entire neighborhood. This is a far cry from the way schools are usually built today. Now, they’re located out on the highway somewhere, and walking to school is impossible because even if the school wasn’t several miles from home, no sane parent would let their kids walk beside the heavy speeding traffic of a typical highway. As a result, our schools have taken on the character of something more like a warehouse, instead of the civic buildings they used to be.

   Let’s look at the difference between the way we used to build schools, the normal way we build schools today, and a better way of building schools today. All three schools shown here are elementary schools, and are located in the state of Alabama so that it’s close to an “apples and apples” comparison. Satellite views of the schools are shown at the same scales for equal comparisons. I’ve darkened the land outside the property lines of the school to make the school property obvious.


one of four big sheds

   Here’s the Pine Level Elementary School in Deatsville, Alabama. Hard to tell it’s not a supermarket, isn’t it, with that big parking lot out front. And of course, the parking lot is completely necessary because everyone must drive to get there. Here’s how Pine Level Elementary sits on the land:

satellite view of Pine Level Elementary School in Deatsville, Alabama

satellite view of Pine Level Elementary School & its site

   It’s a behemoth, sitting on about 22 acres that stretch roughly a quarter-mile down the highway. To put that in perspective, a quarter-mile is the distance that an average American adult will walk. Beyond that, they usually decide to drive instead. So this site is so big that if someone had to go from one end to the other, they just might decide to drive! Forget walking to school, because as you can see, there’s only one house that can even be seen in this view.

Pine Level Elementary School front doors viewed from "stack lanes" which resemble a racetrack

front entry from stack lanes

   One other thing... see those two things that look like racetracks, one to the left of the school and the other below? Those are “stack lanes.” That’s where the cars stack up before school lets out, as the parents wait for their kids. The one to the left consumes over 2 acres, while the one below eats up about 1-1/2 acres of land. These are completely necessary when everyone has to drive to get there, but the land they consume is substantially bigger than the entire campus of a 56-classroom high school design we’ll look at towards the end of this post. Matter of fact, the 56-classroom school is scarcely larger than just the stack lanes to the left of the Pine Level school!

   The second school is in the Village of Providence, a traditional neighborhood designed by DPZ. I’ve been involved as a consultant from the very beginning, and serve as Town Architect there.

front door of Providence School in the Village of Providence, Huntsville, Alabama, which is a 2-story neighborhood school

front door of Providence school

   One of the biggest hurdles we faced at Providence was the school design. As in most states, the state school board has certain minimum land sizes approved for schools. In Alabama, it’s 11 acres for an elementary school, 17 acres for a middle school, and 35 acres for a high school... almost twice as big as the Pine Level school.

satellite view of Pienza, Italy

historic town of Pienza, Italy highlighted

   In comparison, the entire world-famous town of Pienza, Italy, located in Tuscany, takes up just under 11 acres, and houses over 2,000 people. Think about that a minute... if Pienza wanted to build an elementary school using Alabama standards, they would have to bulldoze the entire town, and it still wouldn’t be quite enough land!

view from neighborhood street lined with townhouses towards front door of Providence School in the Village of Providence, Huntsville, Alabama

view from neighborhood street

   But back to Providence: the local school board was set on doing things the “normal way,” which was no surprise, but that would have resulted in a school similar to Pine Level. Consuming that much land would have eaten up most of the Providence neighborhood adjacent to the school. One of the big sticking points was the stack lanes. I pointed out that the oldest schools in Huntsville had no stack lanes because parents waited on the streets surrounding the school as described in detail below.

children walking home from school with their parents from the Providence School in the Village of Providence, Huntsville, Alabama

parents & children walking home

   There were major objections to the idea of kids walking to school because “that’s not safe today.” But guess what happens at Providence? You guessed it... parents are pretty smart when it comes to the safety of their kids, so the neighborhood parents simply walk to the school when classes are over and walk their kids home. It’s actually quite a social event, with parents visiting all the way over and back. And back when I was a kid and groups of kids walked to school and back without parents, we could get into all sorts of mischief that wouldn’t happen in Providence with parents coming along.

Providence School in the Village of Providence, Huntsville, Alabama is a 2-story neighborhood school

Providence school

   The school board also objected to our call to build a two-story school. I pointed those same schools they had been running the longest, most of which were two stories. They said “people don’t like to climb stairs,” but their own administrative offices were located in the original Huntsville High School, itself a two-story building of which most of the administrators were clearly fond. Eventually, we worked past these hurdles. Here’s how the Providence school sits on its site:

satellite view of Providence School in the Village of Providence, Huntsville, Alabama

Providence school, in Village of Providence, Huntsville, AL

   You can see the neighborhood below it that was preserved by using a smaller site. Roughly 80 homes would have been lost using a Pine Level-size site. The Providence school has almost as many students (781) as Pine Level (931,) but look at the difference between the land consumed by each. But this is still too much land.

satellite view of East Clinton School on Clinton Avenue just east of downtown Huntsville, Alabama

East Clinton School in Huntsville, Alabama

   This is one of those early Huntsville schools (East Clinton.) It has fewer students (204,) but as you can see, it makes the most efficient use of the site of any of the three. The racetrack you see here is for kids, not cars, and there’s only one tiny parking lot at the back, for the teachers.

ideal neighborhood school building diagram designed for one square block

an ideal one-block school

   What have we learned? Here’s an illustration of the ideal way of building a neighborhood school. This illustration shows the largest two-story high school that can easily be put on a single 320’ square block. A high school is illustrated because it is the worst-case scenario on two counts: some of its students drive, and high school athletic field requirements are larger than those of middle schools or elementary schools. The school should be slid to one edge of the neighborhood for two reasons: First, playing fields can occur within adjacent parklands, making it easier for the neighborhood to use the playing fields after school hours. Also, the school and its playing fields creates a “pedestrian shadow” because if you’re walking somewhere on the other side of the school, you have to walk around the school and its playing fields to get there. Moving the school to the edge of the neighborhood solves both these issues.

view from neighborhood street with picket fence and light pole towards front door of Providence School in the Village of Providence, Huntsville, Alabama

neighborhood street view

   Two huge auto-related problems of schools are parking spaces and stack space described above for parents picking up and dropping off their children. When schools are embedded in neighborhoods, students within walking distance can walk. The illustration above assumes an average density of 5 units per acre in the surrounding neighborhood, and assumes that 8% of those households have children of high school age. Of those, half of the students are assumed to be legal drivers. Given these assumptions, and the assumption that the walking distance for students walking to school is the ten-minute walk (American kids will walk about twice as far as their often more sedentary parents,) there are a total of 250 acres within the ten-minute half-radius (the other half is park and playing fields, since the school is assumed to be on the edge of the neighborhood as noted above.) If 2.9% of the population are high school students of driving age and there are 1.8 children in each household that has children, then there could be between 100 and 120 driving-age high school students within walking distance of the school.

entry walk and flagpole of Providence School in the Village of Providence, Huntsville, Alabama

entry walk & flagpole

   If 80% of them walk (once they rediscover that walking to school is a tremendously social thing to do when it’s possible) on any given day, then the student parking lot can be reduced by 80 to 100 spaces. The school parking requirement is therefore reduced to the teachers, staff and a few students. In the illustration above, 107 spaces are provided in diagonal on-street parking around the perimeter of the school, so there’s no need for a parking lot at all. This takes care of the 56 teachers, an assumed 14 administrators and staff, and 37 students and visitors.

   Stack space for pick-up has an exceptionally simple solution noted above for schools embedded into the fabric of the neighborhood: Cars are allowed to stack on neighborhood streets. Embedded schools actually need no drop-off lane at all in many cases where parents can drop off children on the school lawn and let them walk to the door. Because parents are sitting in the cars waiting to pick up children, anyone blocking a resident’s driveway can easily move because they are already sitting behind the wheel. And because most high schools end at 3 PM, most residents are still at work and should not need to use their driveways at this time of day.

Providence School in the Village of Providence, Huntsville, Alabama is a 2-story neighborhood school

2-story schools are more efficient

   The ideal school building illustrated above is two stories and surrounds a central courtyard with double-loaded classroom wings. A two-story gymnasium and a single-story lunchroom are located to the rear of the building, which also includes the loading dock. The library is located over a portion of the lunchroom. There are a total of 56 classrooms plus administrative offices.

   The many health and other sustainability benefits of walking are thoroughly documented. It’s high time to begin building all parts of our communities in a more walkable way, including our schools. Fortunately, there are a growing number of resources available to help us build neighborhood schools again, rather than highway schools. My colleague Nathan Norris founded the SmartGrowth Schools initiative, which I blogged about here.

   Other resources you might want to check out include Pennsylvania’s study on reusing old schools, which are far more likely to be walkable, the New Urban News article on neighborhood schools, and Raleigh, North Carolina’s design guidelines for walkable neighborhood schools. The list is growing... a quick Google search turns up many other such results. Let’s use them, and build neighborhood schools again.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, July 21, 2010 - 10:22 AM

Virginia Fitzpatrick

   This has been an issue in our growing county here in South East PA.

   The athletic fields Like the Parking lots cost a fortune and remove land from the Tax roll and do nothing to benefit the environment, because they are all grass, which like asphalt promotes storm water run off.  Most of the time when I pass the fields they are not in use.  There must be a more cost effective to locate and manage those fields.  I think the need to have athletic fields with fan parking is what gives rise to mega schools on distant and thus cheaper land.  There could be buses to take the minority of kids that need to go to practice to the fields.  The rest of the community could keep in much better shape by walking to school  which would be extremely cost effective for their entire life.   I took Field Hockey in HS, but that has done nothing for the physical health  of the my class since.   

   Another problem with  Mega Schools occurs during epidemics.  They spread quickly through the population of thousands - sometimes requiring the school to be closed down.  It would have less impact on education if we could close a school of only a few hundred to slow the epidemic.  

   There is less parent involvement in mega schools because it is harder for them to know each other and to drive to the school after work.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010 - 11:46 AM

School site assessment tool

I really enjoyed this article.  Improper school siting is an insidious problem that has until recently gone unnoticed -- or at least un-guided.  I have created a guidance/assessment tool for school siting, called the Active School Neighborhood Checklist (ASNC).  ASNC scores potential (and existing) school sites based on their built environment characteristics, as well as the community's policies and programs.  My thanks to Nathan Norris for his comments during its development.  The ASNC is too large to attach, but I'll be happy to provide you with the file.  Please let me know if you have any questions.

Brian Fellows

Arizona Department of Transportation

Safe Routes To School Program Coordinator

(602) 712-8010

Note from Steve... these next few comments are being copied from 

Thursday, July 29, 2010 - 08:57 AM

Larry Garnett

I've watched these "mega-schools" being built in Texas for years. You've presented a great visual example by stating the fact that if the town of Pienza, Italy decided to build a new elementary school according to our typical mandated size standards, the entire town would have to be leveled...and there still wouldn't be enough room! It really drives home just how ridiculous many of our requirements have become.

Thursday, July 29, 2010 - 08:59 AM

Virginia Fitzpatrick

Mega Schools have been an issue in our South East Pennsylvania County. We already have a small but organized protest against them. We believed they are motivated by the need for cheap land to provide athletic fields and the attendant fan parking. However our major arguments are:

1). Since the fields are unused most of the time, they should be located and managed in the county for more cost-effective utilization - not necessarily next to each school

2). Mega Schools spread a flu epidemics quickly to thousands instead of just hundreds making it harder to shut down and contain the disease.

3). Mega Schools discourage parent participation because parents don’t know each other. It is harder for parents to get to the distant school after work, especially those that do not own a car. I frequently walked (at least weekly) the 2 blocks to my daughter’s elementary school, but only went to her High School (a 20 minute drive through heavy traffic) twice for school plays. I read that some money strapped neighborhood schools started “Pedestrian Buses” to escort kids to school and everyone liked the walk. In the 1950’s I and others thought nothing of walking a mile to school. In the summer I walked 2 miles at 6 AM to take horse back lessons. I knew my neighbors so I could have gone to them for help if I needed it. My daughter also walked to school. The crossing guards were adequate.

Thursday, July 29, 2010 - 09:01 AM

Russ Seamon

In our precedent study field trips all over the Southeast, its the same story over and over. The towns have abandoned their schools near the center of town for the tempting cheap land at the outskirts that allow the mega-campuses at the edge of town. It might be cheaper for the schools themselves but what is the cost to the community, the environment, and the vibrancy and energy of the town core? During our travels we began referring to this recurring Walmart approach to schools as "Edge-a-my-town-ucation" to be seconded only by the suburban municipal complex a.k.a. the "Sprawl Hall".

Thursday, July 29, 2010 - 09:01 AM

Russ Seamon

Awesome post by the way.

Thursday, July 29, 2010 - 09:02 AM

Ken Firestone

A neighbor of mine likes mega schools because they can better achieve racial integration. The environment isn't even on this socially conceious woman's horizon.

I said in reply, if you want integrated schools, integrate neighborhoods. I've been saying that since I was in high school, in the 50s.

Thursday, July 29, 2010 - 09:03 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, everyone! And Ken, you're exactly right... neighborhood schools are essentially impossible in many areas of the South where desegregation court orders have been in place for roughly a half-century. Meanwhile, the neighborhoods are no more desegregated than they were back then, in either the South or North. But we go on creating mega-schools anyway, despite mounting evidence that the patchwork of sub-cultures we see all over the US is a naturally-occurring phenomenon.

Thursday, July 29, 2010 - 09:04 AM

Larry Garnett

Recently, I've been hearing about a new shopping mall under construction in a neighboring town. I couldn't imagine that was accurate. Sure enough, when I went by the site today, I discovered that the "mall" was actually a new intermediate school! Just another example of a "mega school" being built on a major highway - with architecture that appears more like a retail center.


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018