Three Cheers for EPA's New School Siting Guidelines

Posted on: October 4th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

Written by Renee Kuhlman

New voluntary guidelines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency encourage local education authorities to rehabilitate existing schools whenever possible.

I just finished reading 143 pages of government guidance and I’m smiling. Nope, that’s not a misprint.

Over the week-end, EPA’s voluntary school siting guidelines were released with little fanfare. However, I believe the preservation community should pool our admittedly less-than-robust-resources to throw a big celebration.


The first-ever federal guidance on school siting offers local education authorities, tribes, and states suggestions similar to the ones that preservation organizations, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, have been making over the past decade.  This new tool:

Encourages examination of existing school facilities for rehabilitation and expansion before constructing a new school

Suggests states provide local education authorities with coordinated guidance from multiple state agencies including valuable information from State and Tribal Preservation Offices

Calls for “meaningful public participation” by stakeholder groups such as parents, teachers, school personnel and nearby residents in a transparent siting process

  • Encourages “joint use” of facilities;
  • Proposes an evaluation of existing policies and practices at local and state levels in light of these recommendations;
  • Discusses how construction of large schools on greenfields leads to “underinvestment in the community core and existing facilities” while rehabilitating existing buildings helps conserve energy and resources;
  • One of the four underlying principles states that “schools should be located in environments that contribute to the livability, sustainability, and public health of neighborhoods and communities;”
  • And more … but you’ll have to read them for yourself to believe it.

Best of all, the guidelines are written in easy-to-understand language for those of us unfamiliar with terms like “phytoremediation” and “total petroleum hydrocarbons.”

How did this new tool for community-centered schools come about?

In December 2007, Congress enacted the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA).1 Among the provisions included in the Act was a requirement that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) develop, in consultation with the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, model guidelines for the siting of school facilities that take into account:

  • The special vulnerabilities of children to hazardous substances or pollution exposures in any case in which the potential for contamination at a potential school site exists;
  • The modes of transportation available to students and staff;
  • The efficient use of energy; and
  • The potential use of a school at the site as an emergency shelter.

During the public comment period, many preservation organizations, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, provided useful suggestions on how these voluntary guidelines could help sustain our older communities.

I, for one, think they succeeded.

But here’s where the hard work begins.  These voluntary guidelines are just that – voluntary.  The preservation community needs to take the next step and help states, tribes and local education authorities – those entities with responsibility for decision-making regarding school buildings and operations – adopt and implement these guidelines during a time when school districts and state agencies are struggling with shrinking budgets and staff.

To learn more about the EPA’s voluntary siting guidelines and other new tools, join a Fall Webinar Series called "Expanding the School Siting Conversation."

October 11 1:00pm EST 10:00am PST Location, Location, Location: New Guidance for Locating Schools in a Healthy, Sustainable Way
October 18 2:00pm EST 11:00am PST State Strategies for School Siting; Locating Schools for Better Health, Environmental, and Fiscal Outcomes
October 25 2:00pm EST 11:00am PST The Environmental Justice and Preservation Concerns of School Siting
November 1 2:00pm EST 11:00am PST A Live Chat on School Siting and Community-Centered Schools

Tomorrow, October 5, is Walk to School Day. While walking my daughter the four blocks to her 1960s elementary school, I’ll be thinking about how these new guidelines will help encourage the preservation and creation of other walkable schools.

Renee Kuhlman directs the Helping Johnny Walk to School project and is thrilled to report on this latest tool for encouraging more community-centered schools.

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