Written by Renee Kuhlman
As a kid, I loved Saturday morning cartoons – remember those “School House Rock” cartoons? Must have known I was going to end up in policy because “I’m only a Bill on Capitol Hill” was one of my favorites…
Recently, this self-proclaimed policy wonk has talked about the National Trust’s work to save older schools at a couple of conferences and I wanted to share my observations:
Observation #1 – As speakers, preservationists have a leg up on others …
…because we get to show images of places that matter to our audience! At the recent Active Living Conference in the Hard Rock Hotel in downtown San Diego, I showed these two images from the Helping Johnny Walk to School publication--the image on the left shows the existing elementary school in Billings, Montana while the image on the right shows the proposed location of another elementary school. I went on to explain how researchers found 353 five-year-olds per square mile within the gridded city and 27.4 in the second, more rural location.
To paraphrase the “other Renee” (Zellweger) in a famous movie, I “had” them with the images alone—the statistics were just icing on the cake.
Observation #2 – As advocates, preservationists are not alone …
…in trying to find better ways of sustaining our communities. In February, I attended the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. While I had to search high and low to find a historic building in the immediate area around my hotel, I loved this conference because it’s a place where many fields converge.
For instance, I learned that California State Senator Alan Lowenthal introduced a bill (SB 132) requiring new and existing school sites conform to the state’s planning priorities aimed to reduce pollution. This bill was based on findings made from a forum convened by the Center for Cities and Schools on the connection between schools and sustainable communities. Note to self: schools placed near residents help curb greenhouse gas emissions.
I also learned that the LISC organization in the San Francisco Bay Area had developed a holistic approach to transforming neighborhoods. In the Nystrom neighborhood in Richmond, this includes the effort of residents to improve the local school and to connect it once again to a neighboring park and community center. Takeaway: improving the local school is transforming this historic neighborhood.
In my session at the conference, we spoke to a diverse audience with several from the health field (lesson learned: involve health professionals in your school siting discussions – they think the built environment should encourage healthier kids!)
First, Mike Raible, director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public School Facilities and Jonathan Wells from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Department spoke about the city’s unique charter to jointly plan public facilities–including schools. Key point: through monthly “Joint Use Taskforce Meetings,” all the departments figure out how their capital investments in facilities can be leveraged to create more efficient public spaces.
Myrick Howard from Preservation North Carolina and Vicki Coggins of Albemarle, North Carolina shared ideas for keeping older schools in use–from changing state policy to encourage more rehab to showing local school districts how older schools can be retrofitted to provide 21st century educations.
Sara Zimmerman from the National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity shared legal tools for protecting school districts when they open their school facilities to other uses. She also spoke about how neighborhood schools might have the unintended consequence of re-segregating neighborhoods. First step: ensure diversity goals are part of any school siting plan.
Observation #3 – preservationists must encourage more policy changes…
… in order to keep our older walkable schools in use.
In January, I went to the southern regional meeting of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grantees. At one session, we saw where many policy changes were encouraging healthier food in our schools, but there were only a couple of instances where the policy changed to encourage more walkable schools. Kids (along with their parents) need to be able to walk and bike to school on a daily basis and use the playgrounds on the week-end.
For everyone’s “to do list” … change policy that prevents our older, walkable schools from being used.
Renee Kuhlman works at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and encourages sharing our recommendations for removing barriers to community-centered schools with school district officials, legislators, and even your neighbor next door.