Surplus School Sites - an evolving ideology for diversification?

Reflecting on my formative years growing up in the ‘60’s across the street from an elementary school, I watched the school property change as community values evolved. The driver was evolving ideologies around land use, mobility and public places in my community.

Across the street and the nation perceptions of ‘safe place’ were gradually changing. Managing growth included planned expansions to schools. Development evolved the previous character of many sites – where derelict homes, including their over-grown gardens (‘natural places’ to play,) were demolished and the lots assimilated with the school property. As roads around schools were upgraded traffic speeds increased. Flashing traffic lights were installed and chain-link fencing put-in-place to protect children.

Subtle yet significant, these adjustments were constraining ways of naturally moving through the community. The once direct and unobstructed routes were becoming longer and more circuitous. The highly permeable access to the school, even the connection to the second-story library overlooking the town’s main street shops, had changed. All seemed to reflect wider societal change moving away from the simple coffee-scented warmth of main street living and its close connection to the schoolyard which was in essence the village green.

So, today as surplus school sites occasionally become available in cities, towns and villages across Canada, I’m pondering two questions: i) How can we create diversified, affordable, age-friendly choices where we love to live? and ii) do surplus school sites present other possibilities?

Musing about the possibilities, four concept-based themes seem worthwhile considering in the surplus school site narrative: 1) Community Hubs; 2) Local Food; 3) optimization of Green Space, and 4) How We Naturally Move through the neighbourhood to the places where we live and love.

Community Hubs – Mixed-use main street ideas are becoming more main stream as hubs in established single family communities where the field of opportunity could well be under-utilized surplus school sites. Established single family communities are like generational ecosystems where the built environment influences attitudes about shared space. Could we add to their value by building smart diversified housing to accommodate affordable living and aging-in-place?

Local Food – I believe food is a primary means of connecting in communities. Growing locally can produce a self-replicating exchange. The collaborative economy is a future of shared network assets – a ‘concept ecosystem’ for diverse urban agriculture, food waste and food accessibility projects – on surplus school sites that could facilitate a partnership with community-wide and regional food systems.

Green Space – “Good Neighbour” green space concepts for under-utilized surplus school sites should connect attitudes with eye level planning for a common benefit. These attitudes and relationships are in themselves agents of change, contributing to the composite influencers of getting the ‘concept ecosystem’ right-sized for any given situation.

How We Naturally Move – Neighbourhood mobility choices must be safe, accessible, enjoyable and convenient. Exploring options ought to begin with launching a process-directed dialogue, understanding the issues, deciding on scenarios, finding agreement to act together and then inaugurating the land use and mobility designs with stakeholder-partnerships who can make the community-supported dream a reality.

The livability aspirations of any neighbourhood-in-transition need to emerge as context-sensitive scenarios – stories that recognize possibilities. They are about unboxing community-inspired content. They play an important role in the imagination, design and development of agreeable place-based solutions.

Isn’t it about time? …that the content is created by the community? If surplus school sites are a palette for this kind of community-based content, the genius is in the art of threading it with local insight to build a model for creative excellence.

As such, authentic revitalizing content can and does influence purchases, thereby adding real value to neighbourhood homes and businesses. After all, connecting experientially at street level is where we actually increase market value.

Being at home with the school site across the street, surplus or otherwise, is about collaboratively exploring active, safe neighbourhoods and how context-sensitive revitalized diversification might look.

Terry Klassen, RPP, MCIP, CSLA
prepared for Active Neighbourhoods Calgary

Celia LeeANC, Acadia