School facilities-- anachronistic, expensive, isolating, and all around bad public spaces?

October 06, 2011

I wanted to write a lot more about this, but I just don’t have the time.

This storyis about rezoning schools in downtown Manhattan which is struggling to meet the demands of emerging residential neighborhoods. Reading this story (and struggle) just brought up something I’ve thought about for some time now.

The cost of school buildings is ridiculous. Schools are generally built for one purpose. They are generally built to last a very long time. They are generally built to a quality standard that suggests it will perennially be far too expensive to knock down and start over even if renovations are obscenely expensive and inadequate. In most areas (dense urban cities are probably the exception), we build schools on large plots of land with field/park space attached. This land is technically for public use, but in the name of safety for children, land uses are far more restrictive than most public parks.

It all just seems like an absurd setup that wastes countless public dollars. Why wouldn’t we want to have smaller schools in mixed-use spaces that represent far less capital investment and introduce substantial budget flexibility as enrollment patterns change? Why would we want to build separate libraries from existing public resources? Why would we want separate fields rather than bringing students to truly public spaces during the day?

The school house as a public space that’s isolated and locked away from the community that builds it, the school house that’s on a 100-year bond designed in such a way that any conversion to other uses is very unlikely… isn’t that school house a bit anachronistic?