The new Greenvale Park Elementary School will improve the inside-the-building issues from no doors to more security to better tech and has been planned with detailed input from teachers and parents.
Far less attention was paid to outside the school, however, and the golden opportunity created by building a new school to explicitly consider the larger picture of how this school will be more equitable, address climate change, increase transportation options, and connect its neighborhood. Breaking ground this week, the district will start to pave over its once-in-a-generation chance.
Northfield does not build new schools often.
Wold Architects presented this design to Northfield school board. The large parking lot, two new driveways, and vehicle drop off lanes visually, spatially and psychologically prioritize easy driving and vehicle storage over safe, people (child!) centered access. This choice is backward looking and kills the golden opportunity goose dead.
How we got here
Here’s the city planning context: during the 1970s and 1980s multiple blocks south of the school were vacated leaving Lincoln Parkway in front of the school as the only continuous east-west street nearby and thus a critical connection for the neighborhood which includes a large retirement community, links to Saint Olaf College, and the only street connecting Viking Terrace on the east and the Dakota County neighborhoods on the west to the larger community. The street is wide and vehicles travel fast.
But as a neighborhood school, walking distances aren’t long. Siting the school and planning the vehicle circulation to allow Lincoln Parkway to connect the retirement community (west), Viking Terrace (east), more homes on all sides, AND the school for walking and biking for all ages, incomes, and abilities could have been a core part of the planning. But it wasn’t.
But the importance of walking and biking is not just my opinion. The City of Northfield has been working one policy update at a time to build a more walkable city. Northfield city policy also points to improving biking and walking around Greenvale in particular; the draft update of the city’s trail, bike, and pedestrian plan identifies safer and more accessible bicycling and walking facilities around K-12 schools as a priority and Lincoln Parkway as a gap in the bicycling network.
Building walkable schools pays big dividends
Walking (which is shorthand for walking, biking, skateboarding, rolling, scootering…and any other form of active transportation) and building walkable places is good for Northfield in ways which both directly and indirectly benefit schools:
- Educational value: Kids who walk arrive at school better able to focus, and have higher test scores. Parents walking with kids can give children, not driving, their full attention, too. Walking and biking alone or with other kids builds independence and confidence.
- Economic value: Northfield’s recent presentation by Urban3, discussions with consultants about developing the area around the hospital and an Urban Land Institute workshop last fall all emphasized the high demand and higher property values for walkable neighborhoods, and the need for Northfield to ensure new development was connected to schools, downtown, shopping and jobs not only by streets, but by sidewalks and bike trails. And walking can help family reduce the amount they have to pay for transportation from less gas to being able to have one fewer vehicles.
- Public health benefits: Building for and promoting walking is a great, low cost way to start to reverse the public health trends showing we’re getting fatter and sicker. Designing for walkability with lower traffic speeds, fewer conflict points like driveway entrances, and better sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike facilities makes places safer for people walking, but also people driving. Better mental health, lower stress, and more benefits are associated with active transportation.
The high costs of driving
No matter how many benefits I can list for walking, driving is almost always more convenient and, for many trips in Northfield, unavoidable. Northfield, like almost everywhere else, has built streets and neighborhoods to make driving easy. Because driving is so normal and so needed, I’m not surprised the school district followed the path of least resistance and accommodated the demand for easy car access.
Yet, I am so sorry that the district didn’t do more because it was such a great chance to help begin to shift the status quo for all the benefits above, but also to help alleviate some of the costs below. Most people don’t consider all the costs or know how our laws and policies subsidize driving or think about doing anything else. But the school district could have helped change the status quo by considering:
- Driving costs money: Cars are expensive (typical estimates are about $8,000 per year). The groups most likely to bike and walk already are low income people and people of color; these are the families Greenvale Park serves. Reducing the need to drive and increasing the safety for people walking and biking will begin to advance greater equity in transportation in Northfield.
- Driving has a high climate impact: Transportation accounts for about 25% of greenhouse gas emissions). One of the best ways for a community to reduce its carbon footprint is to reduce the amount we drive. Because Greenvale Park is a neighborhood school, many children live close enough to walk and it is a trip where driving isn’t usually necessary.
- Driving costs lives. People driving kill an increasing number of people walking and biking (again, disproportionately lower income and people of color). Reducing school car traffic generally and designing to reduce speed and distraction improves safety. The City of Northfield has begun building traffic calming features into street projects. Partnering with the City for changes to Lincoln Parkway to slow traffic, improve crossings, add bike facilities and fill sidewalk gaps would have been a good way to think together (and share costs) with the City to improve safety and quality of life.
- Driving is expensive for taxpayers: Building for driving means it is often unsafe and unpleasant to walk, so the school district must pay more to bus more students short distances (such as busing kids across the street from the Middle School), more parking means paying more for maintenance and plowing. Building wide roads and expanding the city in ways which require more driving requires more miles of streets, more pavement, more maintenance and higher taxes (road specific fees and taxes do not cover the costs; general fund dollars are required).
- Building for driving incentivizes more driving. Widening roads and an abundant supply of free parking increases the amount of driving rather than alleviating congestion. Changing Greenvale’s primary orientation to easy biking and walking rather than easier driving could have been a big step toward slowing down the vicious circle.
Yes, but why does one parking lot matter?
Greenvale’s parking lot matters because placing it between the school and the street helps continue the pattern of designing people out of our places and making active transportation unsafe, unpleasant, and unusual. And new schools don’t get built very often.
Building for walkability means more than “there is a sidewalk.” Walkable places site buildings where they are easiest to approach on foot (usually close to and facing the street) with an obvious and inviting front entrance. Parking is better placed behind (or under) the building and away from the street. Working with the City of Northfield for better crosswalks, traffic calming, and other infrastructure improvements would connect the school to the other side of the street.
Better site design would not have changed the world in one construction project, but de-emphasizing driving (even making it somewhat less convenient!) would have made encouraging walking easier (Hey school district – how about a Safe Routes to School program?), made walking in the neighborhood more pleasant (Age Friendly Northfield and helping older adults stay active!), and helped connect this part of Northfield to the rest of the city (equity!). It would also have shown that the school district truly cares about its students, their health, and the future of the environment they will live in. This project is an opportunity squandered.
But wait, there’s more
I served on the District’s core planning group for Greenvale to raise these issues and I was surprised that the teachers, administrators, and parents in the group provided detailed and thoughtful input about the design of the building. Energy efficiency, locker placement, accommodating the Community School, ensuring efficient placement of social workers and nurses, and planning the traffic pattern inside were all discussed at length. But these dedicated teachers and community members (who said they cared about climate change, science, and student health inside the building) were silent when I brought up how the placement of the building could support their work and values.
After this group concluded its work, Superintendent Matt Hillman bought me a nice brush-off lunch and suggested my concerns were merely a difference of opinion. I am concerned that our school officials – the ones who are trying to educate our children to be thoughtful, critical, knowledgeable participants in our democracy are so quick to fall victim to the fallacy of false equivalence. And, as a taxpayer, I am concerned that short term expedience has prevented thoughtful, critical consideration of the long-term costs of their choices.